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The “Urban Forager” Roots Out Denver’s Hidden Morsels

In abandoned fields near downtown and tentacled along overgrown alleyways and train tracks are little edible gold mines, full of nutritious and tasty delights. They are everywhere in a city, commandeering open spaces every opportunity they get.

Now, you might think these patches of growth unsightly. And there’s a good chance you probably often refer to them as “weeds.” But to Kate Armstrong, a.k.a. the Urban Forager, these little stands of green are all you need to stay happy and healthy.

“There is no reason for anyone to go hungry if they knew the bounty in the city,” says Armstrong, who leads “weed” walks around Denver. “My friend Purslane, for example … It is higher in Omega-3 fatty acids than other plants and most fish. In Africa, Asia and South America, it is used deliberately. You can eat it raw; it’s really tender and tasty. It’s good in pesto, stir fry, people pickle it.

It’s one of these things that, it’s just plain ignorant to let it waste. But not ‘til June for the Purslane. Right now you would be finding wood sorrel. It’s a great plant, fixes nitrogen in the soil, has a lemony tang to it … pesto, sauce, good in soup. It’s a nice flavoring agent.”

Then, of course, there’s the ubiquitous dandelion.

Dandelions were brought here deliberately because every part of it is good,” says an animated Armstrong.  “You can make wine from the flowers, pot greens from the leaves, roots you roast up; it’s a phenomenal medicine, and a better diuretic than most things you can take because it adds potassium instead of taking it out.”

So where did the Urban Forager learn all of this you might be wondering?

“Well, it’s really very funny because a lot of my knowledge came from my childhood,” she says with a smile. Armstrong grew up on a diverse farm in New York state, where her mother was always teaching her something about plants and animals. They made their own maple syrup, smoked their own ham, used spider webs for cuts if they were out and about in the woods and burdock leaves for a bandage.

When she moved to Denver, she would always walk around the neighborhood and explain things to her grandchildren and any other kids that were nearby. Then an odd thing started to happen; adults started listening to her to and wanted to know more. Thus was the Urban Forager born.

Now she takes folks around the area and shows them the ropes. One of the biggest concerns, of course, is what is safe to eat and what isn’t.

“First of all, there are very few things that are poisonous in our environment in the city in terms of the plants themselves,” Armstrong says. What you want to do, she explains, is avoid monocultures. Meaning if you see just one type of plant growing and no diversity, steer clear of that area. Also, if a plant looks stunted and twisted, it’s most likely not healthy so keep moving. Avoid picking things next to a busy roadway as well; you get exhaust fumes and whatever is pushed to the side by the street cleaners.

As for good places to search, parks are usually a safe bet, as are verdant areas that obviously have not been sprayed.

“And the best place to find stuff is your backyard or somebody else’s,” Armstrong says.

Wherever you pick, the reward is when you take that first bite, harkening back to a time when we were more in touch with our food system. A time that has seemingly come again.

“It’s as if this is coming full circle,” says Armstrong. “It’s a very fascinating process.”

Upcoming Foraging Events

Urban Foraging, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. April 21, Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (in conjunction with Viviane Le Courtois’s exhibit.)
On a tour around Boulder, The Urban Forager, Kate Armstrong, will teach you about the eats growing right at your feet. Bring your harvest back to BMoCA and share in a sidewalk-to-table meal and tea with exhibiting artist Viviane Le Courtois. $20 members/$25 non-members. For more information, visit BMoCA’s website.
Weed Walk, 9-11 a.m. from the backyard of the People’s House (every 4th Saturday starting May 27)

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