Disclaimer: When foraging ALWAYS be 100% sure you know your plant. NEVER consume a plant without being sure of its identification.
Cacti: Nopales and Tunas
Collect cactus paddles (nopales), and prickly pears (tunas), with tongs and a bucket. Shave or burn each cluster of spines off—be particularly careful of the nearly invisible tiny ones (glochids).
Nopales are typically eaten grilled, sautéed, or pickled and taste like asparagus. Harvest young paddles, smaller than 8 inches, spring through fall. Tunas are ripe late summer through fall.
The fruits can be eaten fresh (be careful of hard seeds) and taste like something between berries and watermelon. They also make delicious syrups, jams, and wines.
Acorns were once a staple of the North American diet. Now they rot underfoot. They are lots of work to prepare but delicious and worth it.
Collect acorns on the ground in the fall and discard any with holes. To process: Dry, crack, discard shells, soak, and remove skins. Blend the nuts with lots of water into meal. Soak covered in the refrigerator, changing water daily, until it tastes neutral (probably 7-10 days). Then dry and grind into flour.
Acorn flour is rich in fat and carbohydrates and gluten free. It can be substituted for regular flour up to 50 percent in quik breads or cookies, made into pasta, or added to blended soups for an earthy, creamy richness.
Pine Pollen, Needles, and Nuts
Pine pollen is an interesting ingredient. Substitute for wheat flour up to 25 percent in breads and pastas for deep yellow color and a subtle piney flavor. Collect the pollen in the spring, when it’s everywhere by placing a bag over the buds and shaking. Tender young pine tips can also be pickled and added to salads.
Pine needles are high in Vitamin C. Steep a small quantity in boiled water for a refreshing tea. Or simply chew the tender ends of a few needles for a brisk bite of pine and citrus.
Intrepid foragers can also harvest pine nuts. Collect closed pinecones on the ground during summer and store until spring when they open naturally. Crack the nuts with vice grips and eat raw or roasted.
Black Mustard grows wild on hillsides. It is recognizable in late spring by rich tones of green and yellow. Search out young greens (less than 1 inch), identifying the plant by its radish-like leaves. Black Mustard leaves are best eaten blanched or sautéed and are nutritious and high in iron.
Later in summer, the flowers can be collected and ground into a spicy (mustard-like) sauce (watch out for aphids). In late summer, you can make true mustard by collecting the tiny seeds from the 1-inch pods and grinding them with vinegar.
Elderberries are the secret bounty of our backcountry. They grow wild along roads and near creek beds. You can identify elderberry trees in the spring by their pale green 1-inch leaves and flat, wide clusters of cream-white flowers. By early summer the berries are dark purple, with powdery-white bloom, and hang down in clusters.
Harvest whole bunches by cutting above the bunch and letting it drop into a bag. Process by raking the ¼ inch berries into a bucket with your fingers—carefully removing all stems and leaves (which are toxic). Then rinse well to remove bugs and dirt.
Raw elderberries taste peppery and have slightly toxic seeds. But once cooked, they have a delicious, rich berry flavor. The absolute best thing to make with them is elderberry syrup. Simmer berries in a little water for 15 minutes, then mash or blend gently. Strain seeds, add in 1 pound of sugar or honey per original pound of fruit and continue simmering until thick. Steep in cinnamon, cloves, and orange peel for an extra kick. A few teaspoons of this syrup and a squeeze of lemon in hot water make an amazing tonic when sick—or any time. It can also be used as a base for sorbets, sauces, or homemade wine.
When to gather
Nopales (spring) and Tunas (fall)
Pine pollen (spring), needles (perennial), nuts (gather in summer or fall, open in spring)
Black Mustard (Greens: spring. Flowers: spring or summer. Seeds: summer or fall)