Last week I led my first-ever wild edible plant hike, from the North Tenmile Creek trailhead in Frisco. The hike was done through Colorado Mountain College, and instead of announcing it here or on Facebook, Gregg and I just went with it. Everyone was local and nobody had heard of this website before.
I marched the crew like a drill sergeant to 20 or so wild edible plants and regaled them with my vast knowledge on each one as we traveled up the trail a short way to the dam at the creek and back, for a total round trip of 1/2 mile in 1.5 hours.
Overall I think it went pretty well. On my feedback sheets I got mostly 5’s with a few 4’s. The chief complaints were that the participants wanted a handout, wanted the tour to go longer, or wanted it to have taken place during peak foraging season.
Though it is not a handout, I write this post in response to the first request. Herein you will find a starter photo essay on 11 of the plants discussed on the tour, in case any hike participants check back here for info or you are interested in a fall edible plant hunt starting at the North Tenmile Creek trailhead, which is located where the I-70 exit meets Main Street Frisco.
I don’t recommend the trail for foraging in quantity for several reasons. First, it is part of the USFS national forest, so wild plant collection is limited to “an incidental amount,” generally equated to a handful that can be used that same day. If you seek to forage in quantity, this is not the place.
Bags of Poop
The second reason is there is a lot of poop on the trail. Poop bags, specifically. I still don’t get why, when people go hiking, they see fit to bring bags of poo with them to deposit alongside the trail;) Wild edible plants are simply not as delicious when they are surrounded by bags of poo.
But, if you’re new enough to the sport of wild edible plant identification, perhaps it will suit you to study a few plants here, pictured as they are right now (September 2012) in all their autumn glory, and then go to a specific location where you know they can be found, and have yourself a fun wild edible hide-and-go seek.
As one of the hike participants noted, if you do wish to taste something, aim for plants beyond the likely dog pee radius from the trail–both horizontal and vertical. A microbiologist once suggested I soak my wild edibles for 10 minutes in a 10% Clorox bleach and water solution, but as I cannot stomach the idea of bleach, I use the grandmothers’ method of vinegar and water if I’m at all doubtful as to the cleanliness of a foraging location. Still, I never take wild edibles that have actual poop on them.
At the top of this entry is fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium). In summer, with a few remaining now, it has pretty pink/purple flowers and takes over disturbed areas. In spring fireweed shoots are edible–but be careful not to confuse them with toxic look-alikes. In summer the new tips work in stir fry, finely-chopped and sauteed. In fall, the leaves make for a decent tea.
After that comes wild camomile (Matricaria matricariodes, M. discoidea, also above). This was growing right in the parking lot of the trailhead. Not my choicest location for foraging, but this stuff grows all over the place. Crush and smell the flowers, and use the plant for tea.
One of my favorite forager-bloggers (aside from myself, of course) is my dear friend, Butterpoweredbike at Hunger & Thirst for Life. Butter does a monthly wild recipe share, and hopefully she won’t be mad that I’m letting the cat out of the bag, but I’ve heard tell she’s considering making November wild seed month.
Some folks make crackers out of the various dock seeds (Rumex sp., including curly dock, Western dock, and willow dock here locally). Above is willow dock (R. triangulivalvis / R. salicifolius), which also contains edible seeds. Butter has been taking curly dock (Rumex crispus) seeds, toasting them lightly in a pan, crushing and air-winnowing them (the simplest method is to blow into the seed container to whisk away the chaff, though you’re likely to get it in your eyelashes), crushing the seeds again slightly, and adding to a cracker recipe. (This should be done after the flowers and seeds turn rusty brown.)
Docks’ leaves are also edible and yummy young–whether the new leaves in spring rosettes, or the new leaves that emerge from mature plants. I like to saute them in olive oil for a lemony, unique green.
But dock seed crackers have been done before, so if you’re looking for a cool seed idea for November’s recipe contest, why not try sprouting them? In his new textbook that he uses for his Survival Plants course in Front Range community college classes, Cattail Bob Seebeck (2012) says that sweet clover (Melilotus offinalis, right) seeds can be sprouted to make edible sprouts. If I follow my own advice and try it, you’ll be the first to know after my Facebook page.
Just a reminder to folks finding tidbits of info here and seeking more: most of the plants mentioned in this entry are discussed in detail elsewhere on this site, so you can type the plant in question into the search box, upper right, if you seek more info on something specific. (Uh, except for sweet clover, that is. Standby.)
Originally, when I scheduled the hike with Colorado Mountain College, I did so in the hopes that we would find plentiful berries, after all, last year was such a good one. Alas, the season did not cooperate with my schedule!
For example, huckleberries–or some call them Grouse whortleberries (Vaccinum sp.)–abound in the dark forest just off the trail by the creek (wait until you’re 1/4 mile in because it’s private land before that). However, we found but one huckleberry when we scouted the trail prior to the hike, and that was not for lack of looking. I didn’t think it merited tromping all 17 people through the deep, dark forest on a somewhat sketchy footpath for that, but they’re there; I swear it to you.
Gooseberries and currants (Ribes spp.) too are often plentiful along the creek from the trailhead but again, this year, all we found were a few semi-dry little purple gooseberries. Better luck next year, I guess.
Ribes species are many in these parts, and to my knowledge they all bear edible berries with a small, papery flower sticking out the end of them. Some have spines and some do not; some are red and sticky and some are deep purple. The leaves range in size but are roughly Maple-leaf shaped. I read of folks in Russia using medium-sized black currant leaves to layer between salted milky cap mushrooms (our local variety is Lactarius deliciosus) for added flavoring. I tried it last year with what I believe to be Ribes americanum and the mushrooms came out pretty good, though I can’t say how much was due to the Ribes…
Anyway, both huckleberries and the various Ribes are nice berries, good for crushing, simmering down, straining, sweetening and thickening into a syrup for various uses. I enjoy sauces of both huckleberries and Ribes atop ice cream or as an ingredient with garlic, oil, and sometimes ginger for interesting homemade salad dressings.
Raspberries (above) abound on the North Tenmile trail too, but not by the time I took my hike out. Still, there’s no reason not to study the leaves and learn the plant sans berries. It makes it a cinch to find good berries the following season, provided you spend enough time on trail to catch the season right once you know what you’re looking for.
Last week we also found a small handful of Oregon grapes (Berberis/Mahonia sp.) still dangling beneath their low-lying, holly-like leaves. Many of the leaves have started turning bright red now, so between that and the fact that they have prickers on the leaf points and look like holly, they should be identifiable, berries or no berries. If berries, they are often powder-blue unless they’ve been rubbed a deep purple. Last year we found a good quantity of them and made–you guessed it–sauce!
My absolute favorite use for the Oregon grape sauce was to flavor Gregg’s homemade kombucha (made by fermenting sweetened black tea under a SCOBY–a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast–mother). Oregon grape kombucha–do not knock this until you try it; it is fabulous. The High Country’s low-lying Oregon grape has a much taller, often plentiful-berry-bearing relative that grows throughout the Denver metro area.
This season, one of the plants that keeps amazing me is wild rose (Rosa sp.). They’re so plentiful, red, and lush this year, plump with slightly transluscent skin–all good signs of a ripe, slightly sweet treat packed with Vitamin C. I like to gnaw the flesh off the whole rose hip with my teeth, getting all sorts of orange stuff in my gums such that I am not going to post the photograph here. But it’s good goo, great for a dry mouth and healthy too.
The folks in my hike seemed a little nonplussed by the rose hips–they are seedy inside so if anybody bit into one without hearing the “gnaw on the outside” bit I guess that could be unpleasant–but, predisposed as I am, I simply do not see how any edible wild plant could nonplus anyone…
At left, creeping juniper (Juniperus sp.) is always good for flavoring gin, drying and making meat rubs, or using to flavor a saurkraut, among other uses. The “berries”–which are not really berries at all but actually cones–pictured here are not ripe. The ones you’d want to go for are deep blue.
Ripe juniper berries are best for a spice; they are not a side dish kind of plant. Warning: Tasting juniper berries on trail may result in the need by those weak of palate or not yet predisposed to enjoy every single wild edible plant out there to wash the taste out of their mouth with a different edible wild plant, or water, or tonic with a splash of lime, I guess.
Here’s another berry that’s not always that fun to eat: kinnikinnik (Arctostaphylos uva ursi, below). The berries, though supposedly packed with Vitamin C, are mealy and dry, likened by one author to a mealy apple. I’ve cooked them down but made nothing of merit with them to date. Still, I snack on them when I hike. If you suck on the outside without breaking the skin, they’re mildly sweet.
Just Smoke It
The local Native people supposedly dried the leaves of kinnikinnik to smoke in a mixture with the leaves of red osier dogwood. We tried smoking some, albeit without the dogwood leaves, which I have not seen growing around here, only in parts lower. The smoke was mildly relaxing and seemed not to do us any harm, except for any harm that the act of smoking itself can do, I imagine.
Okay, last but not least, let me introduce my dear friend, the dandelion. The much-reviled invader plant originally dragged to Denver for the purpose of providing nourishment and medication, now despised by lawn care aficionados and backcountry hikers alike.
They are all mistaken. I plead: despise not the dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), friends. Instead, eat her sweet and pretty yellow flower, or ferment her en masse for homemade dandelion wine. Boil the green flower stems and eat like noodles, like wild food guru Sam Thayer says to do, or try his method for gouging out the veggie-like crown where roots meet stems and tossing into soups and stews.
Chasing your weeding friends around and taking all the whole-plant dandelions off their hands is highly recommended, because you can eat every part. The roots can be cleaned and chopped into small nut-like chunks and eaten raw in salads, or roasted for “dandelion coffee,” a well-known and healthful coffee substitute. And let’s not forget the greens–the greens which, though bitter, can be chopped fine and added to cold, marinated salads or prepared in umteen other ways, all with good-for-you results, even if the taste may take some getting used to. Dandy greens are least bitter prior to flowering or after a frost, so they should be good around now in the High Country.
Gregg took the picture because he though the dandelion bunch looked like a head of lettuce. Granted, 10 dogs probably peed on this particular specimen. That’s why I like finding my fall dandy greens under willows along seldom trodden mining trails, like the one at the end of County Road 14 where we used to live in Fairplay.
There are many more edible wild plants along the trail from the North Tenmile Creek trailhead. These are just 11 of them. Hopefully you’ll find it a good starting point, or a goofy read at the very least. Happy hike-nibbling and watch for dookie!
BTW, Gregg took all the pictures in this post. Thanks be to the fiance for his lovely images.