I spent way too much time last month digging dandelions from my yard, hacking at them with a scythe, and running over the flowers with my push mower.

Instead, I should have used clippers to snip the blossoms from their stalks. I should have gathered the yellow blooms, brought them into the kitchen, dunked them in egg, dredged them in a dish of flour, salt and curry powder, and fried them in olive oil.

Then I should have eaten them.

That's what Erin Smith and Wendy Petty did when they visited my yard a few weeks ago. Smith, the founder of Boulder's Center for Integrative Botanical Studies (877-202-9329), and Petty, a passionate plant forager and blogger, love weeds.

When they drive around, they scan fencerows and yards and empty lots for interesting, and much-maligned, plants. They teach classes in the glories of weeds, they write about weeds, and they eat bunches of them.

Edible weeds "are packed with vitamins and nutrients, and the body absorbs them easily," said Smith, standing on the edge of my front yard, where the mallow and lamb's-quarters grow in profusion. "They are considered pioneer plants. When the soil is disturbed, they come in, and they have deep roots. Those deep roots bring up nutrients from deep in the soil, which helps other plants grow. We have such a negative association with weeds, but they are just doing their job."

Normally, I spread curses over the mallow and the lamb's-quarters, before digging them out and tossing them into the trash. But lamb's-quarters, also called wild spinach, tastes better than the cultivated stuff; it even has a natural saltiness. And mallow is savored in many other countries, including Morocco, where it is the centerpiece of a popular salad; the greens are sold in markets all over the country.

The small buds on a blue spruce tree can be eaten raw and have a citrus flavor.
The small buds on a blue spruce tree can be eaten raw and have a citrus flavor. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Petty turned the lamb's-quarters and mallow, along with other weeds foraged from my South Boulder lawn, into a fantastic pesto — decorated with pink mallow blossoms — that my kids slathered on crackers and devoured like popcorn.

Dandelion greens went into that pesto, and the fried dandelion blossoms were sweet and highly addictive. I anticipated bitter and regrettable.

It took Smith and Petty only 15 minutes of strolling around my property to locate a bounty of wild foods: light green tips on a spruce tree that have a citrus tang (among other things, Petty likes combining the tips with goat cheese); a chokecherry shrub; burdock (prized for its root, especially in China), prickly lettuce (when young, a pleasant green), yarrow (Petty has a recipe for grilled shrimp with yarrow), violet flowers, dandelions (greens for salads or sauteeing, flowers for frying, flower buds for pickling like capers), salsify, and plantain (the broad leaf, not the starchy bananas fried in oil and served with black beans and rice).

Later, after we had picked lots of weeds and brought them into the kitchen, Petty hauled from her car a sack of wild asparagus she harvested in Boulder County — eight pounds of tender stalks, including one freak as fat as a broomstick.

While we plucked and fried, the two of them talked about things like spruce-tip shortbread, fried lamb's-quarters garnishes, violet butter on lemon scones, chocolate-mousse-stuffed tulip blossoms, dandelion sun tea, and replacing lemon with wild sumac.

Petty tries to use as many Colorado plants as possible for spices. She harvests a lot of monarda — also called bee balm and bergamot — which tastes like a cross between oregano and mint. Monarda, she said, has become her principal native flavoring.

The afternoon forage and feast made me think it was about time I started eating my weeds.

A tip, then some rules

The tip: Young plants taste best. As they get bigger, they tend to grow increasingly bitter and tough. Along these lines, remember that most wild greens and flowers will offer at least a tang of bitter, if not a wallop. This is a good thing.

"We want bitter in out diet," said Smith. "Bitter aids digestion. Most cultures have a bitter before or after a meal."

Now, the rules: If the dandelions or mallow or purslane might have been sprayed with chemicals, don't eat them. If the backyard is dog central, you might want to skip the stir-fried lamb's-quarters.

Violet flowers can be used to infuse honey or butter and to make conserves.
Violet flowers can be used to infuse honey or butter and to make conserves. (Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Pick on your own yard, or with permission on private property. Petty and Smith said in their experience, most people do not shrink from offers to eliminate their weeds.

Harvesting wild plums or monarda or anything from open space is a no-no. The plants on open space lands are there for animals and the ecosystem, not for humans.

"You will get hours of community service and a hefty fine if you harvest in open space," said Smith. National parks are off-limits, too, but national forests are OK, as long as you get a foraging permit, Smith said.

Most important, know what you are picking. Don't wing it. During Petty's and Smith's tour of my property, they pointed to a delicate, fern-like plant I had been curious about.

"That will kill you," said Smith.

It was poison hemlock. Just a few bites, she said, could lead to death. I hunted around and found a few more hemlock plants, which I yanked (after putting on gloves) and tossed into the trash.

Understanding the difference between a deadly frond of hemlock and a spray of Queen Anne's Lace (the two bear close resemblance) takes close study and time in the field. But don't shrink from exploring the edges of the patio just because you have not memorized the Rocky Mountain West's edible plants.

Learning about wild plants is "something that evolves," said Petty. "I picked wild asparagus with my dad, who grew up on a farm in Iowa. If you just learn several edible plants a year, before you know it you have a whole book of knowledge. Either way, I would much prefer people have three wild plants they know and use, rather than an encyclopedic knowledge of wild plants that they never incorporate into their lives."

Smith has traveled the world for plants, working with indigenous people on conservation issues, with a focus on understanding how people and the natural world connect. Petty has considered herself a forager for about a decade. They know their stuff.

But you do, too. I now have added lamb's-quarters, mallow, spruce tips and prickly lettuce to my list of wild plants for the larder. And I plan to take a class in foraging, including one June 22, at Denver Urban Homesteading (200 Santa Fe Drive, 303-825-0231).

And I'm going to keep messing with those fried dandelion blossoms. I'm thinking red chile and cumin, instead of curry powder.

Hello, tacos.

Find your own weeds

Googling your hometown or region with phrases like "edible wild plants" will likely lead you to experts and classes. Good resources to begin with:

Raw food chef and herbalist: brigittemars.com

Classes on edible plants, beekeeping, foraging and chicken-tending: denverurbanhomesteading.com

Boulder-based plant walks and classes: integrativebotanical.com

North Boulder garden center: harlequinsgardens.com/classes

Wendy Petty's blog: hungerandthirstforlife.blogspot.com