CASPER, Wyo. — Want to get a belly full of Casper Mountain berries?
That may be more easily said than done.
As she forages on public areas of the mountain, Wyoming Food for Thought Project Associate Director Cassandra Baker says she often thinks she’s collected a substantial amount of berries, only to measure later and find, “I only have like a quarter cup.”
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But berries can be supplemented by other edible plants and flowers that can be found on Casper Mountain and foragers may stumble upon some plants with medicinal properties as well.
Before novices rush out to Rotary Park or other public areas of the mountain, they should heed at least one piece of crucial advice — never eat anything you’re not 100% sure is safe for human consumption.
That’s especially true when it comes to red or white berries.
(Note that the legality of foraging may vary on public lands. While it is generally allowed on BLM land, foraging may be illegal in national parks and the U.S. Forest Service may require permits in some areas. Please contact these organizations if you are in doubt prior to foraging in those areas.)
On Thursday, Aug. 22, Baker pointed out a variety of edible red berries that can be found at the base of the Bridle Trail.
Those include chokecherries, thimbleberries and currants. But baneberries, which Baker says can be red or white, are also found in the area and are poisonous. (All links to plants/berries in this article are to U.S. Forest Service webpages)
Baker suggests that beginners go out with someone with expertise if they want to get into foraging. They can also start to learn about plants through foraging guide books or mobile applications, though she suggests caution when relying on such apps.
She also suggests that people start out simply, aiming for more obvious berries that they can identify with 100% certainty.
“Start really, really small,” she says.
But hikers can at least begin to keep their eyes peeled for common edible berries and plants as they walk around the area which may change the walking experience considerably.
“It can turn into a whole day,” Baker says of the fun of searching for interesting vegetation.
Thimbleberries, she says, look and taste similar to raspberries. Both can be found in the area but thimbleberries have smaller seeds, leading to a smoother texture.
Searching for thimbleberries may add unexpected time to a hiking adventure.
“The thimbleberry [plants] do a better job of hiding their berries,” Baker says.
She takes time to crouch down and gently lift up the leaves to see if any berries are present.
Chokecherries are also quite prevalent at Rotary Park, but being a small red berry, these are one of those varieties people should exercise caution not to mistake for baneberries.
Not to mention, they are fairly sour or bitter if eaten alone. But they’re seemingly everywhere around the Bridle Trail right now.
“They were just starting to turn when we were up here a little while ago,” Baker says.
Chokecherries found on Casper Mountain were harvested to make cocktails at Backwards Distillery’s tasting room along with the new Casper Mountain Gin.
Baker and others helped forage the chokecherries as well as the ingredients used to make that gin. Proceeds from the sale of the Casper Mountain Gin will go to benefit the Wyo. Food for Thought Project.
Much of the juniper for that gin was harvested at Bear Trap Meadow, Baker says. Rose hips and black currants found on the mountain also went into that concoction, though the coriander had to be grown at Wyo. Food for Thought garden programs, according to Baker.
Another covert, edible berry found on Casper Mountain are service berries. These small blue berries “are a little more sour,” Bakers says.
A sweeter option are the similarly blue colored Oregon grapes. These blue berries taste like, well, blueberries.
Like the thimbleberries, it took Baker a little patient searching to locate some.
Several varieties of currants can be found as well, though Baker didn’t locate these on Thursday.
She says that she’s had luck finding currants and gooseberries out on Trapper’s Route, which is publicly accessible Bureau of Land Management land west of Casper.
Some flowers, leaves and roots are also edible and can be found in the area, but the same safety cautions as pertain to berries apply.
Baker adds that roots shouldn’t be foraged without considerable knowledge to avoid damaging plants unnecessarily.
She located some sweetroot on Thursday.
“Sweetroot leaves taste exactly like licorice,” Baker says. “The root can be eaten too.”
Rose hip bulbs can be eaten and the leaves of dandelions are edible as well.
“You’d be surprised at the number of dandelion varieties,” Baker says. “I do a lot of salads and stuff.”
“These little cuties are harebells. They’d have more flavor at the beginning of the year with more pollen.”
Baker also came across a tart little red berry called 3-leaf sumac. She describes these berries as furry, sticky and having a “citrusy taste.”
Baker adds that strawberries can be found on most mountains in the area, though she personally hasn’t come across any on Casper Mountain yet.
She points out that wild strawberries are significantly smaller than those people are accustomed to purchasing in stores.
While some of the berries and plants are not necessarily that palatable if eaten alone, Baker says that with a little preparation, they can be made more delightful.
She likes to muddle berries to make salad dressings, for example.
Beyond foraging for taste, Baker says people can also learn about local plants with medicinal properties.
That includes yarrow.
“Yarrow is a really good one,” Baker says. “It smells really medicinal.”
The plant acts as a coagulator and has some antibacterial and antifungal properties which Baker says she uses when hiking to treat small wounds on her feet.
“Obviously, if you cut your arm off, it is not going to do the job,” she adds.
But locating yarrow shouldn’t be too difficult once people know what to look for.
“That stuff is everywhere,” Baker says. “I use yarrow all the time when I’m out and about.”
Common plantain has similar antibacterial and antifungal properties. Baker describes its leaves as looking similar to spinach.
She says it can be ground up by chewing and placing on wounds to access the antibacterial benefits.
“These are very common first aid things,” she says of yarrow and common plantain.
Common plantain is also “a common weed people see in their yards.”
Later, Baker came across a set of berries she initially thought were baneberries. She opened her reference book to check, and ruled out that they were these poisonous berries.
But since she didn’t know what they were, Baker left the berries alone and continued searching the area.
She says that guidebooks need to have really good pictures of not only berries, but of leaves and roots as well.
If people want to get into foraging, they should also keep some other key things in mind.
“You don’t want to take everything from one plant,” Baker says.
The berries are critical for the diet of many animals such as birds, deer and squirrels, she says. It is also important to leave some for others who may want to go out foraging.
“Know where you’re at,” Baker adds, noting that foraging should only be done on public land.
As she wound down her Thursday morning foraging expedition, Baker came across one more edible flower.
“This is fireweed,” she said. “It is named that because it is one of the first things to pop up after a forest fire.”
Baker says that in the past, Wyoming Food for Thought offered some foraging lessons, but that they have been a little too busy to do that recently.
“The organization is kind of at a capacity,” she says.
But they may offer foraging outings in the future, either to gather more berries for future projects like the Casper Mountain Gin project or more informational in nature.
“We would love to set up foraging dates,” she says.
Baker emphasizes that she is not a complete expert in foraging, though she has been adding to her knowledge consistently over the past several years.
“I feel pretty confident in at least the basics,” she says.
NOTE: Oil City reached out to a State Forest Service official for further perspective on foraging, but he was not in the office on Thursday. Links to the plants identified in this article are to United States Forest Service webpages.
Please do not eat anything that you are not 100% certain is safe. If you do plan to get into foraging, please speak with experts and think and and use ethical practices.