Gratitude for Naturalists

"Paralyzing Berries"
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
“Paralyzing Berries”
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

Janet Ross & Shannon Rhodes on the San Juan River, 2022
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer Janet Ross & Shannon Rhodes on the San Juan River, 2022
Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

Once upon a time my family met what we now call ‘paralyzing berries’ on a hillside hike. I still don’t know the common name, let alone the scientific one. I sure could’ve used Naturalist Jack’s plant identification and probable warning not to taste those tart wild berries that day. I’ve had the good fortune though to spend time with Wild About Utah’s Jack Green discussing the Wilderness Act walking among the Mt. Naomi wildflowers and along the Lake Bonneville Shoreline. It reminds me of a scene Kenneth Grahame wrote in “The Wind in the Willows” that captures the relationship between a naturalist and a naturalist’s companion: “Absorbed in the new life, the scents and the sounds and the sunlight…it was so very beautiful that the Mole could only hold up both paws and gasp, “O my! O my! O my!” Water Rat was paddling and chattering on as one extremely familiar with, yet not desensitized to, the magic of the place. Sometimes now I find myself a Rat because I was once a Mole.

Let me explain. Three years ago I wrote a page in my nature journal and a related Wild About Utah piece titled “I Notice, I Wonder” as I sat soaking up the smells and the sights sitting alone in the Cache National Forest. Although I was able to in solitude concentrate on wellness amid the pandemic, I wonder how much more rich my experience might have been with a knowledgeable naturalist guide at my side. The third part of this beloved “I Notice, I Wonder” awareness activity outdoors is “It Reminds Me Of…”

Passing some wild berries just this week reminded me of the afternoon 30 years ago my friend Allan Stevens, biology professor at Snow College, taught me about dwarf mistletoe and led me to research the difference between it and witches broom rust in conifers. I’ve never enrolled in one of Allan’s courses, but that’s the best part of having connections to naturalists. They teach you even when you are just out for a drive in the canyon. They have invested time to know how to read nature, they know the names and relationships in an ecosystem, and they usually have the answer to any question you could ask. Dozens of times since then I’ve answered that same question about the thick-growing growth in the trees as others have looked to me for clarity.

Similarly, looking at the berries reminded me of the day Utah Master Naturalist’s Mark Larese-Casanova taught me the term krummholz effect, from the German words “crooked wood,” that describes trees deformed from fierce winds. He did this as we stood atop Big Cottonwood Canyon, gazing at lopsided trees’ persistence in adapting to harsh conditions. That memory reminded me of cruising along a lazy stretch of the San Juan River on a raft with another legendary naturalist named Janet Ross. Just before the Eight Foot Rapid, she taught me to notice the holes we were passing. She said that besides the usual stick lodges, a beaver will build a den in the sandy river bank. Fascinating facts from fascinating people. I’m grateful for these and other naturalist mentors in my life.

So, who unlocked the mysteries of nature for you? Was it a relative, a summer camp leader, maybe a teacher? In this season of gratitude you might consider how to better be Rat for the Moles in your influence as you notice, wonder, and remember other illuminations in the wild. Boldly share as a growing naturalist what you know about plants, animals, and wild relationships with others as you encounter them together.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Shannon Rhodes.


Images: Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Additional Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver
    Courtesy & © Friend Weller, Utah Public Radio
    Courtesy & © Anderson, Howe, Wakeman
Text: Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

BEETLES and The Regents of the University of California. I Notice, I Wonder, It reminds me of. 2020.
and ​​

Grahame, Kenneth. The Wind in the Willows. 1908.

Rhodes, Shannon. I Notice, I Wonder. Wild About Utah, August 31, 2020.

Ross, Janet. A Place Called Home: Quilting a Life of Joy on the Colorado Plateau. September 13, 2023. Colorado: Lost Souls Press.

Strand, Holly. Kissing Under the Dung Twig. Wild About Utah, December 20, 2012.

Schwandt, John. Fir broom rust. 2005.

U.S. Forest Service. Broom rusts of spruce and fir. 2011.

U.S. Forest Service. Mistletoes.

Remembering Euell

Remembering Euell: Utah Serviceberry Amelanchier utahensis Courtesy US National Park Service, Colorado National Monument
Utah Serviceberry
Amelanchier utahensis
Courtesy US National Park Service, Colorado National Monument
Remember Euell Gibbons? He was famous as a naturalist and connoisseur of wild foods in the 1960’s. His best known works were the book “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” and the commercial where he asked “Ever eat a pine tree? You know …some parts are edible.” Well, I made fun of him when I was little, but now I understand that Euell was right. There’s good eating out there—and plenty to munch on in Utah. A word of strong caution for beginning trailside snackers: Take along a professionally written plant guide or preferably a plan expert before chowing down.

If you’re in the mood for something with a bit of a punch, then wild onions are for you. They are found in open meadows especially moist ones. Wild onions feature multiple flowers on a single stalk which create a globe shaped inflorescence. Identification is confirmed by the pungent onion aroma. All parts of the plant are edible: flower, leaves and root.

While difficult to harvest, stinging nettle can be pretty tasty. The stinging nettle has minute hollow hairs filled with formic acid–the same toxin produced by red ants,–which causes a painful, red rash when the plant is touched. Early season nettles have a sweeter taste and the very top of the plant has the tenderest leaves. Pinch leaves firmly between fingers and thumb; this will crush the hairs and prevent any stinging. Saliva neutralizes the effects of the acid, so leaves placed carefully into the mouth won’t sting.

Watercress is sweet yet with an acidic aftertaste. It’s found in moving or still water and has white or pink flowers typical of the mustard family. The peppery leaves are wonderful –it’s great as a snack or on salads with other greens. It is important to rinse off watercress leaves well with clean water before eating to avoid ingesting microorganisms such as giardia.

In late summer and fall you’ll find a number of berries to eat. Eat the tangy purple elderberries as the red ones will make you sick if they aren’t cooked; Thimbleberries resemble raspberries but with more seeds—they taste like raspberries too. The thimbleberry bush is thorny with large five-pointed leaves. Oregon Grape is a low-lying plant recognizable by its yellow flowers and holly-shaped leaves. Its sour berries are edible either raw or cooked—but sweet tooths might want to add sugar. Don’t forget the juicy, purple serviceberry which is common in riparian habitats on moist, wooded hillsides up to alpine elevations.

These are just a few examples of the many edible possibilities out there. Remember to double check with an expert or a reliable guide before eating any plants that are new to you. From all of us at Stokes Nature Center: Bon Appétit!


Photo: Courtesy Courtesy US National Park Service, Colorado National Monument:
Text: Cassey Anderson, Stokes Nature Center
Voice: Holly Strand, Stokes Nature Center

Additional Reading

Tilford, Gregory L. Edible and Medicinal Plants of The West. Mountain Press Publishing Company, Montana, 1997.

Moore, Michael. Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West. Museum of New Mexico Press, New Mexico, 2003.

Meuninick, Jim, The Basic Essentials of Edible Wild Plants and Useful Herbs, Globe Pequot Press, Connecticut, 1988

Jack Greene – Many different educational hikes 2000-present,,

Euell Gibbons advertising GrapeNuts, YouTube: (accessed July 16, 2008).

Sunder, John, Biography, Gibbons, Euell Theophilus (1911–1975) (Biography), Handbook of Texas, Texas State Historical Association, January 1, 1995,