Foraging for Wild Edibles, Rethinking Weeds, Honoring the Flora of the San Luis Valley

Updated: Sep 14

~ An interview with Tusha Yakovleva~

All photos by Tusha unless noted

The convenience of grocery stores, fast pace of modern living, and loss of traditional plant knowledge has disconnected many of us from local, wild food systems. Foraging, the act of searching for and collecting wild edibles, can have a profound impact on a person’s understanding of an ecosystem, their desire to protect it, and can contribute important nutrition to the diet. Overcoming our estrangement to, and even our fear of, wild plants requires an open mind and ideally, an experienced guide or teacher. Fortunately, the San Luis Valley (SLV) recently gained an experienced ethnobotanist, farmer, and forager, Tusha Yakovleva.

Tusha Yakovleva brings her plant knowledge to the San Luis Valley

Having learned to harvest wild mushrooms, greens, herbs, and berries from a young age, Tusha Yakovleva is a life-long forager. Born in Moscow, Tusha explains that intimate relationships between plants and humans are built into Russian culture, seeping into everyday social interactions, street markets, and even pharmacies. She has colorful early memories of foraging in the woods with her parents, quickly learning to identify common flora and building a strong relationship with the plant world that would later guide her life’s work as an ethnobotanist, farmer, botanist, and educator.

Tusha and Sasha (mom) with Leccinium insigne

After studying botany, farming, and ethnobotany extensively in the Northeastern regions of the US, Tusha is now focusing on learning about the plant beings of the San Luis Valley. Since her arrival last year, she has focused on deepening her bonds with, and knowledge for, the diverse wild edibles of Southern Colorado. It is her intention that as she continues to familiarize herself with local plants here, she will be able to offer educational services to SLV residents. Working alongside the Colorado Native Plant Society, Tusha plans to lead future workshops and educational events on a variety of topics such as learning to cultivate reciprocal relationships with plants, wild edible foraging in the SLV, rethinking our relationship to weeds, and ethnobotany.

Learning to Forage, Cultivating Plant Relationships

Tusha with fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolium)

Tusha urges that anyone can become a forager; sourcing nutrients from our local environments is in our DNA. We just need to re-familiarize ourselves with the practice. Studying under a botanist or native plant specialist is an ideal method for doing so, yet solo study with a book can also be effective. Regardless of how you learn, Tusha is passionate that all foragers should have a deep-rooted respect and care for the plants that they harvest. In her words, “We should see ourselves as a part of the landscape instead of as a visitor.” She suggests that we can cultivate a respectful and reciprocal relationship with the plants we forage by following some simple guidelines:

Do not over harvest: Tusha explains that it is important to survey the abundance or sparseness of a plant in an ecosystem before harvesting. Not all plants, especially native ones, are densely populated. For example, Osha, the powerhouse herb native to the Rocky Mountains, has been harvested at such high rates that it is now considered to be “At-Risk” by many herbalists. By choosing alternative plants to harvest, such as those that are prolific, we encourage future viability in vulnerable plant species.

Master one plant first: Tusha encourages budding foragers to start small. Pick one plant that you would like to harvest, and closely study it for its entire annual lifecycle. This strategy can help a forager develop acute observation skills and ensure that they make safe and sustainable harvesting decisions, in consideration of their livelihood as well as the plant’s, before consuming it. Start with a commonly occurring plant, such as a weed, that you already have some familiarity with.

Give an offering: Creating a reciprocal relationship with plants means offering something in return. Some herbalists ask permission before harvesting. For Tusha, she likes to bring seeds with her that will enhance the local environment. By spreading selected seeds, she offers new life to the landscape that is in turn providing her with sustenance.

Do no harm: Lastly, walk gently on the lands that you harvest from. Be sure to not overly disrupt the landscape by disturbing the soil, polluting, disturbing habitat, or taking more than you need.

Foraging Opportunity in the San Luis Valley

The dry open landscape of the San Luis Valley can sometimes leave visitors thinking this land is barren. However, from our high mountain lakes to low shrublands, a bounty of diverse, nutritious plant life covers the area. Tusha shares some of the many wild edibles that are found in the SLV: