Why wild food?

My first gardening experience came when I was a teenager. Back then “gardening” for me was an after school job at a small, family-owned garden center, lugging around a heavy, interminable garden hose to water, each in their turn: the herbs, the perennials, the shrubs, and the flats of annuals. Out alone among the plants, I felt a sense of peace. It was one of my first realizations that I felt much happier being outside, even in the stifling humidity of summer. My moments in the herb section were my favorites – I would rub the leaves of the different varieties while I watered, discovering the incredible secret fragrance each contained.

Twenty-something years later, I have graduated from plant-waterer to full-fledged gardener. Once you’ve discovered the pleasure of watching your own zucchini grow from seed, stickered and packaged grocery store produce loses much of its charm. And yet, this isn’t quite enough. Perhaps falling in love with plants opens one’s curiosity about them to more than just those found in a plant nursery. Becoming a gardener may be a slippery slope for some of us; many of us eventually start to ask, why not wild food? Why not eat weeds and edible native plants too?

Considering the incredible amount of food waste we generate in the developed world, and the resources that go into growing, packaging, transporting and retailing most food, it feels like an act of rebellion to source even part of one’s food needs from what nature is willingly offering instead of what we must beat out of it. Many weeds and other wild foods grow without watering or other maintenance, so harvesting these edibles also appeals to those of us who prefer a lazier approach to bringing food to our tables.


Beyond the environmental and economical benefits, I also like to incorporate wild food into my diet for the nutritional advantage. Fruits and vegetables start to lose their nutrients shortly after being harvested – just how much depends on the fruit or vegetable. The best way to get the maximum amount of nutrition from your produce is to eat it quickly after harvest. When we overlook the wild edibles growing in our yards, we’re missing out on free vitamins and minerals just there for the plucking.

Chad and I have harvested fruit from a neglected apricot tree in town, nibbled on sweet, candy-like huckleberries in the Uintah mountains, tasted milkweed pods, spiced things up with sumac, savored little mallow seed heads while weeding our garden, and cooked up pots full of delicious lambsquarters, pigweed and amaranth.

I am not a wild foods expert, but I’m slowly working on it. If you are interested in beginning to eat wild foods, find people in your area who are knowledgable and experienced to help you get started. You will certainly be able to find a few easy to identify weeds, preferable in areas that haven’t been sprayed and don’t have run off from roads. Dandelion is one that most of us can recognize, and beyond the fun of blowing off the puffy seed head while you make a wish, you can eat the greens as a salad and harvest the root for tea. Why buy dandelion tea at Whole Foods when you have dandelions growing by your front step?



Milkweed is one of the loved, cherished weeds we have growing on our property. The plant is very important for monarch butterflies and may be edible (this subject gives rise to much debate!). And they are beautiful! We were wondering, though, if this was the RIGHT milkweed for monarchs in our area of the country. So I finally decided to check.


Seed head from Showy Milkweed in fall

And yes indeed, our property is home to Showy Milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) which is the best milkweed for monarchs in the Intermountain West region, followed, according to Monarch Watch, by Broadleaf Milkweed (Asclepias latifolia).

Why is having the RIGHT milkweed important? Monarch butterflies lay their eggs on milkweed, and then the caterpillars only eat milkweed. If you plant the wrong type of milkweed for your region, it can severely mess up the monarch’s reproduction cycle (they might lay their eggs at the wrong time). More on that here: Plan to save monarch butterflies backfires

So, if you also have milkweed or are thinking about planting some and want to make sure it’s the right one for your region, check out this guide at Monarch Watch and you can quickly find the right varieties.

And as far as eating milkweed goes? I figure the butterflies need them more than we do anyway. Problem solved.

Curly-Cup Gumweed

This summer, anytime we walked up to the end of our lane, Chad would point out a plant with bright yellow flowers growing along side it and tell me he heard it had medicinal properties. He told me it was called Curly-Cup Gumweed.

We looked it up and found out what it’s good for: primarily bronchial problems, particularly phlegmy throats, and skin problems. (On the other hand it is contraindicated for those with heart or kidney problems.) Montana Plant Life says you can make the leaves and flowers into a tea, so that is my plan – dry the leaves and flowers and store them for winter, when the inevitable sore throat shows up in cold season.

I did not go to the driveway to harvest my gumweed, since there is most likely some contamination from the cars there. Instead I headed out into the field where the donkeys are pasturing to see if I could find any growing out there in healthier soil.

When I married Chad, I became co-caretaker of three donkeys, a fact which I find at once thrilling and totally alien. Apart from one day when the donkeys broke out of their fence in search of more lush pasture, all my interactions with them have been face to face over the top of a fence. Having avoided getting kicked during the donkey break out, I was fairly confident I could go hang out with them in the pasture without any problems.

I walked into their pasture nonchalantly, and instead of running away from me, they all three came over to get their heads rubbed. After massaging three donkey noggins, I went about looking for bright yellow flowers. The donkeys followed me at first, but went back to grazing when they saw I had moved on to non-massage activities.

The first plants I found only had dried flowers on them. Leaves only would have been okay, but I was really hoping for some nice bright flowers. I was starting to think that I had waited too long and all the flowers had dried up. Then I started seeing plant after plant that had been blending in with the tall grasses in the field. I harvested a basket full, being sure I left enough for the plants to renew themselves next year.

Apparently Curly-Cup Gumweed is good externally for eczema, and I’m going to be trying that remedy out first. I have two small red spots on my face that I recognize as eczema. It’s strange how you can go your whole life without something and then it appears on your body one day, and then occasionally reappears. Annoyingly, these small spots seems to flare up anytime my stress level nudges above “Relaxed.” I’m going to try macerating some flowers into some shea butter, apply it everyday for a week or so, and see how that goes.

Curly-Cup Gumweed is a native plant, which makes it even more exciting as a medicinal, being part of our botanical heritage. Even if I don’t need them for my throat this winter, seeing the dried yellow flowers in a jar will serve as a nice reminder of a warm autumn day hanging out with the donkeys.