Early Spring Foraging in the Northern Front Range of Colorado


I've been out foraging for about a week now. Mostly, I'm cruising the trails and checking progress at my favorite spots. It's still largely brown out there. Nonetheless, I'm coming home with small handfuls of greens. The snows have brought good moisture, the intervening days are warm, and the plants are slowly starting to respond.

Here are some photos of the plants I've picked so far. It's by no means an exhaustive list, but should give a rough idea of the plants that are starting up on the northern half of the Front Range of Colorado. I highly recommend that you get out there and celebrate these first plants of spring.

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Dock, Rumex crispus around here, is the first non-glamorous plant (asparagus, strawberries, plums, and the like are glamorous) that I learned to cherish. These days, I'm lovingly mocked by other foragers for my adoration of dock. How could I not love a plant that is so abundant in both the early and late seasons of the year, providing me with so much free food?

When harvesting dock, harvest the newest, most tender leaves. Avoid leaves that have red or purple spots, as they can be bitter. It's best if you cook docks and don't eat it in large quantities (eat it in the same quantities you would any other side dish), as it is high in oxalic acid. Don't let that scare you, though, as you probably eat conventional leafies, like spinach, that are high in oxalic acid as well.

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Like dock, prickly lettuce (Lactuca sp.), is abundant in both the early spring and late fall, and often forms thick carpets of pale green. Though its leaves may be too bitter for most to eat alone, they are a great addition to your daily salad blend.

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If you've got a wild onion spot (Allium spp.), it may be a few weeks before the bulbs fatten up and you can dig the whole plant. For now, snip off green leaves and use them in recipes as you would chives or spring onion tops.

A word of warning, wild onions are not a plant for beginning foragers because they can resemble toxic cousins, such as death camus. If you have a patch you suspect are wild onions, my advice is to watch them for a full season, so you can confirm that they are indeed Allium by their flowers. Also, all wild onions smell like onions.  But be careful, as Cattail Bob Seebeck warns, once you touch a wild onion, your hands are so likely to smell of them that you might think every plant you touch afterward smells of onions, too, even toxic lookalikes.

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I was surprised to see this tiny blue mustard (Chorispora tenella), barely 1/2" tall, already flowering. This plant is easy to identify once it flowers, as each flower has four petals, a characteristic which you will instantly know makes it a mustard. I hope to soon find Lipidium draba, or white top, another mustard which is abundant in my area. Last year, I discovered that white top can be cooked up much like broccoli rabe. One of the best things about the local wild mustard species is that they are considered invasive species, so you can pick as many as you please without worry of damaging delicate plant populations.

I prefer to eat blue mustard raw, to best enjoy its nearly mushroom-y aftertaste. Don't eat too much in one sitting, though, unless you've determined that the plant agrees with you (I would give you the same words of wisdom with all wild plants).

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Oof, this picture is embarrassingly bad. I don't know why I only took one picture of these violet leaves (Viola sp.) popping out of the snow. Like prickly lettuce, the leaves make a nice addition to your spring salad blend. Soon, the flowers will pop up, and you'll be certain to want to nab them. I like to fill up a hard-sided container with violet flowers while I'm out biking. When I get home, I open up the container, and simply enjoy the scent of the violets escaping. You just have to experience it for yourself. I think I far prefer that moment of intense scent to actually eating the violet flowers, though I made a gorgeous violet honey with them last year. You might also be interested in reading this article by Jim McDonald, all about using violets medicinally.

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I would be remiss if I didn't mention dandelion (Teraxacum officinale) among the plants of spring. Every year in late winter, I come to desperately crave dandelion, and when the first leaves emerge from the ground, I gobble them like a hungry gopher. Every part of the dandelion is edible. In the spring, even the new tap roots are usually tender enough to cook and eat as a vegetable. Don't forget to also eat the flower stalks, and especially the crowns. Find out how in this article.

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Now is the time to make certain you have all of your asparagus spots mapped out. Once asparagus (Asparagus officinalis) starts growing, the grasses have gotten tall enough that it's nearly impossible to find new spots unless you literally stumble upon them. If you aren't lucky enough to have a cat who is an asparagus pointer, then look for the skeletal remains of last year's asparagus. They are often bigger than a tumbleweed, and have a slight yellow or orange hue to them. Up close, you will see that the lower portion of the stalk looks exactly like the asparagus you'd buy at the grocery store (well, a dried-up brown version, anyhow). Learn more about finding wild asparagus, including a few more helpful pictures, here.

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Finally, please be wary of poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) when you are out. It is likely to be the most abundant green thing you see out there right now, and its parsley/carrot-like leaves look very tempting. Do not eat it under any circumstances! Make certain you can identify it, and that your kids know what it looks like as well. I try to make certain that it is the very first plant my students learn, as it is highly toxic. You can read more about how to identify poison hemlock in this article, which also includes some pictures of the mature plant.


Comments

  1. Very helpful. Thank you.

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  2. Have you done this before? It's nice to see all of what is going on out there like what to pick right now.

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  3. Thank you for confirming Blue Mustard for me. I thought I had spotted young chicory leaves, but the little blue flower shot up from the same plant.

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    1. It also has a very distinctive scent, which some people hate. I like it. I can remember smelling it on the school bus on spring days as a kid. In a few weeks, you won't be able to take a walk next to a field without smelling it.

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  4. Love that you have your cat "on leash"! And thanks for the pointer about hemlock, you are right, there are eye-catching patches of poison lushness all over the foothills now. Great post. --Pam in Golden

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    1. It's a little unnerving when you realize that it's all over and very green and tempting-looking. Last fall, my 7 y.o. niece decided she wanted to learn to forage. I took her out on a walking path, taught her poison hemlock, and had her point to it and say it's name every time she saw it. It got burned into her brain, because she probably had to point it out 60 times in the short distance we walked. But she never has forgotten it. Last weekend when we were out, she was able to teach the plant to her dad.

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  5. Thank you for sharing all these early forage plants. I'm going to be more careful about checking the difference between queen anne's lace and poison hemlock! Regarding a completely different region, I just read Alex Kate Shulman's Drinking the Rain, a memoir of living on the Maine coast. She forages, too, and it's fun to learn what can be found there.

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    1. Thanks for the rec, K. I just ordered it from the library.

      I have queen anne's lace planted from wild seed in my garden. Even though I put it there myself, a little shiver runs through me when I pick it to eat, knowing that it is such an easy mistake to make. I still always check for "hairy legs" and carrot scent, even with that patch that I put in with my own hands. My neighbor next door has poison hemlock in her yard, just a few feet away over the fence.

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  6. I didn't know you have to be carful with onions.

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  7. interesting, I live in kansas on 30 acres, and have asparagus growing in the middle of my horse pasture. the horses have never bothered it, they dont even poop close to it. just picked 3 more today 13 june probally the last of it sigh, it is sooo yummy. enjoy your site.

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