By Zaylah Pearson-Good
~ An interview with Tusha Yakovleva~
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.
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 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:
Mushrooms: Mushrooms, explains Tusha, are essential decomposers, tasked with restoring nutrients to our soils and spreading those nutrients out to neighboring root systems. In addition to contributing powerful ecosystem services, some are delicious and nutrient dense snacks! Many mushrooms growing in the SLV are close partners with trees, choosing to grow nearby or on a specific tree species. The aspen bolete for example, is an edible mushroom that grows beneath aspen trees. Another tasty variety is the oyster mushroom, which pops up on the trunks of dead or dying aspen and cottonwood trees to help speed up the decomposition process. Before foraging for mushrooms, make sure you are completely confident in your identification skills.
Piñon nuts: A favorite fall harvest comes from the twisted branches of the Piñon pine tree. Piñon nuts are one of the few, non-meat calorie sources in the Valley, full in healthy fats, calories, and nutrients. The seeds can be stored through the winter and enjoyed year-round.
Herbs: A variety of medicinal herbs can be cultivated, found, and utilized in the San Luis Valley. Yarrow, mint, echinacea, horsetail, stinging nettles, raspberry, angelica, rosehip, prickly pear cactus, and sage are just a few of them. Participating in an herb walk or class with a local herbalist is a great way to begin familiarizing yourself with the medicines in your backyard.
Berries: Wild strawberries, currants, gooseberries, juneberries, sumac,
chokecherries, blueberries, and raspberries can easily be spotted across the valley.
Weeds: Many plants that we consider noxious weeds, can actually add nutrition and flavor to our diets. Tusha is exceptionally passionate about this topic and plans to offer future courses in the SLV on how to forage for edible weeds.
Rethinking our Relationship with Weeds
While working as manager for a medicinal mushroom and herb farm in New York, Tusha began to take note of the many weeds that were nested between her crops. The prevalence of weeds sparked an interest in her to learn about the potential medicinal and nutritional values that these “weeds” might possess. Most weeds that are commonly considered a nuisance, Tusha learned, offered vital nutrients, economic opportunity, and essential ecosystem services.
These findings planted the seed for Tusha’s next project: to compile a practical guide to explain the marketable potential of edible weeds as farm crops. The guide is titled Edible Weeds on Farms: A Northeast Farmer’s Guide to Self-Growing Vegetables and can be downloaded for free. While Tusha had a farming audience in mind, the guide holds valuable wisdom for any citizen of the planet: weeds hold many unseen gifts. With an open mind, we may see that weeds and humans can participate in a mutualistic relationship.
In the San Luis Valley, Tusha reminds us of the many edible weeds that can enrich our diets and bring us closer to the natural world. In fact, she argues that weeds are a good place to start for beginner foragers as this category of plants are at lower risk for being over harvested. In contrast, foraging for native plants can sometimes require a more selective/minimal foraging technique. Furthermore, since weeds grow prolifically in many of our yards, we can easily identify them, master their lifecycles, and harvest them in abundance. Some of the local edible weeds include:
Russian thistle: Russian thistle, or the classic Southwestern tumbleweed might seem like the last thing you would want to put in your mouth. However, when young, the shoots and tips, and later seeds, of this plant can be eaten raw or cooked. Those brave enough to try it are often surprised at how tasty it is; some liken it to spinach. Tusha reports that it is also high in protein.
Purslane: This gentle ground cover is considered an annoying weed by some gardeners, and to others, a delicacy sold for high prices at farmers markets. With a slight lemony kick and a pleasant crunch, purslane is also full of vitamins, antioxidants, and is a source of omega-3s.
Dandelion: Eaten in salad, steamed in stir-fry, or brewed as tea, dandelion greens are rich in vitamins K, A, and C. This green has many medicinal qualities as well, and should be celebrated when discovered, not dismissed as a noxious weed.
Lamb’s quarters: The tender leaves of this gentle plant are packed full of protein, vitamins, fiber, manganese, copper, and omega-3 and 6 fatty acids. The taste is subtle, so can be easily added to a variety of dishes or simply munched on in the field.
*These are just a few of the many wild, edible weeds that grow in the San Luis Valley.
Future Educational Offerings by Tusha
Since arriving in the SLV, Tusha has co-led plant walks with the Colorado Native Plant Society’s SLV Chapter President, Carol English. The duo has hosted a few walks in the Crestone area, supporting locals on their quest to identify and respect native plant species, and further their studies in gardening and botany. Tusha looks forward to teaching more courses with the SLV Chapter and also begin leading independent workshops.
Tusha has noticed that many locals are interested in another study dear to her heart: Ethnobotany (the study of plants and people and the culture that surrounds that relationship). Tusha plans to offer workshops on ethnobotany in the future, and shares her impetus for doing so:
“Every land has its people, and anyone currently walking on that land has the responsibility to not only honor the rich cultural and ecological legacies of place but to give back to the land, its plants, their people. In any ethnobotanical offerings, my hope is to honor Indigenous knowledge and uplift the stories that practitioners of traditional plant pathways here in the valley want to share. There are people here whose ancestors have only always lived here, who have tended the plants in this alpine valley and continue to carry knowledge of how to live in reciprocity and resilience with the plants in this challenging cold desert environment. I aspire to join the rich ethnobotanical traditions of this region by helping keep the stories of plants and their people alive. For me, it’s important to know the local plants and how they relate to their environment well before sharing any knowledge about harvesting them. So, in the spirit of moving slowly, next year, I plan to offer spring foraging classes that focus on harvesting weedy and abundant species, as well as a botanical walk to introduce some of the weaving plants (basketry, cordage) who grow prolifically throughout the valley. I would like to host other ethnobotany teachers in Crestone, ones who have deep roots in this bioregion.”
If you would like to attend a future event led by Tusha, or connect with her about the work she is doing, visit her website, http://foundwith.care/, or write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
More about Tusha
Tusha Yakovleva is a life-long gatherer thanks to her family and first home - Russia - where harvesting plants and mushrooms for food and medicine is common practice. She spent years in the Muheconneok/Hudson River watershed, growing perennials, keeping seeds, running a wild food program, learning the gifts of weeds, and organizing community gardening and forestry efforts. Tusha’s work revolves around generating strong, respectful relationships between plants and people. She is currently a graduate student at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Onondaga Nation homelands, where she studies how to grow generous bonds between land and people. Since autumn 2020, Tusha has been living near the headwaters of the Rio Grande River in Ute homelands.