In the realm of edible wild plants, most advice includes an “if” and a “could.”
As in, “IF you were lost in the wilderness, you COULD scrape by on cattail roots,” or “IF you’ve already eaten the other members of your party and you’re still hungry, you COULD boil bark.”
Mountain man books and survival courses offer hints on searching for roots. Air Force cadets are taught how to forage if shot down behind enemy lines. But no one suggests going out under normal circumstances, when there’s leftover pizza in the fridge, and dining on wild plants for pleasure.
Well, no one except guys like Chris Frederick.
“Some of these plants are really good,” he said as he traipsed through the pine-covered hills of Rampart Range. “I want to show people how to bring them home and cook a gourmet meal.”
Frederick published a cookbook, “Colorado Edible Plant Recipes,” with directions to make everything from Dandelion Fritters to Creamy Nettle Soup. His mission for the morning was a lunch hike. Along the trail he would gather greens and flowers.
“By the end of this hike,” he said, “we’ll have one heck of a spring salad.”
As if to emphasize his point, he knelt down on the trail along a quiet stream, picked a spiky-looking sprig of something green, popped it in his mouth and said, “Boy, that’s good.”
Frederick, 47, has been leafing through dog-eared wild plant books and roving the hills of the Pikes Peak region since he was a kid.
“I had this notion when I graduated from high school that I was going to live off the land like a mountain man,” he said. “It isn’t so easy.”
After graduating, he moved up in the hills for a few weeks, until he had to return to town and get a job to pay for a fender he had dented on his parents’ car. In 30 years, not much has changed. Frederick works odd jobs during winter, tries to live and eat in the mountains as much as possible in summer, and occasionally ends up staying at his parents’ house.
Even in town, he experiments with wild dishes. A few weeks ago he picked unopened yucca flowers from a dry hill on the side of Uintah Street, took a bagful home, stuffed them with cheese and deep-fried them.
“I don’t know if it was the cheese or what,” he said. “But they were pretty good.”
Of course foraging off the land isn’t a new skill. Even centuries after Western culture moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture, people still occasionally have turned to the wild in hard times. In the 1960s, foraging had a modest renaissance sparked by a book called “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” by Euell Gibbons. Even today in Colorado a handful of wild plant experts, most notably “Cattail” Bob Seebeck, offer classes on what’s edible and what’s not.
But few show the relish Frederick does.
“This is like going to the supermarket for me,” he said as he walked. “You just have to know where to look.”
Most edibles grow on open, south-facing hills, he explained. When he reached a good hill, he pulled a pair of scissors from his pocket and started snipping pieces of a tough-looking succulent called stonecrop and dropping them in a bag. A few steps farther, he spotted the tender shoots of a wild onion. He passed over a dandelion patch — “too bitter” — in favor of bunches of white flowers called candytuft, and yellow ones called rockcress.
A few steps more and he snipped off the tender tassel of greens at the top of a young fireweed.
“These are really nice,” he said, tucking them in the bag. “Good and peppery.”
Frederick stepped over a plant called salsify, saying, “Technically, that’s edible, but yuck!”
At one time or another, he’s tried almost everything. The gum from a teddy bear cholla kept him up all night with severe cramps and vomiting. He once tried to boil off poisonous cyanic acid in the leaves of the marsh marigold so he could eat them. It didn’t work.
“Oh, man, I got sick,” he said, shaking his head.
Why go through all this? Why not just go to the farmers market? Frederick’s penchant for wild plants seems to be driven by two things: a genuine love of the outdoors and living things, and a sneaking suspicion that the intricate Rube Goldberg interdependence of modern society can’t possibly last, and it might be good to have a backup plan.
Ask for his e-mail and he says, “I try not to get involved with that computer stuff.”
But the sturdy man, with his bushy mustache and clipon sunglasses, is no hermit. For years he taught Air Force cadets to survive in the woods. He visits camps and occasionally leads public edible-herb walks in places like Bear Creek Regional Park.
“I thought about giving myself a nickname — Stonecrop Chris or something — but it sounded too silly,” he said.
Then he stopped.
“That’s death camas,” he said, pointing to a nondescript pair of leaves a few feet of the trail. “It’s deadly poisonous. We won’t pick that.”
A few steps away, he reached under the waxy leaves of a kinnikinnick bush and pulled out clusters of tiny white flowers shaped like frosted lanterns with a pink rim.
“These will make a nice garnish,” he said.
After the tender greens of spring toughen in summer, Frederick will move on to yucca and prickly pear fruit and wild raspberries. His cookbook covers all seasons from Stonecrop Tempura to Wild Currant Muffins. Most recipes are simple, letting the herbs take center stage.
Frederick has purposefully left out some of the delicious root bulbs that hide in the forest so people don’t dig up and kill the plants.
“I want to be very ethical. Very sustainable,” he said. “When you gather herbs, you’re basically just giving the plants a haircut.”
At the end of the hike, he sat down on a sunny patch of grass and pulled a few bowls and forks out of his backpack. He arranged the greens, then crowned them with yellow and white flowers.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he said.
Then he smothered it in ranch dressing.
WARNING: Colorado has a few poisonous plants. Don’t eat anything you can’t positively identify as safe.
SOME OF COLORADO’S EDIBLE PLANTS
Wild onion This strong little sibling of the domesticated onion grows all over sunny parts of the forest. Dig up the bulbs or simply clip a few of the pungent leaves to use like chives. Candytuft This low, white flower is a member of the mustard family. The blooms have a faint familiar bite of mustard. Use clusters of these small flowers as a garnish. Stonecrop This common, scaly-looking succulent can be found in sunny, rocky areas of the mountains. It has a moist, luscious, mild flavor and can be eaten plain, stir-fried or in salads. Kinnikinnick bush This evergreen shrub has waxy leaves and bright red berries. Neither is edible, but the small, globe-shaped flowers hidden beneath the leaves are sweet and tender. Use them as a garnish. Curly dock This long, slender leaf has slightly curled edges and a mild flavor similar to spring salad greens. Find it in wet meadows near mountain streams. Bistort Long, somewhat shiny, canoe-shaped leaves grow along wet valley bottoms. Young, finger-sized leaves can be eaten in salads. Wild strawberries These tiny cousins of the red berries in the supermarket rarely grow bigger than a dime, but the sweet, flavorful fruit is hard to beat. Find them on shady, moist forest floors, growing low to the ground. Look for telltale white, roselike flowers and leaves with serrated edges. Yucca buds The cream-colored summer flowers on this spiny plant have a clean, crisp taste, somewhat like snow peas. They are good raw, steamed or in soups.
DANDELION FLOWER FRITTERS 1 cup vegetable oil 1 1/2 cups flour 3 tablespoons sugar 1/4 teaspoon baking soda 2 cups yellow dandelion flowers (remove all stems and don’t use flowers from lawns that have been recently sprayed with fertilizers or pesticides) Salt to taste Procedure: 1. Heat oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Combine flour, sugar and baking soda with enough water to make a medium-thick batter. Add dandelions and stir until flowers are well coated. Add individual flowers to oil, cook for about 1 minute or until golden brown, then flip with a slotted spoon. 2. Cook another 1 minute. When both sides have browned, remove flowers from oil and place on paper towel to drain. Sprinkle with salt. Serve hot.
CREAMY NETTLE SOUP 3 tablespoons butter, divided 7 wild onions, peeled, rinsed and chopped 2 1/4 cups water 3-4 cups nettle leaves (which can be gathered along sunny streams), rinsed and coarsely chopped 3/4 cup milk 2 1/2 tablespoons flour Salt and pepper to taste Procedure: 1. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in a medium-size pot over medium heat. Add wild onions and saute 2 minutes. Add water and bring to boil. Add nettle leaves and boil 1 minute. Remove pot from heat. Once it has cooled, add milk. 2. In separate saucepan, heat remaining butter over medium heat. Add flour and stir until completely blended. Remove from heat. Return large pot to heat. Bring to boil. Slowly whisk in flour/butter mixture. Let simmer a few minutes to thicken. Add salt and pepper.
WILD-STRAWBERRY TARTS 2 cups wild strawberries, rinsed 3/4 cup sugar, divided 2 cups flour 1/4 teaspoon baking powder 3 tablespoons oil Procedure: 1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place strawberries in a bowl and mash. Add 1/2 cup sugar and mix until blended. Set bowl aside. 2. In a separate bowl, mix flour, remaining sugar and baking powder. Add oil and enough water to make a firm dough that won’t stick to hands. Divide dough in two. Roll each piece of dough into 1/4-inch-thick discs. Spoon strawberry mixture equally into the center of the two dough discs. Fold dough over and crimp edges with a fork. Place on cookie sheet and bake 15-20 minutes.
SOURCES “Recipes From a Wild Plant Gourmet,” by Chris Frederick, contains recipes for plants that can be found along the Front Range, available from the author; Chris Frederick, P.O. Box 38194, Colorado Springs, CO 80937. A useful field guide with photos is: “Best-tasting Wild Plants of Colorado and the Rockies” by Cattail Bob Seebeck