Many native plants and weeds have edible and medicinal benefits.
Just be sure you know what you’ve plucked before you stick it in a salad.
By Haley Gray
On a warm evening last summer, I took a hike on Mount Sanitas. Coming down the eastern face at twilight, I came across a couple pulling white flowers off yucca spikes. They were eating the petals, and a few deer nearby were doing the same thing.
“Oh, deer snacks?” I joked.
The man smiled and handed me a flower to taste. To my delight, it was supple and crisp at the base, slightly sweet, with a hint of spice. No wonder deer like them so much.
At the time, I didn’t know sampling a yucca flower was illegal. In fact, removing anything—manmade, natural, or even a flower petal—is against the law in Boulder County, and in all city parks, and open-space areas and trails.
So what’s a wild gatherer to do? Boulder herbalist Brigitte Mars, who teaches classes on wild edibles, says she finds many delicious ones around town. Some are actually weeds, so there’s a good chance a few grow in your backyard.
A few words of wild wisdom: Don’t pluck in unfamiliar places, because you don’t know what kind of waste or sprays might be present on the plants. Take less than a tenth of any species growing in one pace. Plants usually seed downhill, so if you’re plucking on a slope, it’s best to pick plants at the bottom so the ones above can reseed the population. If plants have dry leaves or shriveled stems, they may be struggling to survive. If you aren’t sure the population is vibrant enough to spare a few plants, it’s best not to pick anything.
Mary O’Brien, Steamboat-based coauthor of Edible & Medicinal Plants of the Southern Rockies, says she tries to identify the “mother plant” in any wild colony—the biggest, most robust plant that’s grown there the longest. The mother plant is typically a crucial seeder and should be left untouched.
Here are some edibles you can try before the yuccas bloom in late summer. The following plants are most nutritious and tender the first few weeks after they appear in spring, so harvest them as early as possible. Always verify a plant’s identity before picking it, be sure no pesticides or herbicides have been used on it, and wash it well before eating it.
These delicate early bloomers are so tiny they’re tricky to spot. But the purple flowers make a delightfully sweet treat (see “10 Steps to a Sweet Spring,” below) and a colorful garnish for salads.
Every part of this abundant weed is edible. Author Mary O’Brien says the nutrient-dense leaves are nearly as nutritious as a multivitamin. Dandelion is also a useful diuretic for various ailments from kidney stones to edema, because it doesn’t promote the secretion of potassium into the urine, unlike many over-the-counter medications.
The fresh or dried leaves of this aromatic plant can be used to make a wonderfully minty tea that can be used for indigestion and colds and as an analgesic. Rub crushed flowers on clothing to repel insects, and put mint in a muslin bag for a scented bath that can help soothe skin irritations.
This abundant weed has fleshy, succulent leaves that look like a mini jade plant. Purslane is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acid and beta-carotene, and has a slightly lemony flavor with a peppery kick. Use the young leaves and stems in salads and sandwiches, or lightly stir-fry them (they will turn slimy if overcooked) and mix them with similar-tasting greens, like spinach.
This plant grows wild in the Rockies and resembles chamomile, only with the petals missing. Dried pineapple weed makes a soothing tea as tasty as real chamomile. Be forewarned, though: A look-alike grows in the southern Rockies. It isn’t dangerous, but it doesn’t taste as good. You can tell the difference by the plants’ smell—the tasty ones emit a pineapple scent when you crush the leaves and flowers.
This plant has a fierce sting, so wear thick gloves and use extreme caution to avoid getting stung. The nutrient-packed, dark-green leaves are wonderful in stews and soups, and can be brewed into a health-giving tea that soothes arthritis and urinary disorders. Nettles lose their sting after cooking, but not before, so use tongs to transfer them from the sink to the pot.
Make al fresco dining memorable by growing a salad bar for dinner guests. Simply plant window boxes, containers or garden beds with greens, tomatoes, peppers, green onions and other veggies. Hand guests a plate and garden scissors, and let them create their own salads. Flavor salads with fresh herbs, like basil, rosemary and dill, and edible nasturtium flowers that guests can snip from centerpieces. Serve iced tea and lemonade flavored with fresh mint leaves. And dress up the table with garden bouquets. Pick extra flowers for guests to take, and they’ll fondly remember their homegrown meal.
—Melinda Myers, www.melindamyers.com