Wild Food, Wild Woman
Spring Has Sprung!
Well, besides honeybees, cannabis, and Kangen water… I’m also extremely passionate about foraging for wild food! And now that spring has arrived, I am on a mission to learn about and gather as many new edibles and medicinals as I can. And I’m not the only one. I literally just came back from the grocery store where I overheard the produce guy and a customer talk about wild food. The secret is out.
I am new to the Denver area, and arrived at the end of summer last year. I immediately joined all the local Meet-up groups with like interests and found a plant identification hike that was going out near Red Rocks. The hike was led by a man named Cattail Bob, and he was as interesting as his name would imply. At the end of the summer, there wasn’t much left to forage, but the hike was nonetheless very informative for identifying plants during that season.
Now, all winter I’ve been itching for spring, so that I could really indulge on the local flora and fungi. However, the competition in Colorado is fierce, and I am up against some seasoned pros who know the area much better than me. I’ve joined every local Facebook group and followed every local forager on Instagram for insights and inspirations. Now, all I need to do is drop the 40 hour a week job… so I can hunt full time! Ha!
To me, there are few things more rewarding than finding and eating wild food or crafting wild medicine.
The Fungus Among Us
Mushrooms are one of the most fascinating living organisms on the planet, and can be used for much more than a pizza topping (though they are my favorite pizza topping ever!). I’m pretty much obsessed with mushrooms and have a hard time relating to anyone who isn’t. (sorry…not sorry)
I even dream about mushrooms. I wake up thinking about where they may be popping up now that the earth is warming. “I know you’re out there”, my internal dialogue teases me, and my ability to focus on anything else is severely hindered. Even as I write this, I know I should be out mushroom hunting instead. However, sacrifices must be made for some sense of balance in my life, I suppose.
Right now, people near me are posting pictures of pounds and pounds of oyster mushrooms, with the occasional patch of morels. I have found both previously in Wisconsin, but not yet here in Colorado, and I felt confident I could track them down.
Sadistic Stinging Nettles
Oh sadistic stinging nettles, how I love her so… which I guess makes me masochistic. Something about her sting, keeps me coming back for more. But despite the pain she causes, she is wonderfully nourishing to the blood, deliciously enjoyed as a spring green, and absolutely one of my favorite wild foods to forage.
Nettles tea, capsules, or tinctures can be a crucial supplement for people suffering with low iron or allergies. The leaves must be cooked or processed to be eaten, like with a soup or pesto, and have a taste similar to spinach. And that sting… even that sting has beneficial qualities for healing the body! I personally believe that it improves my overall immunity as well as my immunity to bee sting reactions. Some use stinging nettles in similar ways as bee sting therapy to help treat arthritis and other conditions.
This is often one of the first herbs to come up with the dandelions in the spring, and though I love my dandies, they just can’t compare to the badassness of nettles. I like to think because I’ve been stung by nettles so many times that I can sense when they are near. This spring is going to be the true test of this sixth sense.
I’m so blessed to live somewhere with a multitude of city and state parks and open spaces within a few miles from my home. The vastness of space and areas to search is almost daunting, but I love the challenge and the opportunity to really learn my surrounding environment.
I started with every park and cemetery in the city of Golden, but had no luck. I went out to Lookout Mountain, Mount Galbraith, and White Ranch Park, but no luck. I was beginning to think I had lost my eye for the wild.
Though it kinda feels like cheating, I checked back in with the online community, and people were posting pictures of forage finds from Denver Metro! I couldn’t believe it. Here I was looking on the outskirts of the metro area and in the mountains and valleys, and people were finding 10 lbs. of oyster mushrooms and wild asparagus during bike rides through the city. Time to change my approach.
I had been spotting this large, wooded park off the side of the highway near my work for a few weeks. My intuition was begging me to check there. Finally after work last week, I remembered to detour from my normal route home and find this potential foraging oasis. After some wrong turns through some residential and frontage roads, I discovered a small dirt lot with the trailhead I was looking for.
The park was a series of trails, ponds, and streams coming off of Bear Creek. I immediately went off trail and into the most wooded areas of the space. Since the stop was somewhat spontaneous, I had none of my foraging gear with me, but was prepared to come back and harvest anything worthwhile as soon as possible.
The exploration was quick as I scoured the grass and trees for the signs of life I was hoping for, and I found a little thicket that looked promising. I hadn’t lost my eye for fungi! There, in the trees was the distinct pattern of the beautiful pheasantback mushroom! It had about 6 fruitings bursting out of the stump of a dead tree.
They were fresh and perfect for harvest, but this was a familiar find for me, and after attempting to cook and enjoy them a few times in Wisconsin, they just aren’t my favorite edible. While the flavor is rich and earthy and perfect for mushroom stock or soups, the texture is too tough for me to devour as a main dish. However, I have a foraging friend in Wisconsin who makes phesantback bacon bits, and they are a fun way to crunch this fungi.
Diving deeper into the thicket, I practically stumbled upon a patch of young stinging nettles! Totally elated by this find, I felt reassured that my sixth sense was still intact. Without my harvesting knife or gloves, I was not about to try to bring these babies home with me, so I took a mental note of the location, and moved on.
With a wild mushroom and my nettles discovered, I was satisfied with my hunt and slowly made my way back to my car with little ambition to find anything else. Yet, my discoveries were not finished!
While glancing down at my feet, I notice small greens which I immediately recognize as another spring edible: lamb’s quarters. Since this was a stingless green, I enjoyed a fresh leaf right from the plant and was reminded how delightful it is to eat straight from nature’s kitchen. Superfood in its truest form. Wild, divine, nourishment.
I made a plan to come back for the trifecta of food that I found, and headed home for the night. There was still a lot of ground for me to cover at this location which could possibly hold those prized oyster mushrooms or some wild asparagus, and I made sure on my return that I would have time to really hunt for all the goodies hiding out there.
I woke up early Sunday morning with the whole day to play, and the first thought in my mind was mushrooms. While I had a few other locations I wanted to scout, I wanted to first go back to the place where I already had success…this time, prepared!
I saved harvesting my successes until the end of my hunt and took off towards the areas I had yet to explore. To my disappointment, what I ended up finding was not pounds and pounds of oyster mushrooms, but instead…tons and tons of trash! Ugh. People… come on. This is Not ok! I can not comprehend how someone can just leave their garbage on the ground.
Thankfully, I still had a beautiful early morning forage along the creek before many other people arrived for the day. These moments are as much a meditation as they are an exploration. I focus on my breath, body movement, and being present. I try to imagine ancient people foraging before plastic Pepsi bottles existed. I give infinite thanks for the abundance the earth still provides us despite our disrespect to her.
The secret to success as a wild food forager is to know how to come back from the forest fulfilled, even without a bounty in your basket. I plan to bring an extra bag to pick up trash with next time I go out, and continue to give back to this planet from which we take so much. There is never a wrong moment to make the world a better place.
I brought home with me a small harvest of stinging nettles and lambs quarters, and took just one of the smallest pheasant back mushrooms as a memento for my first wild fungi found in Denver. I think this park could have more to offer as the season continues, but for now this seemed to be her main offerings.
I still have so much to learn, but have spent many hours hunting, researching and foraging in the field with a few experts, in a few different locations. Here is an important list of things to always remember when foraging:
Know your local laws and don’t trespass on private property - Nobody likes getting in trouble, and the best way to avoid it is to know your rights. Some cities, parks, regions have restrictions on foraging.
Foraging Ethics - Only take 10% or less of what you find. Taking roots means killing a plant so be mindful of root harvesting. Don’t harvest unless you’re certain of what you’re harvesting. You don’t need to post your secret location on social media, but make sure to let someone know where you are going to be.
Check weather and elevations - Often the best times to forage correlate with certain temperature changes, weather patterns, and elevations.
Wear appropriate clothing/protection - Foraging is not for the weak of heart. Depending on what you are foraging and where, you need to determine dangers ahead of time, which could be as small as deer ticks or as big as bears. Even in city parks there is the possibility of startling an unfriendly homeless person in the bushes, so bringing a bear/pepper spray is advised.
Know your plants! - Never harvest anything unless you know with 100% certainty that it is consumable or usable. If you don’t know, take a very small sample to share with an expert, but never ever consume without non-toxic confirmation. People die every year from eating misidentified plants, typically mushrooms or berries, so don’t play that game.
Share the bounty - First, make sure to bring a knife and something to carry whatever you find. Second, what are you going to do with those 20 lbs of morels?! Feel free to share some with me! I’ll share all my stinging nettles with you. ;)
Don’t Try this at Home!
As I mentioned before, I really believe the sting from nettles can offer immunity boosting benefits, and for that reason, I lightly tapped a plant on the inside of each of my wrists a few times to release the sting directly into my bloodstream. Oh yes, it feels like fire, but really only for about 10 minutes or so for myself, though I have a high threshold for pain.
I would not recommend trying this yourself, since some can have a much more severe allergic reaction. However, like jumping in a cold river, the sensation reminds me I’m alive, and capable of incredible things.
Don’t worry, I had plenty nettles left over to do what most “normal” people do with nettles. I trimmed off some leaves into a mixture with the lamb’s quarter to make a wild vegan pesto, and then I hung the rest to dry and for use as the delicious spring tonic: nettles tea.
Even though I didn’t find any oyster mushrooms yet, my local grocers store carries them. And even though it kills me to spend money on food I know I could find for free… I really really wanted oyster mushrooms with my wild pesto. So, I picked some up and threw in a tomato with some organic brown rice penne pasta, and had one of the best meals I’ve had in a while!
Wild Vegan Pesto Recipe:
A mix of almost any herb or spring green with desired texture and taste
Organic extra virgin olive oil
Fresh squeezed lemon
Pinenuts, Macadamia nuts, Cashews are typically the best nuts to use
Salt and Pepper to taste
I’m so bad with actual amounts for ingredients in recipes because I rarely measure things, and it always depends on how much I’m making. Usually with pesto, I just fill my food processor to the fill level with the intended greens, add a handful or two of nuts, sprinkle in some salt and pepper, then while it blends I pour in the olive oil until it reaches the correct consistency and add a splash or two of lemon juice. Eh Voila! Pesto!
Are you a wild foodie like me?! Let me know what some of your favorite forages have been! Or what wild magic you craft in your kitchen? I’d love to hear from you, and learn what you do. Nothing wrong with a little friendly competition, but in the end there is plenty out there to share. Thank you for allowing me to share with you.
Wishing you so much abunDANCE on your foraging adventures!