Foraging for wild foods

Land Water People Time

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If you’re lucky enough to live in north-central New Mexico, you’re probably already a fan of the great outdoors. Wouldn’t you like to add a new layer to your appreciation of nature and learn to recognize delicious, wild edible plants the next time you’re out hiking, backpacking or simply walking around the neighborhood? 

Foraging for wild edibles is a great way to relate to your surroundings. It gets you outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine, it’s good exercise and it introduces you to the delicious flavors that make where you live unique. And the food is free!

So what wild delicacies are out there, just waiting to be harvested? You probably already know that piñon nuts, wild asparagus and some species of wild mushrooms are edible, but here are a few lesser-known wild foods that are easy to find in Northern New Mexico.

Verdolagas (aka purslane; scientific name Portulaca oleracea) grows best in hot, sunny, dry places. Look for it in the cracks of sidewalks, as a garden weed and along gravel roads and sunny trails. Verdolagas has small, succulent leaves and yellow flowers. It grows flat and low to the ground, but with plentiful water and good soil, it can grow to be 6 inches tall. 

When eaten raw, this plant is crunchy and tart, and its young leaves make a great addition to sandwiches and salads. Older purslane (with thicker stems) is better when cooked and is tasty in egg dishes, stir-fries and casseroles. It’s high in iron, vitamins A and C, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. Try to harvest before the plant flowers, when it’s most succulent and flavorful. Depending on the growing conditions, this may be anywhere between June and September.

Several different greens go by the name quelite. They include lamb’s-quarter (aka wild spinach or Chenopodium album). Lamb’s-quarter is considered a weed in North America, but in other parts of the world it’s cultivated as a vegetable. Its flavor is mild, and both the leaves and stems are edible. Like spinach, lamb’s-quarter contains oxalic acid. In large quantities, oxalic acid can aggravate certain medical conditions, such as gout and kidney stones. Fortunately, cooking breaks down oxalic acid and makes the plant safe to eat.

Lamb’s-quarter may grow to be 6 feet tall. Its foliage is diamond shaped, and the undersides of the leaves are white. Look for it in June and July, in sunny fields and as a yard or garden weed. Strip the leaves off the stems and use them any way you’d use spinach. (Like spinach, it reduces in volume when cooked.) The top 6 to 8 inches of stem can be steamed and eaten as a stem vegetable, similar to asparagus.

Prickly pears (aka nopales; species of the genus Opuntia) are common in both cultivated and wild landscapes in north-central New Mexico. They grow in hot, dry conditions and in poor, sandy soils. Multiple species grow in New Mexico, and both the paddles and fruit are edible. Prickly pears are covered with spines and glochids. Never heard of glochids? They are the small, silky-looking hairs that cluster at the base of each spine. Do not be fooled. They are barbed and difficult to remove once they get under your skin!

To cook with nopales, look for young, large paddles with the fewest spines. Use a knife or vegetable peeler to remove the spines and glochids. Then slice up the pads and add them to egg dishes or stir-fries. You’ll find the ripened fruits of the prickly pear, also known as tunas, from August through October. Use prickly pear juice to make jellies, marinades, syrups, cocktails and sorbet. 

In many parts of the country, chokecherries (scientific name Prunus virginiana) are considered pest plants. But in the Rocky Mountains and Great Plains, chokecherries are appreciated for their abundant, tart fruit. Don’t harvest when the fruit is still red. At this stage it is unpleasantly astringent. Wait until the fruit has turned a dark purple; that’s when it’s at its best. Make no mistake, this is still a tart fruit, and most people sweeten anything they make with chokecherries.

Chokecherries are an adaptable plant. They’ll grow in rich or poor soil, along roadsides, in ravines, and on the edges of streams and woods. You’ll often find clumps of them growing along fence lines where birds and other animals have stopped to eat (and to eliminate seeds!). Chokecherries may grow as small trees or multi-stemmed shrubs and are easy to spot in spring, when they’re covered with bottlebrush plumes of small white flowers. In Northern New Mexico, the trees usually flower in May, and fruit is best harvested in late July or August. Chokecherry seeds contain small amounts of a cyanide compound (as do regular cherry, plum and peach pits). Juicing the fruit gets rid of the seeds and leaves you with a richly colored, tasty liquid you can use for jelly, syrup, fruit leather and wine.

You’ll find three types of sumac growing in Northern New Mexico: staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina), smooth sumac (R. glabra) and three-leaf sumac (R. trilobata). All three produce red berries with a tart, lemony flavor, and the fruit can be used fresh or dried. Before I go any further, let me assure you that you will never confuse these edible sumacs for poison sumac, if you pay attention! Poison sumac is a wetland plant that produces white berries in clusters that dangle between the leaves. The USDA does not report it as growing in New Mexico. The three edible sumacs listed above are drought-tolerant plants that bear upright clusters of red fruit. Since you will be touching this plant only when the fruit is present, and since red and white are easy to differentiate, don’t let fear of poison sumac keep you from enjoying the flavor of red sumac berries.

Sumac gets its tartness from the acids (malic, citric, tartaric, ascorbic) that coat the berries. These acids are washed away by rain, so the lemony flavor will be strongest after a dry spell. Look for ripe fruit in August. Infuse the berries in water to make sumac-ade or in gin for a bright red, tart cocktail. Or dry and grind the fruit (removing the seeds) to make a pretty spice that adds tartness to meats, vegetables and grains. All three sumacs grow best in full sun. They are popular landscape plants and can also be found as feral plants in the wild.

Spices, fruits and greens are just a few of the wonderful wild foods you can harvest in north-central New Mexico. And since many of them are considered weeds (some are actually classified as invasive), you won’t harm the environment by harvesting these found flavors to enjoy in your kitchen.

In addition to the foods featured here, locally you can also forage for acorns, asparagus, crab apples, curly dock, musk mustard, piñon nuts, rosehips, stinging nettles, watercress and whitetop mustard, among other foods. So now get out there and do some wild shopping!

Safety Tips

Because foraging is only fun when it’s safe, there are a few rules to follow:

Never eat anything if you’re not 100 percent sure of its identity.

  • Always get permission before harvesting from someone else’s land. Some national and state parks allow limited amounts of foraging of certain plants and plant parts.
  • Don’t forage alongside busy roads or parking lots. Particles of heavy metals can settle out of automobile exhaust and be absorbed by plant roots.
  • If you suspect that an area has been sprayed with insecticides or herbicides, don’t harvest there.
  • Always start with a small amount of any new food, whether it’s harvested from the wild or from the produce aisle of your local market. That way, if you have an allergic reaction, it will be manageable.

Ellen Zachos is a professional forager, writer and speaker who teaches foraging and cooking classes across the United States. She is a regular contributor to Edible Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Taos, and her website, backyardforager.com, is all about how to harvest and cook with wild edible plants and mushrooms. She has just released her first online mini foraging course for beginners. See https://backyard-forager.thinkific.com.

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