Take a bite out of the Vail Valley: Forage for berries, mushrooms, plants and roots
August 27, 2015
The absolute, ironclad, No. 1 important rule when considering foraging for food is to never, ever eat something you can't positively identify. With that said, step onto a local hiking trail, bike path or into a backyard and find yourself surrounded by copious amounts of wild edibles — nutritionally dense, tended by Mother Nature and just waiting for you to take notice.
Among the plethora of things you can eat are varieties of popular berries, wild mushrooms and various plants, weeds, roots, thistles and flowers.
It is a rewarding experience agreed Hannah Irwin, Tom Boni and Katrina Blaire, three experts that will take us through just some of what can be found, where it can be found and when it can be found locally.
"Finding food in nature connects us to our home, our land and our sense of place," Blair said. "When we eat wild foods, we become better stewards of the earth and caretakers to our local lands."
Irwin, manager of the Vail Nature Center, has been foraging for local berries as a hobby for the past five years. Right now, in the late summer, is when the berry crop is particularly ripe and bountiful, she said.
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Beyond the rule of being able to identify with 100 percent confidence that what you are picking is safe, Irwin proposed another rule of thumb when it comes to local berries and their likelihood of being edible or poisonous.
"It's the rule of red, while and blue," she said. "Red berries are risky. White berries are worst. Blue-color berries are best."
She recommended anyone serious about picking local berries go and buy a guide to carry with him or her. The guides, she said, are trustier than using the Internet on a smartphone for the reason that someone can easily stumble on false information or mistake a berry on screen.
Another rule, she said, is to be good stewards of the local berry bushes by keeping in mind other humans might want to pick from them and that local animals depend upon them. There is no permit required for berry foraging; only proper etiquette is recommended.
"A good rule is to only take about 10 percent of what you see on a bush or in a patch," Irwin said. "It is important foragers respect other foragers and leave plenty for wildlife."
With that in mind, Irwin outlined the details of six berries popular in this region that are fruiting this time of year.
• Serviceberries — Serviceberries, also called saskatoons, are easy to find. They are also called "bear berries" because they are a black bear's favorite food, Irwin said. You can find them at mid elevations. They tend to grow near Gore Creek and the Eagle River, as well as in sunnier spots on hillsides. They grow in patches, and you can bet that if you find one serviceberry, you will find many.
They grow in smaller bushes to shrub-like trees and can be found waist high or even higher — up to 7 or 8 feet. They have a smaller, rounder leaf similar to an aspen. Earlier in the summer, the bushes flowered, making them easier to identify. The flowers are now gone, but the berries remain. They range in color from blue to dark blue and purple when ripe.
• Chokecherries — Chokecherries are found pretty much exclusively near water. Usually, you will find a bush dripping with chokecherries as if they were grapes. Those bushes might be harder to find this year, as chokecherries had a great year last year. Irwin said it is common for berry-producing plants to follow a heavy fruiting season with a lighter one.
But don't lose hope — they are out there, assured Irwin. Chokecherries can be found in larger bushes. They have a long, ovate leaf with teeth around the edges. The berries grow in a bushel, and the berries themselves are dark blue to purple when ripe.
• Raspberries and strawberries — Raspberries and strawberries are the easiest to identify in the wild because they look just like the kind you might buy in a grocery store. They are native to subalpine climates but are less of a staple around the Vail Valley.
Both berries are usually found at a higher elevation, and you will need to hike in order to find a good patch. Be on the lookout for their telltale leaves. The fruits are usually white or red in color when ripe.
• Thimbleberry — The thimbleberry is native to North America and looks similar to the raspberry. The two berries are from the same family, but a good differentiator is that when you pull a thimbleberry from its leaf, it leaves a divot in the berry that resembles a thimble.
The thimbleberry also grows in a larger shrub instead of the ground cover plant of a raspberry. They tend to have woody stems and the berries are bright red by the end of summer.
• Grouseberry — Also known as the whortleberry, the grouseberry is harder to find but very delicious, Irwin said. The grouseberry is closely related to the blueberry, and they spread out on the subalpine hillside in shadier areas.
Picking them can be tedious, as they grow low in the understory of the forest and are very small. Like serviceberries, they are also beyond their flowering stage, making them harder to spot. The berries are soft, bright red and have a tart flavor.
Boni is an organizer of the Eagle Mushroom and Wild Food Festival, which wrapped up last weekend in Eagle. For eight years, he has welcomed experts to discuss wild foods, lead foraging tours and find out what can be found locally.
"Going out into the forest and looking for food, be it plants, berries or mushrooms, is a great learning experience," Boni said. "The more you put into it, the more you get out of it. As you get out there, you start realizing just how much is there. It is a great adventure."
Unfortunately, there is currently a lull in mushroom hunting. Boni scoured the hills of Eagle for three nights leading up to the festival to see what he could find. He didn't find much.
"The whole idea of mushrooms is that they are elusive," Boni said. "You have to learn about the habits of mushrooms, so that when conditions are right, you can go out and forage successfully."
Mushrooms are very ecologically sensitive — the fungi don't grow in seasons; rather, they flourish under the interaction of specific conditions. Such conditions include soil temperature, precipitation and amount of sunlight in a specific period of time following precipitation.
While there is not an ironclad rule to finding mushrooms, your best bet for finding them is to wait for a period of rain, maybe two or three moist days, followed by a period of intense sun. Head toward a north-facing slope, and scour the edges of spruce forests, as fungi often have a symbiotic relationship with tree populations such as spruce.
"I think we definitely have a couple of more weeks," Boni said of possible future mushroom-hunting opportunities this season. "The first hard frost is not until the end of many more mushrooms."
Like berries, mushrooms abide by the "be very sure before you eat it" rule. Edible mushrooms can be difficult to identify because of similar "false species," or poisonous mushrooms that closely resemble those that are edible. Mushrooms also change with their exposure to sunlight and moisture. Reference a guide, or go with someone like Boni, to be sure you have the right mushrooms.
Also, note that a foraging permit is required to pluck mushrooms in the national forest. The permits are free. Just drop by the U.S. Forest Service Station in Minturn. Boni mentions three popular mushrooms in the area.
• King bolete — The king bolete, also known as a porcini, is a very sought-after, large mushroom. Find a couple of these thick-capped mushrooms and you have a dinner. The king bolete had its first local flushing during June, which was wet. Boni anticipates a second flushing of this mushroom in particular.
• Chanterelle — The chanterelle is a delicate, thinner mushroom that typically flushes between July and September. Chanterelles were found during the Mushroom Festival in Eagle. They can be found forging symbiotic relationships with other plants or trees, so good places to look for them are near large tree populations in the forest.
• Morel — Morel mushrooms have a very distinct cap and are hollow on the inside. There are many false morel species that are not suitable for consumption. They are found more plentiful in the spring. They grow near disturbed ground. They are prevalent in burn sites, in old logging areas and wherever there are downed trees.
Plants, weeds, thistles and roots
Some edible, nutritious wild plants grow rampant in such a way that you have probably hosed them down with chemicals to get them out of your yard.
Blair is the author of "The Wild Wisdom of Weeds," a book that chronicles 13 edible weeds found globally. Blair dedicates her time to teaching others about growing, harvesting and preparing local, wild and living food. She works with Turtle Lake Refuge in Durango and recently spoke at the Mushroom Festival in Eagle.
She praised Vail for the number of berries she saw and "feasted on" while visiting and led the group through information on other wild foods available.
"The wild foods are superior nutritionally than what we can buy or grow," Blair said. "There are weeds all over town, in every part of the globe, that are edible and have dense nutrition."
A lot of the edible weeds are easy to find and identify. But the rule here is that since some of these weeds are considered a nuisance, be careful they haven't been sprayed with weed killer before ingesting. Some of the edible noxious weeds you might want to give a second chance include dandelions, wild mallow, musk thistle, bluebell flowers and cicely flowers.
Again, all three experts stress the importance of not eating blindly. Consume responsibly with guides, guidebooks and absolute certainty. Seek out the proper information, and enjoy the process.
"Foraging makes for great relationships," Boni said. "You get to come home that evening and the meal itself is an extension of the friendship you develop with the surrounding land, the people you forage with and the food you eat."