With so many different landscapes, Colorado offers adventurers a variety of nature to explore and discover. While there are numerous activities to partake in the stunning Centennial State, a lesser-known one is foraging. If you enjoy hiking, you can hike with a purpose by learning to identify and harvest edible plants along the way. Not only is foraging a great activity, but it is also incredibly useful knowledge to have if you happen to ever become lost or stranded in the wilderness.
Whether you’re a foodie foraging for fun or require the skill as a means of survival, here are some of the most common edible plants you’ll find throughout the state of Colorado.
A member of the mustard family, watercress is a sturdy leafy green that grows in wetland areas. Its peppery flavor similar to arugula makes it a great addition to sandwiches, soups, or salads. Watercress thrives in cold water so you’ll likely find it near rivers, creeks, or streams. This hearty green has a fairly long growing season, however, the best time to look is between March and October.
There’s a common misconception that these lawn invaders are solely weeds and can’t be eaten. However, contrary to popular belief, the entire dandelion plant is edible, full of nutrients, and for some, even tasty. Dandelion is also incredibly easy to find during the spring and summer as you’ll see them everywhere and their yellow flower is easy to spot. You can fry them, make tea, add them to soups or salads, and even grind the root and brew it for a great coffee substitute.
Rose hips are essentially the fruit or seed pod of rose plants. While out in the wild in late summer or fall, keep your eyes open for small red or orange berries on rose bushes. These are rose hips, which are tart little berries packed with antioxidants, vitamin C, and other healing properties. However, the best time to harvest rose hips is after the first frost, when they are sweet and tender. You can cook them to make syrups, jams, and jellies or dry them to make rose hip tea.
During the summer months, you can find strawberries and other wild berries throughout Colorado. However, the best place to find them is in the southwest. You may spot them along trails or growing wild in open meadows. If you do happen to come across these sweet berries, grab them quickly because they’re also a favorite treat for many wild animals. Eat them as a snack during your hike or save them to make jams or jellies.
Easily identified by their brown flowering head, cattails are commonly found in wetlands near lakes, rivers, or streams and are edible from root to tip. The leaves can be boiled or cooked like any leafy green, the base can be cut up and cooked in soups or stews, the young green flower can be boiled and eaten like a root vegetable or corn on the cob, and the root can be grilled, baked, or boiled. You can even collect the pollen in early spring to use as a flour substitute in baked goods.
Yarrow is a powerful medicinal plant that typically feature white round or oval blooms that can grow up to three feet tall. The leaves, stem, and flowers of the plant are all edible and can be used as a remedy for fevers, cramps, indigestion, aches and pains, or as a diuretic. While the flower can be eaten or brewed into a tea, it can also be made into a solution and applied topically to treat rashes and reduce itching, bleeding, or swelling.
Found near streams and irrigation ditches at the base of the mountains, wild plum trees are a sweet surprise for any forager. During the spring, plum trees are adorned with stunning white flowers, and by late summer, they bare sweet fruit ready for picking. Wild plums can be enjoyed fresh off the tree or made into delicious jams and preserves.
Those who have tasted wild asparagus claim it simply just doesn’t compare to the grocery store variety, and the good news is that it grows each spring all over the state. Asparagus is an incredibly versatile vegetable that can be very useful for survival if you’re able to find it. The best time to look for this flowering shoot is early May growing in irrigated pasture land, moist grassy plains, or along rivers and streams. Wild Asparagus is perennial so you’ll find it in the same spots every year. To find them, keep your eyes open for last year’s dried-up stalks to help find fresh new growth.
When it comes to foraging edible plants, mushrooms are usually one of the first things people think of. While numerous edible mushroom species grow in abundance throughout Colorado, Porcinis are by far one of the most popular. These brown-capped mushrooms resembling bread buns, boast thick white stems and are found from July til the end of August at higher elevations.
While porcini mushrooms possess a meaty and nutty flavor that’s highly sought after, they’re also incredibly high in protein making these little morsels an invaluable food source when foraging in the wilderness for survival. You can saute mushrooms or dry them to make a great meat-free jerky that will last a long time.
It’s important to remember when foraging for mushrooms, many lookalikes can be dangerous even fatal, therefore, proper identification is crucial. The best rule of thumb is, if you’re not completely certain, don’t eat it.
Prickly Pear Cacti
Due to Colorado’s dry climate, you’ll find prickly pears throughout the state, however, the best time to forage this fruit is in late summer. While not for the faint of heart due to its sharp spines, persistent foragers willing to make a little extra effort will be rewarded with a sweet and tasty treat. Besides the spines, the entire cacti can be consumed. The stems can be cooked or grilled like a vegetable, the flower added to salads, and the sweet fruit inside can be eaten raw or stewed into jams.
While a variety of plants can be foraged simply for eating, many wild plants can be foraged for medicinal use. To learn more about what plants and herbs can be foraged for medicinal purposes and how to use them, consider taking our Wilderness Herbal First Aid course. In this course, you’ll learn how to identify botanicals, how to make syrups, tinctures, and salves from them, and how you can effectively use these herbal remedies for wound and trauma care, digestive issues, respiratory relief, and other common medical concerns and injuries.
Regardless of how knowledgeable you are, foraging for wild plants always comes with a bit of risk. Some lookalikes can cause upset stomachs or can even be potentially fatal when consumed. Some areas may be prone to over foraging which can, in turn, disrupt the ecosystem. To forage respectfully and mindfully, keep these essential tips in mind:
- Know the Land – Before embarking on a foraging expedition, get familiar with the land. You should know what poisonous or endangered plant species you might come across, and which edible plants grow in abundance. You’ll also want to know where there may be areas where the soil could be contaminated with runoff or other pollutants.
- Exert Caution – It’s important to be able to identify the plants you’re foraging with 100 percent certainty. Some poisonous or toxic plants resemble edible ones. If you aren’t certain, don’t put it in your mouth. To boost your knowledge of edible plants, enroll in foraging courses, attend plant walks with experts, and use reputable guides during your hike.
- Forage Responsibly – Check with the local land management for guidelines on harvesting limits or restrictions, and only forage in the areas that are permitted. Overforaging can impact local wildlife as well as the ecosystem. Take only what you need and leave the rest to allow regrowth and animals to also feed. You also want to be mindful of your impact while going off trail and always practice Leave No Trace.
- Be Privy to Poisons – While it’s vital to know which plants are edible when foraging, it’s equally important to be able to recognize the ones that aren’t. Some poisonous plants may give you a rash, but others can potentially kill you. Do your research and learn about common attributes of poisonous species, especially those that resemble edible ones.