This is a good fall for foraging! But learn a thing or two before you go.
I started backpacking in Utah’s Uinta Mountains with my cousin about the same time I started eating wild foods, some 50 years ago when I was about 12 years old. Back then we mostly caught and ate trout from the Uinta’s 600-plus fishable alpine lakes, but did little foraging.
My wife, Karen, and I continue to fish and explore the Uintas today, but spend much more time looking for the many great healthy foods that we can eat along the trail, cook over the camp stove, or take home to create some spectacular meals.
Over the decades we had learned to identify and eat so many wild foods (even in our own back yards!) that I started teaching spring and fall classes, seminars and workshops, often with field trips. With an increased interest in eating healthier more natural foods, the numbers and variety of students have consistently risen, including younger, greener people, as well as older people who might already know some edibles but want to know more.
Although there are other more productive alpine areas, such as the Boulder Mountains, the Uintas are much closer to most of us living along the Wasatch Front, so that’s where I focus. The fruits and mushrooms I list and describe below are usually available after the late summer and fall monsoon rains arrive.
Most years the “pickins” can be incredible for those who know what to harvest. However, not all years are as productive as this year.
Utah’s best “beginner” edible alpine berries are raspberries, currants, blueberries and wintergreen.
Most people can easily identify the heirloom raspberry, “Heritage,” that was probably introduced by the Mormon pioneers. The variety is tender and yummy and can produce two crops a year like some of those in our own back yards.
Birds love them, too, and have spread that variety everywhere from the valley floors to 11,000 feet in the Uintas. Although they are common along many of Utah’s streams, in the Uintas fruiting plants are often found in sunny boulder fields. If we find a patch, we usually stop everything (including fishing) to eat them right then and there!
Almost everyone who has visited the Uintas has noticed the many bright reddish-orange currants on the waist-high prickly plants often found in patches in full sun.
They are pretty tart so they make good jelly, especially when mixed with other fruit, and are so numerous that getting enough is easy, although sometimes painful to collect. I use a gloved hand to hold the prickly stems and pick with the other hand.
The other common alpine currant is jet black, has no spines, tastes great raw. It is often found near running water in partial shade, sometimes growing next to raspberries.
There are three common species of blueberries (also known as bilberries or whortleberries): dwarf, low and grouse. The berries of dwarf and low bilberries are classically dark blue, but smaller than traditional commercial blueberries. The dwarf one consists of one- to two-ft.-high shrubs with reddish brown stems, found mostly along meadows and streams. The low one consists of shrubs less than a foot high with green stems, mostly at lower elevations growing as a groundcover under conifers.
All are very yummy to eat, raw or cooked, but are challenging to harvest as they are usually hand-picked one at a time. We like to put them in our pancakes or fruit salads.
The grouse whortleberry is the smallest one, red, and, also grows as a ground cover under conifers, like low bilberries, but at higher elevations. They usually fruit best in sunny locations. As kids we called them Christmas berries because they were red and green. They were to eat raw, if one had the patience to pick these yummy little edibles.
The last berry I listed is the alpine spicy wintergreen, which is only eaten raw, if one can eat it at all! I’m told that those allergic to aspirin should avoid this berry. However, it makes a great “trail nibble” eaten in moderation. The bright red-on-top and cream-colored berries, found along the edges of streams and natural lakes in full sun, are a very tasty timeout. This shrub is truly diminutive, rarely growing higher than two inches!
The mushrooms can kill you, right?
My wife and I have eaten literally thousands of wild mushrooms and have never been poisoned because we eat only those we already know and never mix ones we know with those we do not.
Here are three common species found in the Uintas:
There has been a recent, rapid growth of mushroom hunting in the Uintas, especially for the boletes. The largest one is huge, found worldwide in similar alpine areas, and appreciated by many chefs. Known by various names—penny bun, crepe, Steinpilz, porcini—the king bolete grows to 10 inches wide and looks like a huge baked bun.
The second most sought-after ‘shroom is the classic yellow chanterelle. The Uinta strain is reputed to taste better than those available commercially.
A lesser known but easily identified mushroom is Lactarius deliciosus, commonly called the saffron milk cap or red pine mushroom. It is usually about 2-4 inches across, carrot-colored, and bleeds like other milk mushrooms but stains green if bruised or older. It can be found almost everywhere during moister years, like this year!
All three can be cooked in a variety of ways. However, I agree with the late Ardean Watts, founder of the Utah Mushroom Society, who always claimed that “all mushrooms are best when sautéed in real butter.” Who can argue with wild mushrooms cooked over fire with fresh trout?
Of course, there are many other edibles up there, including fire weed, but as I always tell my students: Learn one food, and then learn another.
Decades later, Karen and I now know many alpine foods that we eat around the fire or pack back home.
Since my first foraging book, a 1962 edition of Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus, the availability of foraging resources has literally exploded, especially on the internet. You can get started today by going online, visiting a library or by taking a class.
Dan Potts is a longtime avid wild foods forager who teaches related classes through West High School’s Community Education program. This fall he will teach a new foraging class through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Utah.