How the pursuit of wild foods can reconnect us with nature—and thrill our taste buds.
While many Coloradans are drawn to the mountains for hiking, skiing or simply spending more time outdoors, fewer of us are familiar with the dozens of wild foods that grow in the Rockies throughout the year. From mushrooms to herbs, nuts and fruits, many of these elusive edibles are prized for their bold or unique flavors, attracting foragers from across the state—and beyond.
“Nearly everyone [I teach] is surprised that you can find at least 10 gourmet edibles in Colorado,” notes mushroom educator Michael Heim of Enso Farm & Forage. A Nebraska native, Heim first became aware of foraging while working in restaurants, where springtime bounties might include a 30-pound “mother lode” of morels. Upon moving to Boulder, he joined the Colorado Mycological Society, where he quickly grew from a novice to the group’s newsletter editor, president and, more recently, an active board member. Now, each summer he leads dozens of guided hikes for curious adventurers, cooks and hospitality professionals.
Among those professionals is Kyle Mendenhall, culinary director of the Big Red F Restaurant Group. A Colorado local, Mendenhall grew up visiting his family’s cabin outside of Rifle, where he remembers harvesting wild chokecherries to preserve in jams or syrups. In 2011, he and Heim met as colleagues at The Kitchen in Boulder, a restaurant whose early influence on local sourcing helped to spawn a small, dedicated group of amateur foraging enthusiasts.
“I had a good friend in Boulder who had grown up in China, which helped me realize that other cultures were more in tune with what’s available in the wild,” Mendenhall recalls. “He had learned from his father where porcinis grew in our area, so that’s how we started.” From porcinis to blonde and black morels, oyster mushrooms, matsutakes and beyond, Mendenhall and Heim soon found themselves immersed in a feast-or-famine routine that ranged with the seasons—an ever-changing pursuit based on snowmelt, sunshine, rainfall and elevation.
In Colorado’s often-arid climate, the season for foraging can easily swing from boom to bust. “Regionally, we’re a very dry zone, but we do get some monsoon-like rains and heavy snowfall,” Heim explains. “Colorado is unique in that we have all five climate zones within the state, so what you can find, as well as when you find it, can change dramatically with elevation.”
That wide range of climates also provides an incredible array of tree species and ecosystems, factors that directly impact the abundance of wild foods in the state.
While Heim typically uses trees as clues for finding mushrooms, Wendy “Butter” Petty, the author of the Hunger & Thirst blog, often searches for the trees themselves. A Westminster-based wild foods consultant, she is widely cited as an expert in harvesting acorns and processing them into flour, among the numerous cooking classes she leads each year.
“One of my favorite parts of foraging is that I get to look forward to a series of celebrations that ground me in time and place,” Petty says. “It’s my first dandelion in bloom, the first stalk of asparagus munched in the field, the apricot-like whiff of a chanterelle under my nose.”
Unlike moisture-dependent mushrooms, which can all but disappear in dry times, much of Petty’s own foraging focuses on “pioneer plants”: those that thrive in places disturbed by humans or under harsh growing conditions. Often maligned as weeds, these plants not only help with soil regeneration and erosion prevention, many of them are also boldly flavored ingredients that we simply have forgotten how to use.
For restaurant chefs like Mendenhall, that intensity of flavor alone is reason enough to go foraging: “My favorite smell in the entire world is a matsutake, a combination of wet fresh rain and cinnamon. Even if I only find one each year, it’s something I can’t re-create.” When he led the kitchen at Boulder restaurant Arcana, Mendenhall’s hyper-local focus allowed him to incorporate the short-lived bounty of Colorado’s wild foods into daily menus. More problematically, it also introduced him to the world of foraging for profit, which can expose less-experienced chefs to considerable risks.
“There is a responsibility of chefs and restaurants to provide safe food,” Mendenhall emphasizes. “So if you’re going to buy wild foods from the guy at your back door, you better know what’s going on.” Mushrooms, wild greens and berries can all pose a threat, whether due to toxic look-alikes or the simple fact that only a very small percentage of wild plants are safe for human consumption. Yet this education gap is only one of the problems created by the restaurant industry’s growing interest in foraged ingredients.
In the field of “wildcrafting”—simply put: harvesting plants from their natural habitats—one of the most important concepts is learning how to preserve the ecosystem. Harvesting less than 10% of what’s available is one of the movement’s core tenets.
“A common mistake is greed,” Heim notes. “I have personally seen the impact of my own overharvesting [when I didn’t know better], but there are ways you can gather wild foods that actually encourage their proliferation in future years.” Like hunting, foraging never guarantees a “kill” and ensuring the longevity of the sport often requires both formal regulation and a shared sense of responsibility.
Despite these concerns, the practice of foraging can be profoundly helpful in teaching us about our natural environment. Requiring a slower pace and a keen attention to detail, successful foraging depends on reading the clues in trees, dirt and other species. Most importantly, it requires a significant investment of our time.
“When I’m teaching, I often see students who are so excited by the topic that they want an instant encyclopedic knowledge of wild edibles,” Petty laughs. “While that’s certainly possible, I encourage aspirational foragers to take their time and get to know a particular plant throughout its entire growth cycle. Maybe they will only ever get comfortable with using one or two wild plants as pantry staples, but how wonderful is that?”
As a Sherpa for new mushroom hunters, Heim has seen this combination of eagerness and inexperience play out in countless ways. “We have to remember that Mother Nature is wild—she does what she wants. You may or may not see what you’re looking for, but if the conditions are right, your chances get higher. The worst case scenario is that you spent four or five hours in the woods.”
That said, there are many ways for new foragers to accelerate their knowledge, from taking a class to joining a group that provides access to qualified experts. Beyond that, all foragers have their favorite reference books or field guides, typically including diagrams called dichotomous keys. A forking series of questions, these infographic-like charts are the go-to tool for identifying wild edibles, as well as the trees and other indicator species around them.
Yet even with such books in hand, the importance of consulting with reliable experts—not an anonymous person in an online forum—is paramount. “If you’re new and this is something you’re interested in, make your rules,” Mendenhall says. “If anything is remotely a question, you never take a chance. It’s black and white.”
It’s also important not to assume foraging is legal on public lands and to research the availability of permits. As for private land, Heim cautions: “Save yourself the headache of a summons or the pain of removing buckshot from your body.”
In the end, the most apt comparison for Colorado foraging might be that of backcountry skiing. It’s the pursuit of a certain kind of paradise—one that comes with built-in risks. Yet for those who are willing to proceed with caution (even after they’ve gained experience), the potential bounty is limitless.
“It’s a metaphor for life,” Mendenhall reflects. “These plants have to exist in changing weather and various elements, and that does something to them, their flavor. That struggle is part of what makes it meaningful.”
- The Colorado Mycological Society
- The Denver Botanic Gardens Herbarium of Vascular Plants & Fungi
- Mushrooms of the Rocky Mountain Region by Vera Stucky Evenson
- The Essential Guide to Rocky Mountain Mushrooms by Habitat by Cathy Cripps, Michael Kuo, Vera Stucky Evenson
- Trees of the Rocky Mountains and Intermountain West by Olivia Petrides and George A. Petrides
Wild Foods Commonly Found in Colorado:
- Mushrooms: Oyster, porcini, matsutake, chanterelle (and others!)
- Fruits: Chokecherries, plums, berries
- Greens: Asparagus, arugula, sorrel, dandelion
- Flowers & Herbs: Salsify, violets, sumac, elderflower