Mike Wood is a forager who can find edible plants in Utah at any time of the year, and in nearly any biome — in scrubby deserts and alpine meadows, or in urban neighborhoods, growing up through cracks in sidewalks or in unmowed street medians.
“There is definitely a lot more growing in the summer months and the spring, as far as greens go,” Wood said. “But mustard plants will grow in the dead of winter under the snow. And they’re much milder, compared to what they taste like in the summer when there’s heat.”
In his own yard, he said, he’s now harvesting elderberry, wild spinach, calendula and some late-season purslane, which he notes is higher in omega-3 fatty acids than pretty much any other plant.
Wood is not a botanist, and he’s not a full-time forager. He works for a carpet-cleaning business and travels all over the state. But over the last decade, he said he has become a self-taught expert on wild plants, seeking them out wherever he travels in Utah.
Wood’s expertise has earned him admirers in Utah’s food scene. On a recent foraging tour, for example, Wood was joined by Tyson Peterson, executive chef at Mar | Muntanya (the new restaurant inside the Hyatt Regency in downtown Salt Lake City) and longtime Salt Lake City chef Andrew Sargent.
Wood said he first fell in love with foraging in 2010, when a friend asked him to co-teach a class about plants the pioneers saw or used when they entered the valley.
“I didn’t know much about edible plants,” Wood said. “I was into the outdoors, so I said, ‘Sure, I’d be willing to do that.’ I started learning — and it took me a little bit. It wasn’t easy then to identify things. I don’t have the background of a botanist. It was a challenge. When I started recognizing there was so much that was available, and was edible, I was shocked.”
Wood lives in Eagle Mountain, in the desert. Even in that seemingly sparse landscape, he found edible plants all around him.
“It just surprised me and excited me,” he said. “And it took off from there. I never stopped learning. I was hooked — just the surprise of it, the fact that there’s so much that’s beneficial for us that we just consider weeds.”
On a recent work trip, he was thrilled to find a patch of henbit growing at the edge of a parking lot. Considered a pesky weed in the Midwest, it’s not common to see it in Utah.
“It’s a mild plant. It has a pleasant flavor to it,” Wood said. “It’s not bitter, like dandelions or chicory or those bitter greens … There’s actually a lot of medicinal research that’s been done on it. It’s been used for ages medically. So it’s an incredibly valuable plant, and it’s just growing wherever it wants.”
According to the foraging website Eat the Planet, henbit is a member of the mint family that doesn’t taste minty — it’s described as sweet and peppery, and can be eaten raw or cooked. It does have look-alikes, but no poisonous ones.
First rule: Know before you eat
This is an important warning Wood delivers when talking about wild plants: Do not touch or take even a tiny bit of a plant unless you are absolutely, positively sure what it is.
First-time foragers, he said, are encouraged to start with the plants they know, like the weeds that pop up on your lawn. Dandelion, he said, is a great plant to start with, because every part of it is edible, and we all know exactly what they look like.
“Dandelion is one of the most beneficial plants, medicinally and nutritionally,” he said. “It’s just crazy what it can offer. One of the things I learned early on was that dandelion doesn’t have any poisonous look-alikes.”
From there, he said, once you start learning, you’ll see edible wild plants everywhere — such as less-common weeds, like chicory, prickly-leaf lettuce, sow thistle and blue mustard.
“All these other plants look similar to dandelion in the different stages of life,” Wood said. “They also have their own benefits as far as nutrition, medicine and food.”
For those who want some guidance, Wood leads two-hour group plant walks all over the state, including in Big Springs Park, Heber Valley, American Fork Canyon, Ogden and Park City.
“I cover a lot of material, I cover a lot of plants, basically everything I can identify within a couple of hours of time,” he said. “But if I were to talk about all of the benefits and details and potential of a plant, then it may just be two or three plants that we would talk about in two hours.”
Wood also recommends several books on wild plants on his website, wildutahedibles.com. They include field guides by national foraging experts John Kallas and Samuel Thayer. Wood wrote his own small Utah-specific book, “Wild Utah Edibles,” and is working on a second edition that will include new information from recorded tours.
“I did one this time last year over in Pleasant Grove,” Wood said. “I went back to that area later and took pictures and stuff, and then I put together a 130-page .pdf about all of the plants that were identified on that tour. … So I’m hoping to get version two of ‘Wild Utah Edibles.’”
Same plant, different locations
Books can only take you so far, though. Part of learning wild plants, Wood said, is getting familiar with their life cycle, and how they can appear differently depending on the ecosystem they’re in.
“It does depend on the part of the state you’re in and what you’re looking for,” he said.
Curly dock, he said, is a good example. It’s a delicious plant in the sorrel family that has dark, curly leaves when it grows in the central part of Utah, from the Idaho border through lower Utah County. In southern Utah — Moab and Arches National Park, and probably in the St. George area — the same plant is tougher and better adapted to the harsh desert environment.
“It’s not as tender, not as tasty, yet it’s still identified as curly dock,” Wood said.
Another rule for foragers is to be careful where you harvest your plants — because it’s not always possible to know if plants have been sprayed, particularly in urban areas, he said. One way Wood deals with this is to harvest wild plants during his travels, then replanting them in his own yard.
“Wood sorrel is one of my absolute favorite plants,” Wood said. “It’s just this bright, lemony flavor. And I’ve been wanting that in my yard forever, and just have a hard time finding it when I’ve been out looking. But as I’ve been out doing all of these carpet cleanings, I see that very often in people’s yards and they don’t even realize the value of it.”
The wood sorrel is now in his yard, but it took a few rounds of transplanting, he said. One batch just didn’t like its new spot — and in another case, the plant encountered a predator in the wild.
“The first time I brought home several plants,” Wood said. “And then the day after, my wife decided to go out and pull the weeds, [laughs] Guess what came out? I got some more, and planted it, and showed everybody, my wife and my kids, and I said, ‘This is wood sorrel. This is delicious. Don’t pull it out!’”
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