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Thursday, March 24,2011

Eat the competition

Many of the county’s invasive plants and animals are edible

By Jefferson Dodge

Before you order those frog legs at that high-end restaurant or shell out cash for St. John’s Wort at the health food store, you might ask yourself, “Can I get the same thing for free and help eliminate local invasive species at the same time?”

Experts list an array of plants and animals that are crowding out local species in Boulder County — and can be harvested for a variety of purposes.

You know those annoying spiny burs known as “goatheads” or “puncture vine” that can end up embedded in everything from bike tires to basketballs to shoes? Well, instead of spraying weed killer on them, prominent local herbalist Brigitte Mars recommends making tea out of them — especially if you are a man whose sex drive needs a boost. Mars cites studies that have shown that this plant, “tribulus terrestris,” is an aphrodisiac and boosts testosterone levels.

Dave Sutherland, an interpretive naturalist for Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP), says that one of the biggest threats to the native northern leopard frog — a species that is becoming increasingly rare in Boulder County — is the bullfrog.

“They are really damaging to local ecosystems,” he says. “Bullfrogs are voracious, they’ll eat just about anything.”
Especially the eggs, tadpoles and young adults of the northern leopard family.

He says residents can help curb this invasive species by grabbing a fishing license and a good frog leg recipe.
Plus, there is no bag limit on bullfrogs in areas where fishing is allowed, and in Colorado, kids under the age of 16 don’t need a license.

Sutherland describes a variety of methods for the culinary culling of the bullfrog population. He recommends examining the shores of local ponds and lakes at night with a flashlight.

“Usually they’ll sit still if you shine a light on them,” he says.

Once you find one, you can trap it with a net or spear it with a “gig,” a harpoon-like spear with a barbed fork on the end. Alternatively, Sutherland says, you can use a regular old fishing pole by tying a piece of red cloth on the hook and dragging that in front of bullfrogs, which will often be attracted to the red cloth and eat it.

Heather Swanson, a wildlife ecologist at OSMP, adds archery to the list of ways that residents hunt bullfrogs.
But Sutherland and Swanson both stress that people should be sure they know the difference between bullfrogs and other types of frogs — like the dwindling northern leopard — before they go on the hunt.

Swanson says bullfrogs are the largest frog in the county, have a deep croak, can be green or brownish, have prominent eyes on top of their heads, and, behind their eyes, feature obvious audial disks, or “tympanum,” that serve as ears.

She recommends Sawhill Ponds off of 75th Street between Valmont and Jay roads, and Teller Lake on Valmont between 75th and 95th, as prime bullfrog locations where fishing is allowed.

Swanson and Sutherland say that, with the exception of bullfrogs, it is illegal to harvest any species on OSMP land without authorization.

But on other lands, Sutherland says, there are a variety of non-native and invasive species that can be harvested for food and other uses.

Aside from bullfrog-hunting, the options in the animal kingdom are a bit limited in the county, in part due to local regulations against discharging firearms and even pellet and BB guns. Sutherland says pigeons and starlings are invasive, but they don’t pose much threat to native birds (and don’t have much meat). Some may think of eating rabbits, prairie dogs, raccoons, squirrels or skunks, but all are native, and, at least in the case of prairie dogs, protected in several local jurisdictions.

As for plants, he cites the purslane’s fat, fleshy leaves that are high in vitamins; mallow, or “cheeseweed,” which produces a fruit that tastes nutty and is good on salads; klamath weed, or St. John’s Wort, which is known to have anti-depressant properties; and the good old dandelion, which has been used in salads for decades. But Sutherland warns people to avoid harvesting dandelions in common areas like parks, where poisonous herbicides may have been applied.

Lynn Riedel, an OSMP plant ecologist, adds garlic mustard to Sutherland’s list. She describes it as a big, leafy plant that is good in salads and is now spreading along Boulder Creek and in Chautauqua.

Mars, an author and professor of herbal medicine at Naropa University, questions the whole premise that non-native species are always harmful, in the grand scheme of things. Noting that tomatoes and even white people could be considered invasive species, she points out that some non-native plants may actual be providing some benefits, such as detoxifying heavy metals in the soil.

“It’s natural for things to spread,” Mars says. “Emerson said a weed is an herb whose virtue has not yet been realized. … They may be there for a reason, and we don’t understand the reason.”
She finds it curious that societal norms label some plants as weeds that should be killed, even when those same plants are found in the products we buy at the local health food store.

Mars cites St. John’s Wort as an example of a “weed” that people might pull — or poison — and then pay for at the store. Another “invasive species,” bouncing bet (soapwort), can be used to wash your body and your clothes.

Endive’s ancestor chickory can be found in the Louisiana-style coffee brewed at Lucille’s. Mullein is commonly found in hayfever remedies, and the roots and stems of thistles are edible.

Mars notes that in the 1800s, people would pull up the grass on their property to make room for edible plants, building fences to protect their fields of dandelions.

She says eating “invasive” species doesn’t just make sense environmentally, but financially.

“We spray the dandelions in our yard, and then when we want them in our salad, we have to go to Whole Foods and buy them,” she says. “That seems kind of silly. … What if you could stretch your food dollars if you took advantage of some of the wild offerings you have around you?

“Which is going to hurt the kids? The weeds or the herbicides?”
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