We went to the woods because we wished to eat deliberately.
And by that, I mean heading up to old logging trails off Woodland Park's Rampart Range Road to forage the ingredients for a spring wild salad. Not exactly as austere as Thoreau's experiment in simple living, but pioneering in spirit nonetheless.
Joining us is our guide, Springs native Chris Frederick, who has been teaching wild plant identification for more than 15 years to groups like the Boy Scouts and Air Force Academy combat survival instructors. We first met the 50-year-old naturalist in April when he dropped a copy of his wild plant recipe book and a sack of fresh-picked curly dock by the office. Now, on a warm spring day in late May, we meet again for a hike and introduction to the craft recently called "the next locavore fixation" in Food & Wine magazine.
Aware that the practice of gathering wild food is growing in popularity, Frederick begins our lesson by stressing the importance of harvesting foliage and fruits in a manner that doesn't kill the plant and thereby damage the ecosystem or public land.
"I am not advocating for people to go out and 'live off the land' and conduct a wholesale slaughter of edible wild plants," he writes in the preface to his book. What he is suggesting is that it is possible to gather small amounts of edible wild plants in a responsible, respectful, and sustainable manner.
We soon discover that the area in which we are harvesting food can hardly be called "pristine wilderness." In fact, it is littered with hunters' shotgun shells, and shows signs of use from annual military training exercises and from periodic cattle grazing. We hope that the impact of a few foodies daintily plucking flowers, stems and leaves will be imperceptible by comparison. To avoid fines, be sure to check any regulations on the land underfoot; foraging for personal use in national forests is permissible, though foraging in city, state or national parks is not.
The particular time at which one goes foraging, of course, determines exactly what items are available; some edibles are in season for as little as five weeks, while wild onion, for example, can be plucked from March through late September.
We set off from a washed-out gravel pull-off at around 10 on the morning of our hike, and Frederick leads us to some of his trusted, secret spots — "honey holes" I'd call them if we were fly fishing. As we trail behind him, Frederick pauses occasionally to point out non-edible but useful plants, such as yarrow, which he says Roman soldiers would carry into battle as a coagulant to stop bleeding.
Then he spies one of the eight ingredients we'll end up locating on this particular day (see below for descriptions), and we break out the brown paper lunch sacks that he's handed us for collecting, then fan out and start snipping with our scissors. Frequently, we stop to search on the south side of small ridgelines, where longer exposure to the sun produces more ample edibles.
The collection process turns out to be quite simple, as well as fun and novel, while it leaves us thinking, "Cool — I just stuffed a sack with food from this unassuming nook." The longer we look, the easier it becomes to distinguish diminutive, snow-white, mountain candytuft in the midst of a hot, dry gravel patch; knobby, succulent bunches of pale-green stonecrop pinched from wide rock crevasses; and spidery fireweed springing from a jumble of grasses and weeds.
After a couple hours of meandering, we crawl under the shade of some tall stream brush and begin unloading our sacks onto paper plates. Answering perhaps a primal urge, or more likely a modern taste for aesthetics, we artfully arrange colorful flowers around leafy greens on our plates, then sprinkle on a few nuts and drizzle it all with a bit of light vinaigrette we carried with us. (Cheating — I know.)
The first bite is slightly peppery, surprisingly meaty and unequivocally crisp and fresh. No airplanes, trucks, refrigerator cases or days of slow expiration. This is salad in its truest, rawest state, beyond the common flavors of a home garden or farmers market.
This is wildness personified as a composite flavor. This is why people forage.
Spring wild plant salad ingredients
Caution: Colorado hosts many edible wild plants, but also poisonous species that can be similar in appearance and possibly deadly. Take great care to accurately identify plants before consuming them (see Into the Wild). The following is intended as an introduction, not a guide.
Dandelion (Taraxacum spp.)
Most everyone can identify dandelions, but few realize they're edible and a great garnish for salads. A single dandelion bloom is actually a tight cluster of nearly a hundred tiny individual flowers.
Fireweed (Chamerion danielsii)
The aptly named fireweed is one of the first plants to reappear after a forest fire. Young fireweed leaves have a strong peppery taste and can add complexity to salads. Older fireweed leaves can be dried and brewed into tea.
Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)
Kinnikinnick (or bearberry) is a low-growing shrub that spreads laterally, forming mats covering large areas. Kinnikinnick produces plentiful, tiny, urn-shaped white flowers with pink edges. They have a slightly sweet taste due to the flower's nectar.
Mountain candytuft (Noccaea montana)
Mountain candytuft reaches a mature height of only 3 inches, and it produces a cluster of tiny, white four-petaled flowers. The plant is a member of the mustard family and its leaves have a sharp mustard taste.
Mountain Parsley (Pseudocymopterus montanus)
Mountain parsley leaves taste much like the parsley in restaurants. The edible plant appears similar, however, to a deadly plant called poison hemlock (used to poison Socrates). Mountain parsley has a cluster of tiny yellow flowers, and poison hemlock, a cluster of tiny white flowers. So, gather only when in bloom. Remember: Yellow flower, safe to eat; white flower, Socrates you'll meet.
Nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum)
Wild onions taste much like domestic green onions and are abundant until late fall. In spring and early summer, they appear similar to a poisonous plant called death camas. When the two are blooming, they're easy to tell apart. The onion has pink flowers clustered at the top of a long stalk; death camas has white or cream-colored flowers located all along the flower stalk.
Stonecrop (Amerosedum lanceolatum)
Called stonecrop because it's often found growing from cracks in rocks, this plant's leaves are succulent, containing large amounts of moisture. It looks somewhat like a miniature, inverted cluster of green bananas, and has a mild taste similar to raw green beans.
Wild strawberry (Fragaria spp.)
Wild strawberries grow close to the ground, and have compound leaves divided into three smaller leaflets. They produce flowers, which are small and white with five petals, and make a great salad garnish.
— Provided by Chris Frederick