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Wild edibles 101: Experts recommend starting simple

Saturday, August 31, 2013 - 12:01 am

CASPER, WYO. –You're lost in the wilderness. Your loved ones will likely notice you're gone and come looking, but you're starting to think you might have to spend the night in the trees.

You also realize you just ate the last of your granola bars.

Survivalists like Bear Grylls have tried eating slugs, yak eyeballs and maggots as a way to stay alive. You nix the eyeballs.

One night without food won't kill you. Surely, the forest offers other, less-gooey, more-palatable options. But, how many of us can actually tell the difference between the tasty and inedible, the nutritious and deadly?

Brian Elliot and Kevin Taylor can, and both recommend looking for wild morsels before you're in this type of survival situation.

“It's like hunting. You don't just grab a rifle and go. You practice,” Elliot said. “You're talking about things that will kill you. There are deadly lookalikes.”

Elliot literally wrote the book on what someone can and can't eat in the outdoors, called the “Handbook of Edible and Poisonous Plants of Western North America.” Taylor has spent up to four days in the wilderness with nothing but flint, a blanket and a shotgun, harvesting all of his own food.

Both men have master's degrees in botany with an emphasis on plant identification and distribution from the University of Wyoming.

“I like the idea of collecting some plants and cooking up tea while you're hunting," Taylor said. "Or bring them home as a way to enhance your experience."

Because of the real dangers of mistaking, say, a wild carrot with poisonous hemlock, a future forager should first become familiar with wild plants. Start with some of the simple ones that don't have deadly lookalikes.

Elliot gave some easy-to-identify edible options for anyone venturing outdoors this fall. Bring a plant identification book to make sure you have the correct leaf, berry or stem. And if it's your first time foraging on the forest floor, don't forget your backup granola bars.

Grouse-berry or grouse whortleberry, Vaccinium scoparium

Eat these small berries as you would a huckleberry, right off of the bush. They're sweet and delicious.

Description: The bush stands up to a foot tall. The forest floor can sometimes resemble a carpet with so many bushes. The berries are small and turn red or purple when ripe.

Where: Find them in thick forested areas, especially in lodgepole pines.

Wild onions, Allium

Unlike their domestic counterpart, wild onions have all the onion flavor with less of the bite. Use them in a salad or soup; eat them alone or with a piece of beef jerky.

Description: Look for a group of long, thin leaves with no stem, a cluster of flowers and small, white bulbs usually 2 to 6 inches in the ground.

Where: Widespread in open areas such as sage brush, meadows and grasslands.

Cautions: Do not confuse onions with death camas. The two look similar, but death camas does not smell like onion.

Wild raspberries, Rubus

Put raspberries in cereal, oatmeal or just eat them plain. Wyoming has several species of raspberry. They're all tasty. And, where you find one raspberry plant, there will likely be more.

Description: The bushes are prickly with an unmistakable red fruit.

Where: Find them in mountains and forests often in moist places.

Cautions: They can look like a thimbleberry. The thimbleberry is not toxic, but also not tasty. Thimbleberry is smaller with big, simple leaves.

Fireweed, Epilobium angustisolia

Boil or steam the young stems and leaves and enjoy a mild flavor. As with lettuce, older plants taste bitter. Look for new sprouts in the fall.

Description: Plants have bright, pink flowers with willow-like leaves. They grow two-to- four-feet tall.

Where: Look for it in old burn areas. You will also find it along streams and other moist areas in the mountains.

Alpine sorrel, Oxyria digyna

Expect good flavor, similar to rhubarb, but also a tart kick. It goes well in other foods or mixed with greens. If you need something to nibble on when you're walking up high, these will do the trick.

Description: Look for small plants, standing less than 6 inches high. They have heart-shaped leaves that turn reddish when exposed to sun. The seeds are dry and red.

Where: Alpine sorrel usually grows under overhanging rocks in alpine areas.

Serviceberry, Amelanchier alnifolia and Amelanchier utahensis

The fruit looks like a tiny, seedy apple and is tasty when ripe.

Description: The fruit grows on shrubs or small trees. It is the size of a pinky fingernail and turns purple, deep blue or even black when ripe.

Where: Look for them at mid elevations across the state.

Lambsquarter, Chenopodium

This leafy plant goes well sautéed with eggs, peppers, and onions or eaten in a salad or stir-fry. Wyoming has several species.

Description: This annual herb has tiny flowers. Tiny hairs can give its leaves a silvery hue.

Where: Look for them in disturbed areas such as roadsides, campgrounds and farm fields.

Cautions: Two members of the genus, the Mexican tea and Jerusalem oak, can be used medicinally, but are toxic in large quantities. They are uncommon in Wyoming, have resinous leaves and a strong odor unlike their edible relatives.