Foraging in the Spring
by Faith Hille Dishron
Foraging is one of the hobbies I most enjoy. It makes me feel more connected to the landscape and fills me with gratitude. This interest was established when I was a Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) tour guide with Brushbuck Wildlife Tours Inc. My priority on tours was to find black bears and grizzles for guests. While watching bears, I observed that they generally dug or climbed trees in search of food. As the inquisitive creature I am, I wanted to learn more about what they were eating.
I was told by other guides, “anything a bear eats, you can eat,” and there, my passion was sparked. There is an astonishing amount of plants to forage in the GYE, be it mushrooms, herbs, or balsamroot: my favorite being serviceberries, more specifically, huckleberries. Huckleberries taste similar to blueberry crossed with blackberry, and it’s divine when added to a milkshake. Here in Texas, we have our own serviceberries and edible plants. However, ours make them a “little” more challenging to collect with their special defensives.
However, before we start our adventure in foraging, let us first learn how to do it ethically and safely. Firstly, never harvest endangered native plants or threatened plants as labeled by the ICUN. At the top of your menu should be invasive plants, then less common nonnative species, common or weedy native species, and less frequent native species. When in drought, try not to harvest plants, especially not the roots. This will stress the plant out more than it already is. Think of yourself as a steward of nature, and take care of the land you are collecting from. Only harvest what you need; remember that the animals also need that food. There were many instances I witnessed people harvesting buckets of huckleberries or morel mushrooms in the Bridger-Teton forest. The bears that desperately needed that food for winter fat stores will find that it is now gone because of an overzealous forager.
Harvesting and consuming safely is crucially important. Unfortunately, there are sometimes close look-a-likes that are potentially fatal or inedible plants, which will have you spending the rest of your lovely day in the bathroom. I suggest reading about your local edible plants before going into the field. I highly recommend the book Foraging Texas: Finding, Identifying and Preparing Edible Wild Foods in Texas, by Eric M. Knight and Stacy M. Coplin. Then find a local foraging group or go with an experienced guide into the field to identify plants at least 5-8 times.
Additionally, observing your favorite stands of foods, such as prickly pears, through all four seasons is a good idea. It will give you more sense when the tunas (fruit of prickly pear) or pads are ripe for the picking. However, be wary of how much you consume of one thing. My husband and I learned this the hard way when collecting tunas in our early 20s. We intended to make margaritas with the juice. I removed the skin and glochids, blended, and strained. We used a lot of the concentrate in the margaritas to the point that it was a deep purple. We only had two drinks, but it felt like we were dying the next day. We had fatigue, nausea, low-grade fever, and severe joint aches. It turns out we were going through an extreme detox. Tunas are high in antioxidants, vitamin C, and other nutrients, but we had too much of a good thing.
Now to the fun part, what can you eat? Starting with the most abundant specie, crushed juniper berries can be used in rubs for flavoring meats. However, Juniper is a strong flavor, so use it sparingly. Here in West Texas, we have the Alligator juniper (Juniperus deppeana) and rose-fruited juniper (Juniperus coahuilensis); their berries can be enjoyed right off the tree since the fruits are juicier and sweeter than their eastern cousins. My favorite forage is the Torrey Yucca (Yucca torreyi) since you can collect the flowers, fruits, and the young flowering stalk. Flowers can be eaten raw or cooked with onions and eggs. Fruits are better eaten roasted to release their natural sweetness with the hard black seeds removed. I find the fruits taste similar to a date. The flowering stalks should be collected when it is still flexible and can be sautéed or roasted. However, collecting the stalk is somewhat invasive and is stealing a significant amount of food and shelter from animals and insects. Moths lay their eggs in the yucca flower; pollinators collect nectar, and many animals, like Mule deer, will eat the fruits.
My favorite berry to collect is from Agarita (Mahonia trifoliolata). I find the taste similar to a slightly bitter Skittle. It can be tricky to collect the berries because of the sharp leaves, but if you place a sheet under the bush and slap it, you can collect many with little effort. You can eat the berries raw or make jelly (the preferred method). A couple of other favorites are fruits from Enchinocereus coccineus, buffalo gourd seeds, firethorn (Pyracantha spp.), Cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens), prickly lettuce (Lactuca serriola) and the common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale).
Armed with this information, you can research, forage, and devour your local invasive plants. But please do so carefully and respectfully and use common sense. (Don’t collect in a National Park.) “In cases of exposure or ingestion, contact a Poison Control Center (1-800-222-1222), a medical toxicologist, another healthcare provider, or an appropriate reference resource.”
Knight, E. M., & Coplin, S. M. (2021). Foraging Texas: Finding, Identifying and Preparing Edible Wild Foods in Texas. Falcon Guides.
The photo of the Agarita is by Faith Hille Dishron.