Extension Viewpoints

Edible weeds: To eat or not to eat


In the last few years there has been an increase in the interest of foraging for food by the masses, whether it’s mushrooms, edible or medicinal plants. 

The official answer for if you should forage for wild foods depends on your ability to properly identify unknown plants. If you cannot, then the answer is a resounding no. Being able to simply identify the plant you are looking for is not enough as there may be toxic look-alikes. For example, osha or porter’s lovage is a medicinal plant found in our high country that belongs to the parsley family. It closely resembles water or poison hemlock, both of which are some of the most toxic plants in the world. All three of these species are related to each other and a myriad of other edible plants like carrots and, you guessed it, parsley. A simple mistake in this family is lethal; there is no cure for hemlock poisoning and treatment focuses on managing the symptoms until the patient recovers.

Now with that disclaimer out of the way, there are a number of weeds that are edible. Starting with thistles, which are related to artichokes, the young stems can be peeled and prepared for food and the flowers have been used in rennet, or cheese making. Chicory root has been used as a coffee substitute. 

Hoary cress (whitetop) belongs to the mustard family and tastes like spicy broccoli. However, it contains toxic glycosides and should not be consumed regularly, if at all. 

Burdock, which is frequently found in shaded areas, has an edible root, and digging it out is a great way to do your part in reducing the noxious weed population. Common weeds like dandelions and purslane are also edible and can likely be found growing in your own yard.

Foraging opens up a new world of tastes and possibilities that you won’t find in your grocery store, but it is not a hobby for the faint of heart. If you are certain that your future is foraging, do not look up pictures online and run off into the woods or weeds in search of a morsel. Start by buying guidebooks, one for regional plant identification and one for the explicit purpose of foraging for wild foods. Many foraging books will also include recipes and medicinal uses for plants along with warnings. For example, common mullein is a medicinal plant (listed as a noxious weed in Colorado), which is nicknamed cowboy toilet paper. As helpful as this may be when you find yourself away from a vault toilet or generally unprepared, the leaves are covered in tiny hairs which may be an irritant or even allergenic to some people.

When identifying plants, look more closely than at the general shape and appearance and take a closer look at the individual flowers, leaves, stems and even the roots. If you need a second opinion, bring the entire plant to a local expert and take multiple photos of the plant and records of where it was found. If you find yourself unsure of a plant’s identity and are considering eating it, remember this forager adage: “When in doubt, throw it out.”

 Archuleta County Weed and Pest is your local resource for managing noxious weed populations and controlling other pests.