Ray Vizgirdas' childhood in Southern California sounds like a cross between a John Muir book and a Kraft commercial.
"Where I grew up, we used to go up in the mountains about once a month and go for a 20-mile or 26-mile climb through these canyons, and I'd literally just take a bottle of thousand island [dressing] with me. I'd collect all the way to the top, pull out what I'd got, wash it off--if I even needed to do that--and just douse it with some dressing and go back down the hill," he says.
If you're a student planning to go on the two-day Ethnobotany: Introduction to Edible, Medicinal and Useful Plants classes that Vizgirdas leads during the summer for the Boise State Desert Studies Institute, expect him to dish out a lot of historical background on a lot of different plants--after all, he says he can identify 50 qualifying plants while just on a walk along the Boise River. Just don't expect him to pull out a bottle and start re-enacting his youthful exploits. Not only does Vizgirdas not condone eating on the trips, he also doesn't test his students, lest they assume that getting a passing grade that would mean that they're ready to chow down unsupervised.
"I don't think I'm qualified to test them," he says. "Mother nature will take care of that."
But Vizgirdas was willing to let one tasty tidbit slip: His idea of the perfect salad he would make solely from wild greens growing in the Boise area. He says it would include watercress, dandelions, stinging nettle (which needs to be boiled before eaten), Indian paintbrush (the flowers and bracts of the plant only; and in moderation, due to the high selenium content), mariposa lilies, yellow bells and, for crunch, a few seeds from the little mallow, or "cheeseweed."
Readers of a botanical bent may notice that two of the salad's ingredients, dandelions and cheeseweed, aren't exactly sources of state pride. They're invasive weeds. "They're the bane of everybody in town, and the nurseries will sell you whatever you want to kill them," Vizgirdas says. "It's ironic, though, because [dandelions] have more vitamin C and A than most foods you can buy at the supermarket."
Vizgirdas urges anyone with an interest in wild grazing to take a hesitant and suspicious approach. First, do a lot of research, preferably with an experienced personal guide rather than one of the many edible-plant guides available. And second, beware of any edible plant guide that advises sampling a little bit of a plant in order to test for poison.
"With some of these, like water hemlock, which occurs here along the river and up on the hills, you could be dead within a half an hour," he says. And the ironic part: according to an account he read of an accidental hemlock poisoning in 1919, water hemlock actually tastes sweet. "This throws out this idea that you can kind of walk along and graze on things," he says. "Our ancestors did that for us, but now we're in a different realm."