All of Rim Country is a garden of beauty — the pines, the junipers, the sycamores, the wild vines, wildflowers, grasses, cacti and all those assorted weeds.
This garden can be harvested for crafting purposes — on recent weekends an intrepid vendor has been selling juniper benches in front of True Value on the Beeline. But this wild garden can also yield food.
Harvesting edible wild plants dates back to the paleo-Indians, Denise Van Keuren, a U.S. Forest Service retiree with expertise in plants and ecology, said during an Aug. 14 presentation before the Rim Area Gardeners.
Showing the abundance of wild edibles in the area, Van Keuren filled two banquet-size tables with samples of both plants found in the wild and commercial plants and products. Many of the plants she had collected on her own property, around the area and in the Verde Valley.
She noted some people might be allergic to wild foods, including mushrooms — so venture cautiously into the “cuisine.”
Native Americans often used these plants to supplement their own crops and products of their hunts.
“Field-grown by Arizona Native Americans were corn, squash, regular beans, tepary beans, agaves, annual greens and prickly pears. Many other plants were groomed in the wild to produce better. Even with collecting wild plants, growing plants and hunting, local paleo-Indian skeletal remains virtually all showed signs of periodic famine. The archaeological record shows depopulation of the Payson area between about 1280 and 1600 AD,” Van Keuren said.
They dried and stored much of the wild harvest, as evidenced by the huge granaries in the abandoned ruins.
The greens would need to eaten sooner rather than later and were best cooked with water changes. They dried or cooked many of the fruits, she added.
Van Keuren provided a list of sample foods that can still be found growing wild in the Rim Country and surrounding areas.
Emory oak acorns (bellotas), still sold commercially, the small, seed-like acorns produced by a majority of the oaks in the area have thin shells and sweet “meat.”
Agaves: Just before the stalk starts, Native Americans removed the leaves and roasted the ball of the plant, creating a sweet pulp. They could ferment the pulp and make alcohol or dry it for later use.
Cattail and bulrush roots.
Seeds of amaranth and grasses (grass seeds include wheat, rice and corn).
Arizona black walnuts: These grow in abundance in Star Valley, she said.
Pinyon pine nuts: The cones open to release the nuts. The thin-shelled nuts will contain either a nut or oil.
Mesquite beans and chia seeds normally grow at lower elevations than Payson, but Van Keuren believes chia could be grown in this area.
Gambel oak acorns and pinyon pine nuts: Found at elevations higher than Payson.
Greens and vegetables.
The weeds we lament about this time of year also include many eatable plants:
Amaranth, goosefoot and other chenopodiums, including quinoa and lamb’s quarters;
Purslane — which some club members remarked can even withstand an onslaught of chemical weed killers;
Mustards and the young fruit of devil’s claw;
At lower elevations look for thistle stems, tall evening primrose, Rocky Mountain bee plant;
Perennials: The inner bark of most conifers, nopales (young prickly pear pads), cattail shoots, yucca flower petals and young shoots, dock (Rumex) leaves, watercress, dandelion, wild violets, goldenrod leaves and flowers, alfalfa, sweet clover, mint, beebalm and nettle; at higher elevation, edible perennials include bistort and bracken fern fiddleheads.
Fruit: Chokecherry, hackberry, strawberry, blue elderberry, blackberry, raspberry, barberry, grapes, banana yucca, serviceberry, mulberry, prickly pear, cholla and other cactus fruit, jojoba, smooth, sugar and lemonade sumacs, certain currants and gooseberries, wolfberry, rose hips, manzanita, junipers and hawthorn.
Other seeds: Rocky Mountain bee plant, blue flax, blazing stars dock.
Roots and bulbs: Onions, bluedicks, sego lily, sweetvetch, wild licorice, salsify, thistle roots, yampah, tall evening primrose and edible valerian. At higher elevations wild edibles include bistort and true wild potato.
Some of these edible wilds were what she calls famine food — they would sustain a body in a time of need. These include juniper berries, which are ripe when they become dark; manzanita berries; and the inner bark of conifers. She said it is what the beavers eat to put on weight for the winter.
Arizona may be known for its deserts, but edible mushrooms grow in its milder climes. Van Keuren said the puffball mushrooms that grow in the area are edible so long as they are still white. At much higher elevations, usually in the fall after a fire, she can find morels, chanterelles and others. She strongly recommends anyone interested in learning about edible mushrooms and participating in foraging expeditions connect with The Arboretum at Flagstaff and the Arizona Mushroom Society first. “You really need to be with someone who knows what they’re doing,” she said.
She recommended several reference books, including one on edible mushrooms, “All That the Rain Promises, and More ... A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms” by David Arora, published in 1991.
“If you can get only one mushroom book, make it this one,” Van Keuren said.