Vail Daily column: Foragers beware
As April showers brought us, well, many more May showers, we are now being blessed with tons of June blooms and the mountains are alive again in lush, green brilliance. The short but sweet summer of the Rocky Mountains is a period of abundance, where Mother Nature has the capacity to show off her biodiversity, casting off her winter cloak and exposing all her immaculate secrets, overwhelming our senses. Animals eat well this time of year, taking advantage of the spectacular productivity, just as humans have done for about 90,000 years as hunter-gatherers.
For modern society today, foraging for wild edibles has become more of a leisure hobby than a way of life, but that may be changing. Miles Irving, author of “The Forager Handbook,” said that, “People’s rediscovery of their primeval relationship to the land — the vitality of using one’s senses to find food as opposed to the passivity of consumption — expresses what is fundamental to our biology and our identity.” Foraging, hunting and gathering food is a means by which a species integrates with their surroundings, utilizing all their senses and gaining a connectedness and knowledge from the landscape which sustains them.
The rewards of becoming a present-day forager are endless. Besides providing a food free-for-all, eating local, wild, fresh foods (especially honey) can greatly reduce seasonal allergies over time. Foraging also simply increases the time you spend outside, which has many health benefits! Foraging has its own dangers associated with it, too, including some of the lethal kind. It is vital to be well versed on the poisonous plants in your area before ever incorporating wild edibles into your diet.
Do not eat anything you cannot positively identify and deem safe.
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Baneberry (red cohosh, bugbane, toadroot, snakeberry), Actaea rubra: Berries are a favorite treat among foragers. Here in the Vail Valley you can find many delicious edible berries later in the summer, including raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries, wild current, thimble berries, cherries, blueberries and service berries. A general rule for gathering berries depends on color: if the berries are white they are probably poisonous, if they are blue, pink, or purple they are probably safe, and if they are red it could go either way. Note the use of the word “probably” and remember that there are always exceptions to the rule. Baneberry follows the color rule pretty well. This perennial has tall, erect stems with coarsely sharp-toothed, lobed leaves. They produce a dense cluster of small, white flowers that eventually turn into blood red or stark white berries, (sometimes called dolls eyes due to a single black dot that forms in the middle of each berry). The toxicity of the baneberry is due to the chemical ranunculin. A skin irritant, this chemical causes blistering and burning of the mouth and throat which graduates to nausea, stomach cramps, intestinal distress and diarrhea when ingested. Larger doses can have a more profound effect, including respiratory distress, ventricular fibrillation and cardiac arrest.
Locoweed, Oxytropis spp., Larkspur Delphinium spp., and monkshood (Wolfbane) Aconitum columbianum: Like most wild plants in the pea family, locoweed, along with larkspur and monkshood (both in the buttercup family), are poisonous and particularly dangerous for grazing cattle as these plants happen to be very palpable if you are a cow. The locoweeds, appropriately named for making horses and cattle seem crazy, comes in several varieties, all with basal pinnately divided leaves that form tendrils at the tips. Their flowers can be yellow, white, pink or blue and grow in spike-like clusters, developing into large seed pods later in the summer. Larkspur is found all around the valley in dry, open plains and sparsely wooded slopes. They’re most recognizable by their deep, purple flowers that appear along the tall stem in loose clusters with upper sepals that project back as a prominent spur. Monkshood, named for the hood-shaped, deep blue flowers, contains the alkaloid aconitine in all its parts and has been historically used to poison bait wolf traps (hence its nickname, wolfbane). Toxicity symptoms for these plants include vomiting, diarrhea, loss of muscular control, inflammation, nervousness, violence, confusion, miscarriage, paralysis, inability to eat/drink and congestive heart failure.
Don’t Be Fooled by the Beauty
Poison hemlock, Conium Maculatum: Legend has it that this is the plant that was used to kill Socrates. This cousin to the carrot, in the parsley family, is considered noxious, invasive and is a particularly important plant for a forager to know very well due to its close resemblance to lots of stuff we like to eat. It is most often confused with wild carrot (Daucus carota), or Queen Anne’s Lace, whose flowers and roots are considered edible. Poison hemlock, however, contains toxins that affect the nervous system, causing numbness and paralysis of the chest, followed by suffocation. This plant is recognizable by its lacy, fern-like leaves (very characteristic of the parsley family) and flat-topped, twice-branched, tiny, white flowers clustered above a whorl of small, lance-shaped bracts.
Miles Irving suggests that “a widespread revival of foraging is a key element in the return to seasonal and local food. Using the land to encourage and harvest edible and other useful wild plants would give the countryside, and the freedom of it, to local communities.” Whether for leisure, survival or freedom, foraging is a valuable skill with the potential to connect us back to what has been lost in modern society. Please use caution when picking up this new hobby. Do your research, start with small quantities and never eat anything if you are not 100 percent sure you know what it is.
Nicole Abrams is the Girls in Science coordinator at Walking Mountains Science Center. She loves fostering a sense of place in the natural world with the young ladies she teaches.