Foraging is experiencing a major renaissance, and it’s not too late to get in on the action this summer. There’s an abundance of “wild food” growing throughout Colorado, and the age-old practice offers families an incentive to take notice of their surroundings. If your kids are hesitant to hike, sell the experience as a real-life treasure hunt.
The golden rule of foraging is never eat wild food unless you’re sure it’s edible. (Like, 150 percent sure!) If collecting food in nature is new to you, hire a trained guide. In addition to teaching you how to identify edible plants and fungi, guides can fill you in on Colorado’s premium foraging areas.
Newcomers should always start small and only search for easily identifiable produce, explains Orion Aon, founder of Forage Colorado, an educational company specializing in small, customizable, private foraging classes. During my family’s two-hour outing, Aon showed my boys a slew of edible weeds, starting with dandelions. (The entire plant is edible, but the yellow flower is the sweetest part, we learned while tasting.) “Dandelions are many peoples’ ‘first forage,’” says Aon. “They’re not only common, but also easy to identify.”
We discovered mallow weed, which is used as a thickener in stews, as well as curly dock, prickly lettuce, and catnip, a type of wild mint. The excitement grew when Aon showed us whitetop, a mustard species with a spicy aftertaste. This plant looks a little like broccoli, but it’s actually a noxious weed, which means it’s harmful to the local environment and thus a great species to pull.
Mushrooms are a big-ticket item, and morels are one of the most coveted wild foods. In Colorado, yellow morel season usually starts by the end of April on the Front Range. Black morels begin growing in the mountains in June. July and August are the best months to search for mushrooms in general. When hunting fungi, Aon opts for mixed conifer or spruce and fir forests located at least 9,000 feet above sea level.
Foraging doesn’t have to be a daylong excursion to the mountains, though; families can forage anywhere plants grow. Just make sure to practice good etiquette: Don’t trespass on private property, use what you take (for further study or eating), and never deplete a patch of its produce (unless it’s invasive). Always do your best to leave no trace. In addition to good walking shoes, water, and snacks, you’ll need to carry a field guide, basket, digging fork, and pocket knife. Remember, never eat anything you can’t identify.