Steamboat Springs Walking Spring Creek Trail with naturalist Karen Vail is like walking through a grocery store with Martha Stewart.
Vail's knowledge of the plants in the Yampa Valley is vast and she can turn an assortment of leaves, berries and plants along the hiking trial into an afternoon meal that Stewart would be proud of.
Hiking with Vail on Wednesday, she pointed out that the leaves on a dandelion plant make a good salad. "Pick the nice, healthy, young leaves," Vail said.
Later up the trail, she spotted the primary goal for the trip: stinging nettles. Those are the plants that have tiny glass-like thorns that create a numbing sting when embedded in the skin. As it turns out, boiling the plants takes away the thorns and makes for a nice vegetable side dish or a soup ingredient.
Both dandelion greens and the stinging nettles, along with the hearty Yampa root and the cicely root, were all fair game last week for Vail. On Wednesday evening, at Yampatika's Wild Edibles Dinner, all the plants and roots she and Yampatika volunteers collected were served in a four star-style, six-course meal at Vista Verde Ranch.
It was a small example of the abundant amount of plant life that is edible in the forest.
"Everything out there has a use," Vail said.
The fact is, if you know what you're looking for, the forest has an endless amount of edible goodies, she said. But knowing what you're looking for is easier said than done. Or, as a naturalist such as Vail would put it, the hard part is to know what to listen for.
"These plants talk to you," she said.
Plants are living things and they have a nature that is much more than just growing on the ground. The simplest form is blooming, which is a plant's way of communicating.
And as to be expected, most edible plants in the forest are extremely healthy, which also can have a deeper connection, Vail said.
The dandelion blooms in the spring, which is the best time to pick its leaves. Besides being packed with nutrients, the leaves are a natural cleanser for the body.
"That's the time when the body needs to be cleansed, right after winter," Vail said.
But nobody should ever go out and experiment with picking plants for themselves without a professional or ample knowledge, Vail said.
Sweet anise root, for example, is edible and tastes "pretty darn good," Vail said. The plant grows about 2-feet tall, has a yellow-green flower and the leaves look like celery.
Bane berry's description is similar, but eating that will cause a heck of a stomach ache, Vail said.
There also are many different types of parsley that grow in the forest. But two are poisonous and only a trained eye can pick them out.
"You also have to know what part you should use," she said.
The bottom of a rhubarb plant is tasty, but the leaves cause more stomach problems.
Another example is the cattail. The most common part of a cattail to eat is the area right above the root. If roasted, they taste like asparagus.
Bottom line is that if you want to find and eat edible plants on your next hike, it's best to find someone who knows what they are doing to show you around, Vail said.