Foraging for Edibles along the Verde River

May 10, 2024


By Linda Warren and Kim Grill

Sedona Westerner hikers learn about the local edible mushrooms and plants, and which plants are toxic, dangerous or deadly, from Mike Dechter, past president and current executive director of the Arizona Mushroom Society.

On a beautiful, blue, early April morning, the Tracker group of the Sedona Westerners set out from Riverfront Park in Cottonwood in search of edible plants and mushrooms. Leading the group was Mike Dechter, past president and current executive director of the Arizona Mushroom Society and a recognized expert in the identification of plants, with encyclopedic knowledge of their properties, toxicities, preparations, etc.  So, if he was tasting things, we felt safe tasting them as well. If you do not have this information base, we would not recommend eating any strange plant in the wild.  We had not walked more than a minute before Mike started identifying edible plants that are abundant in this area.

Some of the plants that we got to touch, taste, smell, and learn about included desert rhubarb (Rumex hymenosepalis), goosefoot (Chenopodium genus), and London rocket (Sisymbrium irio). Desert rhubarb is not in the same species as the supermarket variety but is very good when the flowering stalk is boiled and used like garden rhubarb. The reason for the pre-boiling is that, like many of the wild greens in our area, they are high in oxalic acid, and therefore considered a major contributor to predisposition to kidney stones. Goosefoot, called such because its leaves look like goose feet, is closely related to the plant that makes the quinoa you buy at the store, and you can eat the seeds and leaves either raw or cooked. London rocket is in the wild mustard category dishes and very good eating as an addition to others as it can be as strong as wasabi.

We encountered another edible, pretty blue/purple flowered plant known as Blue Mustard. Mike shared that it has a slightly musty smell/flavor and hence when cows eat it their milk (while perfectly fine) might then smell musty. Hence this plentiful plant is the bane of the dairy farmer. 

One of the most widely recognized plants was the Mullein, about which Mike added quite a bit of input. It is useful in the treatment of pulmonary problems, inflammatory diseases, asthma, cough, migraines, and more. However, to take advantage of all its medicinal properties, it should only be used/picked after its first year. 

Evening primrose, while having a lovely flower in summer, has a root that can be eaten just like a parsnip root. Leaves can also be eaten but they should be young; older leaves tend to give off that bitter “like you licked a battery” taste. Yes, that was an exact quote from Mike.

Lest you think every plant encountered is innocuous, Mike also identified a young sprout that looked like poison hemlock along our travels. Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) is a weedy, invasive plant that grows near water and is acutely toxic to people and animals. Poison hemlock is in the Apiaceae family and looks a lot like other common weedy plants such as Queen Anne’s Lace. Because of the acute toxicity of this plant, great care must be taken, and due to the sprouting stage of the plant, the carrot-like leaves and lack of a hairy stem were bright red flags that this plant should be avoided.

The group was very excited when someone yelled, “Mushroom!” As it turns out, we were treated to a few mushroom clusters. The four main edible mushrooms we saw were the splitgill (Schizophyllum commune), identified by not having a central stem; the popular Oyster (Pleurotus ostreatus), the Inky Cap (Coprinopsis atramentaria group) and the Shaggy Mane (Coprinus comatus). 

All of these mushrooms are edible but require different considerations or preparation to eat. The Inky Cap can be eaten but never within 48 hours of drinking any type of alcohol. The Shaggy Mane was the largest with a conical shape that looked a bit like the typical mushroom with a long cap and central stem and a rough (shaggy) exterior. This very good eating variety is common in our area as it loves any place with lots of dead leaves. The best way to cook it is to dry sauté it to remove the water. They are high in water content as they are known to deliquesce (turn black and gooey, which is an enzymatic reaction to spread their spores). While morels are a springtime mushroom, our group did not encounter any because they are maddeningly difficult to find. 

Mike advised us that most mushrooms should not be eaten raw. Although some are safe, you are better off cooking them. Freshly washed mushrooms can be cooked and then frozen for later. Most species have high amounts of Ergosterol, which is a building block of the immune system and has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties as well as many other therapeutic benefits.

In addition to Mike, a number of those on the hike had considerable knowledge of edible plants and mushrooms, so there was a lot of information exchanged about the steps required to prepare these foods for eating. Often, there was a step like blanching, or washing and freezing, to reduce any potential toxins or strong flavor. Essentially, if you are not absolutely sure of what you are looking at, do not eat it. As a hiker friend of mine said, “Every mushroom is edible – once.”

The Trackers group of the Sedona Westerners plan educational events and hikes like this one throughout the season. Though the 2023-2024 season is now over, we’ll be back on the trails for our 2024-2025 season in September. As always, the Westerners invite new members to join our hiking club. Check out our website at www.sedonawesterners.org for more information and sign up in September as we embark on another exciting hiking season in Sedona.

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