SANTA BARBARA CANYON – Starting at nearly 9,000 feet, the gradual trail up this watershed in northern New Mexico quickly leaves the crowded, generator-driven campground behind, very soon replacing the white noise with the gurgling of the Rio Santa Barbara.
A recent group outing led by Garrett VeneKlasen, northern conservation director for New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, featured a short, mile-long stroll up the shady canyon to the Pecos Wilderness boundary line to give people a taste of some edible wild plants and some words of wisdom about the beauty of the countryside.
“I wanted to pick a hike that had not a real steep incline,” he says later. “I wanted things to be accessible to everyone. A lot of these mountain trails are just so steep. Santa Barbara always traditionally has had a lot of edibles. And you can get to the wilderness, you can access the Pecos Wilderness this way.”
He stops to look at a shrub oak, much of which is spread across the lower parts of the trail.
“This is Gambel’s oak,” VeneKlasen says of the nut-bearing, bush-like tree. “Gambel, Engelmann, Douglas, Merriam, when you hear all those names, they were turn of the century naturalists and there was a race to identify different plants and animals.”
He examines one of the premature acorns.
“They’re edible, acorns,” VeneKlasen says. “But they have a lot of tannin in them, so they’re bitter.”
The human consumption, the tannic acid in the acorns needs to be removed. For the bear population in the area, however, they are a critical component of the food cycle.
“In drought years, the sow, female bears, will abort her cubs if she hasn’t had piñon or oak or juniper mast crops,” he says. “How we manage our bears needs to be based on local mast crops. Because the bears’ livelihood is completely dependent on this plant.”
Mast is the fruit of forest trees and shrubs.
Next up is a Woods’ rose, whose delicate, pale-lavender flowers are blooming.
“When this bears fruit in the fall it has a red berry,” VeneKlasen says. “Super high in vitamin C. If you crush up the berries, it makes a delicious tea that is super high in vitamin C. This is a dummy-proof plant. You certainly can’t confuse it with anything else. Woods’ rose is a really good one to start.”
The hidden world in the interaction between insect and plant makes for a fascinating study, he says.
“In plant and flower evolution, these high mountain plants have evolved to attract specific pollinators and when you’re looking at wildflowers, they have a UV signature that we can’t see with our eyes,” VeneKlasen says. “But hummingbirds and butterflies, this does not look like this to those pollinators. It has a very different signature. Some of the penstemon species, they have a landing strip, a UV landing strip on them that says to the bees, ‘Come right here. Come on this land strip.’ And again, the evolution of this stuff is just fascinating.”
Wild raspberries, strawberries and thimbleberries dot the banks of the river and will provide a delightfully sweet treat later in the year, he says.
“These are delicious,” he says of the thimbleberry. “And this is wild strawberry. They are little, tiny things and super sweet and delicious. It’s like a domestic strawberry on steroids. So hopefully we’ll find both wild strawberries and thimbleberries. These will be ready in about two weeks. We’re almost there.”
Unfortunately, the vibrant red berries were not to be found, but some in the group found a mound of edible puffball mushrooms, one of the more recognizably edible of the mushrooms.
While it is easy to recognize, Vene-Klasen recommends caution before eating one, like making a spore print that can help in proper identification.
“You don’t want to make mistakes with mushrooms,” he says.
The same goes for any plant found in the wild, always check it’s properly identified and safe for human consumption.