Weed Eater

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

August 2009

Cattail Bob spots the first edible plants before we've walked halfway across the REI parking lot. He points to a bush in the Denver store's landscaping: "Wild rose. The rose hips are edible, of course, as are the petals. There's not a lot of flavor, but they make a nice color addition to a dish."

He points at another plant: "Red osier dogwood—Native Americans would scrape the bark and smoke the cambium layer." A few steps farther: "Golden currant. Try the fruit." I pluck a few of the yellow-orange berries and sample them, wondering if REI's security is radioing for backup. The berries are tart and yummy.

Bob Seebeck, 55, who goes by the self-bestowed nickname Cattail Bob, is a naturalist from Drake, in the high foothills west of Loveland. He has been studying and gathering wild edible foods since 1975. He published a book called Best-Tasting Wild Plants of Colorado and the Rockies (Westcliffe, 1998), and he teaches classes on edible and medicinal plants, emergency survival, and cabin building on weekends during the growing season. I asked him to meet me near downtown Denver because I was curious about the wild foods that grow in the middle of a major city—if you had to, I wondered, could you live off the urban landscape?

Standing by the bike trail that's sandwiched between I-25 and the South Platte River, we have to speak over the roar of traffic and the rush of the rapids at Confluence Park. It's a foggy morning in September—a bit late for finding wild plants, I would have thought—but Cattail Bob assures me we'll have no problem. (The collection season extends from mid-April to October in Denver.) Slender and sporting a trim salt-and-pepper beard, Seebeck wears a pale-blue nurse's smock, jeans, and hiking shoes. We cross nearby railroad tracks and walk southwest along the bike path under Speer Boulevard. Seebeck stops every few feet to point out plants we could eat, and now and then he picks samples for me to try. Mallow, a round-leafed creeping weed that's the bane of my lawn at home, has a mild, nutty flavor. Seebeck says the leaves are great in salads and casseroles, or as a thickener for soup. Purslane, a spreading, pink-stemmed weed often found growing in the cracks in sidewalks, has a pleasant yet slightly sour taste. Seebeck tells me the plant is extremely rich in healthful omega-3 fatty acids and is useful in marinades or sprinkled on sandwiches. He points to a tall, long-leafed plant: "Lambs quarter. It's got a bland-tasting leaf, but it works well on sandwiches and salads if you add some dressing. Think about it: Lettuce is also bland without salad dressing."

Seebeck looks around and says, "There's not as much diversity in an urban landscape as we'd find if we were up in the foothills near my home. The only fruit we've seen is in the landscaping—no wild apple, no wild plum. I'm not seeing any mints or any berries."