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Kate Armstrong, Urban Forager, Waxes on Weeds

Kate Armstrong is an urban forager who's made a career of living off our urban landscape by supplementing her diet with edible weeds.

Armstrong explains how the amaranth grain can be separated and eaten.

Armstrong says tea made from periwinkle is great for stomach ailments.

Participants look for edible weeds on Armstrong's urban-foraging walk.

Armstrong eats weeds and also uses them for home remedies.

Welcome to sunny Denver, where farmers markets reign supreme and foodies asking servers about the origins of their free-range chicken is as ordinary as a fork. But even here, the idea of living "authentically" sounds a little foreign, a little too Portlandia, doesn't it? Not if you're Kate Armstrong, the urban forager who's made a career of living off our urban landscape by supplementing her diet with edible weeds.
Sustainability Park is quiet. A few high school kids, part of GreenLeaf Denver's at-risk youth initiative, harvest plump purple eggplants and tend to rows of poblano, bell, and habanero peppers, their shoes occasionally sinking into earth that's still saturated from a torrential September downpour. 
Kate Armstrong isn't interested in the tender kale and shy broccoli sheepishly creeping out of raised wood beds, or even those juicy raspberries ripe for picking. She's happy mulling through the plants growing through sidewalk cracks and climbing chain-link fences. These so-called weeds constitutes roughly 20 percent of the urban forager's diet, at least in warm-weather months when Armstrong's favorite crops are in bloom.
Armstrong leads a small group on an urban-foraging walk facilitated by Tentiko, a mom-and-pop organization delivering authentic Colorado experiences to locals and visitors. 
"Tentiko's mission," explains co-founder Jim Chesebro, "is to find and curate the coolest experiences in Denver -- things you might not normally try -- and bring them to the city at large." The company enlists experts on preserving fruit, mushroom hunting and coffee cupping. This particular walk is designed to teach participants which of Denver's most common weeds are edible -- and, also, why they're so damn great.
Following the farmerArmstrong explains how the amaranth grain can be separated and eaten.
The sun begins to shine, so Kate ties her worn denim jacket around her waist before pulling out her "main tool" -- a generic pair of scissors. Today's mission: find enough weeds to make stir-fry. Nobody's obligated to eat weeds, Armstrong says, but somehow, just half an hour into the adventure, I'm wincing as I chew my first dandelion (slightly bitter, but not too bad). 
"Of course," Armstrong says casually, as if the information she's about to expound is common knowledge, "dandelions aren't indigenous -- Europeans brought them here on the Mayflower. They're one of the first plants to come up in the spring, and if you pick them right away they aren't bitter." Armstrong likes her dandelions battered and fried, but really the possibilities are endless: salad, tea, you can even let kids use the stems as straws. 
Next thing I know, I'm crumbling wild amaranth under Armstrong's auspices. Later she's talking my ear off about lamb's quarters ("It was in cookbooks when I was little.") and omega-three rich purslane. A tall stalk of dock ("Lemony, but not too lemony!") gathers sun in the distance.
Armstrong eats weeds and also uses them for home remedies. Mullein, for example, relieves mild to moderate ear infections when properly prepared. "The FDA would hate me for saying it," says Armstrong. This is one of many topics on which her views deviate from theirs.
Armstrong's vast knowledge was cultivated on her family's elderberry farm. At six, her family migrated north from New York City where she'd attended private boarding school to farmland upstate. Those first years, there was barely enough electricity for 110-watt lightbulbs; the stove where Armstrong learned to cook was wood, and the neighbors, Fred and Maude, operated an eight-party line switchboard in their front parlor. Life was simple, and being kind to the land was natural. "My mother recycled when there wasn't any such word," Armstrong recalls. "We didn't throw things away."
Armstrong's jolly smile fades as she tells me about the Big Ag movement of the 1950s, which "made it impossible to have a small, diverse farm." The family's next move, when Armstrong was 16, was to the railroad stop town of Seoul Point. "We never did go back to having a working farm -- you couldn't make a living that way," Armstrong sighs.  
She moved on to college then graduate school -- she has three degrees (one in English, two in psychology) -- then kept moving: Tuscon, Ontario, a rural commune after her first marriage failed. "I've loved every place I've been, but Ontario got old," admits Armstrong. "And the skiing was bad." 
Today, after a long career as a psychologist, Armstrong's settled in Denver and reinvented herself once more. "Never would I have imagined that something I leaned in my childhood would be so vital to my life today," she says.
Ag-supported communities
"Kate's one of Denver's unique talents," says Chesebro. The two met last year at the Denver County Fair. Chesebro "was in love right off the bat because [Armstrong] is a font of information and passion, which is exactly what Tentiko looks for in a host." 
This past summer, Armstrong hosted several Tentiko tours per month. And, while she's shut down her foraging operation for the 2013 season (don't worry, they'll be back again next spring), Chesebro says "she'll probably do some salve-making stuff for the holidays." 
Aside from leading guided tours, Armstrong also works with EarthLinks Colorado, teaching the homeless "various skills so they can support themselves to some degree." On such skill is weed harvesting. The Five Points neighborhood where Armstrong lives and does much of her work has been called a food desert. 
"The nearest supermarket is at 20th and Park Avenue," Armstrong says. "That's a distance, particularly if you don't have a vehicle." Still, Armstrong scoffs when people dis her 'hood. "There's plenty of good, organic food here, you just have to know where to look," she says, pointing to some leafy dock. The GrowHaus in the Elyria-Swansea neighborhood just north of Five Points is an excellent source of "good, organic food," according to Armstrong, as is the bimonthly Mo' Betta Green MarketPlace farmers market.      
Organic mattersKate Armstrong is an urban forager who's made a career of living off our urban landscape by supplementing her diet with edible weeds.
Short, white curly hair brushes against Armstrong's thin metal glasses as she leans down to pull up a long stringy weed. Though she's still got quite a ways to go until she reaches 100 (she's not quite 70 yet), Armstrong's nimbleness, compared to that of my own grandparents, has me recalling a documentary about the high concentration of healthy centenarians in the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa, where the diet is superb, the food fresh and chemical-free. 
Much of what drives Armstrong's work, in fact, is her core belief that it should be easy for folks to access clean foods. "These aren't just preferable," says the forager, "They are essential. Our American food system is pretty much toxic. The least expensive food is really the most expensive because of hidden public health costs associated with obesity, preservatives, toxins." 
Armstrong now does her "small bit" to give Denver residents a viable alternative to conventional eating. "Supplementing with weeds, mixing that in with the organic food you buy, there is no lack of food," she says.
Local, too, is important. "We could have a very, very short food chain in Colorado because almost everything we need can be grown here," Armstrong says. But, because of how the distribution system is structured, "91 percent of the food we grow leaves the state." 
Armstrong buys meat from High Plains Food Cooperative, a grassroots network where she says "you can call the farmer up and ask about their practices." For produce, she shops around between Natural Grocers, Sprouts and King Soopers, buying whatever is on sale and organic. Sometimes Armstrong's urban foraging gets a bit urbane. "We have more amazing local restaurants than I've ever seen anywhere else," she says. Her favorite spots are Root Down and Linger. She also likes Vine Street Pub for their local grass-fed beef burgers. 
Full circle
While Armstrong harbors no grand plan to return to farming -- "It's a very hard way to make your life," she says -- she's got quite the scheme for her backyard. "I'll wind up with chickens and a garden," she says, "but not the kind of garden you'd ever think of." Armstrong recently began a no-till gardening experiment, turning the whole place into a self-watering permaculture yard.
Permaculture, she explains, is based on the principle that all systems work together. "If you encourage plants to grow where they grow best, if you make room for animals, birds, and insects, then everything works together," she explains. 
Instead of planting rows, Armstrong scatters seeds here and there, seeing where the plants settle. The result might be some lettuce next to a tomato plant and a rose bush, beyond which hollyhocks and sunflowers sprout. 
"I'm a plant person," says Armstrong. "I come from a family of plant people." And it's this urban forager's pleasure to teach others how to be plant people, too.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn and Ben Siebrase.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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