As spring ends and summer sprouts, so do the wild herbs and morels, the native weeds and plants.
It’s also the time of year when foragers begin to head back into the fields and forests.
Naturalists maintain a number of opportunities around Durango for those interested in foraging for their own foods and remedies. They range from individual plant walks and mushroom hunts to classes and multiple-day retreats.
Those who lead foraging and herbal education in Durango say participation has grown as more people seek the health and environmental benefits that local foods and plants and fungi hold.
“There’s a growing interest in mushrooms specifically, and foraging in general, and we’re in a great place for it here,” said Chris Ricci, owner and operator of Fish and Fungi, a guide service that offers panfishing tours on Navajo Lake and mushroom hunts in the San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests.
Mushroom season typically runs August and September, but in May, Ricci, who holds permits from the U.S. Forest Service, leads guided morel trips in the San Juan Mountains.
On the hunts, Ricci helps his guests find mushrooms, but he also teaches them how to properly harvest the fungi and keep their basket clean, as well as prepare and preserve them for food.
Ricci introduces clients to mycology (the science of fungi), teaching them about the environmental and biological processes that produce the morels and the ecosystems that sustain the mushrooms.
“We meet usually in the morning at a trailhead and we just take a walk in the woods. That’s really all there is to it,” he said.
Anna Marija Helt, an herbalist with Osadah Natural Health and a former research scientist, teaches individual classes that range from plant and mushroom walks to herbalism, the traditional medicinal practice of using plants and plant extracts.
She also holds workshops aimed at introducing people to the plants around Durango and Southwest Colorado and their many uses.
“It depends on the class or the individual students,” Helt said. “It might be focused on native plants or local plants, or it might be focused on a particular health topic and how to approach that.”
Turtle Lake Refuge, a personal health, wildlands and sustainable living nonprofit, also provides opportunities for Durangoans to participate in foraging and learn more about plants. Every Tuesday and Friday the group, which is led by Katrina Blair, who founded the organization in 1998, hosts an educational lunch where attendees can learn about the wild foods included in the meal.
Blair leads springtime foraging classes every Tuesday evening through May where participants carpool to different locations around Durango to harvest plants and do tastings and trade recipes. The first weekend of June, Blair will also hold a wild plant retreat in the La Plata Mountains.
“It’s very empowering to know that you can survive off of what’s growing around you,” Blair said. “There’s an empowerment level, but then when you go deeper there’s this incredible sense of personal health that happens when we’re eating plants with really high vitality and there’s a connection that happens when we eat them where they teach us how to be a good steward of the earth.”
For Ricci, Helt and Blair, foraging is important because of the health and environmental benefits it offers. The foraging education they teach opens up a new world of plants and fungi, but it also boosts the relationship people have with their environment and with themselves.
At its most basic, foraging can improve personal health by increasing the nutritional content of the food they consume.
“A lot of these wild foods – assuming you’re properly identifying them and not making any scary mistakes – they’re more nutritious than the greens you’re going to buy in a grocery store,” Helt said. “If you’re picking dandelion, they have so much more nutritional content than what you would buy in a store.”
A study published in 2019 by researchers with the University of California Berkeley tested six of the most abundant edible weed species in urban areas around San Francisco, including dandelion, and found that they all favored comparably to kale in nutritional value.
The researchers concluded that harvested wild greens have the potential to tackle nutrition, food security and sustainability.
While mushroom producers that sell to supermarkets have broadened their selections, there are still mushrooms that can only be collected by foraging, Ricci said.
“We are starting to see some really great mushrooms suppliers entering supermarkets and natural food stores, but to be able to go out there and find exactly what you need and want for sustenance, nutrition and health is really valuable,” he said.
But the health benefits of foraging extend beyond the simple consumption of plants.
“Aside from the physical activity of walking around, it’s good for our heart,” Helt said. “It’s good for our souls to be out in nature.”
Numerous studies have shown that spending time outside can boost mental and physical health. A 2019 analysis published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science found that green spaces near schools promoted cognitive development in children and exposure to the natural world improves working memory and attention.
When Blair teaches people about foraging, she has two goals.
“One is to create optimal health (and) help people to find that journey of their own personal health, and then also to become a land steward where they care for the earth and give back in protecting our ecosystems,” she said.
Foraging has immediate environmental benefits, limiting the transportation and packaging that contribute to climate change and other environmental issues. But it also reconnects those who participate with the natural environment around them.
“Part of it is teaching people to value where we live and what’s here and motivate them to want to preserve things,” Helt said.
In teaching his clients about mycology and forests, Ricci aims to help grow their awareness of the ecosystems of Southwest Colorado and the many services they provide.
“I hope people gain a better understanding of themselves (and) a better understanding of the ecosystems and environments that they live in,” he said. “I always want people to understand the carbon cycle and what forests do on this planet in capturing carbon.”
Blair notices changes in those who pick up foraging, both in their environmental awareness and their appreciation for the world around them.
“When they realize that this lowly little weed that they’ve been either removing or stepping on is actually a complete protein-full course meal, it sort of blows their mind open,” she said. “People come back to me in a total ecstasy and enthusiasm of ‘Oh! I’ve been juicing my thistles and I feel amazing!’”
Like Ricci, Blair and Helt have also noticed that interest in foraging has been growing around Durango.
“Monsoon season mushroom hunting has really exploded here and elsewhere,” Helt said. “Plant foraging, I don’t see as many people out doing that as I do mushrooms, but the interest is growing.”
While Helt sees the growth in foraging as a positive as more people pursue the wild foods around them, it can also place more pressure on sensitive natural resources, which is why education either through self-teaching, classes or guided hunts is important.
“It needs to be a responsible kind of engagement,” she said. “We have to do things in a sustainable manner that doesn’t damage the land.”
Blair said the end of spring is an ideal time to begin learning about foraging.
“Now is an amazing time to learn because (the plants) are all poking up and getting identified,” she said.
Durango and Southwest Colorado provide remarkable bounties for foragers. The ecosystem diversity in the area creates an abundance of plant life.
“We have a lot of different ecosystems and the edges in between them are where biodiversity increases,” Ricci said. “Each forest type is going to have its palette of mushrooms and palette of plants and fauna to be found.”
For Blair, foraging has been a lifelong study and one that continues to evolve. As is the case for many foragers, part of her journey has been a continually deepening appreciation for the wild plants that make the world vibrant.
“I’m still learning so much about how we live on this place with what is here,” she said.