Weed Eater

Picking—and cooking—wild plants found in Denver's urban landscape.

August 2009

He's apologizing, but I'm already astonished by how much he's found. And it's not just the greens—Seebeck sees wild resources everywhere. Rearing up among the waterlogged garbage on the banks of the Platte are tall stalks of amaranth, whose shiny black seeds are used as cereal or ground for the flour you find in health food stores. "In a big field, you could collect a big sack of these seeds real quick," Cattail Bob explains. As we walk across the weedy grasses behind the Children's Museum, he points to a patch of alfalfa, a plant whose seeds yield, of course, those alfalfa sprouts you might find in a garden salad. In fact, he says, "Any edible seed can be sprouted, so you can have fresh vegetables in winter and get your vitamins."

Here's a patch of salsify ("the root tastes like oysters when you cook it and makes a great white sauce for pasta"), and over there is dogbane ("one of the best rope-making plants in the West"), and there's a stand of willow ("you can scrape the bark off to get acetosalic acid—aspirin").

I ask Seebeck how people figured out which plants were edible. "We are sitting on top of generations of people who learned to use these plants," he explains. "European immigrants experimented with things similar to the plants they knew from home. And they learned from the Indians. Lots of information was probably lost when the tribes were eliminated in Colorado."

As shrieks from the roller-coaster riders at Elitch Gardens rise across the river, Seebeck adds, "I'd like to see parts of city parks left wild, so kids could experience a wild environment and learn about these things in a safe place."

We double back past the museum and find a tiny, oily-looking marsh, where Cattail Bob spots some cattails. He plucks a stalk, pulls out a knife, and pares away the husk, leaving a pale-green core that looks like a leek but tastes like a cucumber.