Where some see weeds, Erica Davis sees ingredients for delicious soups and salads.
“In urban areas, there are a lot of plants that we call weeds that spring up everywhere, that are widely available to people, that are edible and good,” she said.
Foraging is the act of gathering wild plants from nature, generally to be used for food, and sometimes to make other products. For Davis and other foragers, spring means plants are starting to grow – which means kitchens will soon be full of wild foods ready to be prepared in creative ways.
Across the Front Range and in the mountains, several foragers share their knowledge through cooking classes based on wild foods.
At one of Crystal Baldwin's foraging classes, students learned to make honey infused with Wild Monarda, a wildflower in the mint family. Photo courtesy of Crystal Baldwin.
Why cook with wild food?
Davis, who runs a blog called Wild Food Girl, has upcoming classes in Ramah and Fairplay. Her Arvada class this spring has already sold out.
“I think one of the biggest challenges with edible wild plants is that people don't always know how to prepare them,” she said. “We all know how to cook spinach, we all know how to make broccoli — but we don't all know how to cook tumble mustard so that it tastes good. So in my classes, I like to give students that experience of preparing an edible wild plant — or three — in a way that I think they are going to like best.”
Davis’ classes begin with an hour-long plant walk where students learn the names of plants and safety and sustainability guidelines for foraging. Afterward, she teaches them how to prepare several of the plants they have foraged.
In the spring, dandelions and wild mustard greens are common staples in her classes, Davis said.
“People sometimes picture foraging as going out into the forest and picking plants — and that's part of it — but I would really encourage people to learn the weeds and make use of them,” she said. “A lot of them are non-native species, so there really aren't as many ecological considerations with picking them.”
Davis teaches her students to make dandelion green soup from a recipe passed down by an Italian relative. Musk mustard is great in salads, and tumble mustard and field pennycress are fun to ferment, she said.
Beyond the creative and flavorful uses of foraged foods, research from 2019 suggests that wild edible greens harvested in urban areas can be abundant and highly nutritious. The study dubbed wild edible plants “open-source food.”
“This idea that open-source food is out there for anybody to eat and make use of — and then furthermore, it's organic, it's free, it's fresh — I just think that's a great concept,” Davis said.
Dandelion greens can be used to make a delicious Italian soup. Photo by Gregg Davis.
Despite their affordability and freshness, wild plants are not all safe to eat. Crystal Baldwin, who teaches wild plant-based classes at her Golden business, Earth Sweet Boutique, said it’s always important to triple-check plants before you eat them.
“I don't like to frighten people away from… foraged foods because there's a lot of very safe ones,” Baldwin said. “But I like them to be aware that there are dangerous, poisonous ones that will kill you, and so it's important to kind of have an idea of what those might be and what to look out for.”
Baldwin encourages those interested in foraging to start by taking classes, working with local experts and reading about which plants are safe to eat.
She also said it’s important to check if plants are near old buildings that could be contributing lead to soil or if plants have been sprayed with pesticides.
Students at an outdoor foraging class taught by Crystal Baldwin of Earth Sweet Boutique. Photo courtesy of Crystal Baldwin.
'Part of human history'
In addition to cooking, Baldwin said wild foods can be used to make skincare products, tinctures, infused honey, medicines and more.
“There’s many different things you can do with foraged foods, and the great thing about it is that we have tons of free, wonderful, wild foods here in Colorado,” she said.
Some of Baldwin’s favorite plants to forage are pine and conifer needles, which are high in vitamin C. She uses the needles to make a simple syrup that she drinks with seltzer water and fresh lemon.
“It's extremely refreshing and has a lot of minerals, so it's very hydrating in the summertime when it's hot,” she said.
When foraging, it’s important to do so in a way that does not damage plants or plant populations, Baldwin said. When gathering pine needles, for example, she takes about an inch or two from each branch and moves around to different branches so as to not damage the plant.
Davis agreed that sustainability is an important part of foraging process, and it’s something foragers need to be mindful of in order to do correctly.
“Sometimes people think ‘Foraging must be bad for the environment because you're picking the plants!’ But I think the actual truth is much more nuanced than that,” she said. “Foraging is part of human history, I mean, we have been foraging since time immemorial, and we can do it in ways that don't harm the plant populations if we're mindful.”
Beyond freshness and accessibility, Davis said foraging offers health benefits and a range of flavors that are not available in grocery stores.
And perhaps best of all, wild food offers a way to get close to nature.
“For me, also, they offer a connection to nature,” Davis said. “They invite time spent outdoors, getting to know plants, working with my hands.”
Davis has available spots in her classes in Ramah and Fairplay this spring and summer. Her classes can be found at https://wildfoodgirl.com/wfg-events/.
On her webpage, people who want to learn more about foraging can also sign up for the Colorado foragers email list.
In May, Baldwin is hosting a wild food cooking class at her shop, taught by veteran forager Wendy Petty. Interested students can sign up at https://earthsweetboutique.com/products/wild-foraged-food-cooking-class and see future classes at https://earthsweetboutique.com/pages/classes-events.