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While a blanket of snow and ice may make foraging more difficult, you needn't give up wildcrafting just because the mercury has dropped. Depending on your geographical location, you may have dozens, if not hundreds, of different plants and fungi growing nearby. Just think, people didn't always have the option to run down to the local supermarket just because their stockpiles ran low.
While modern amenities have made it possible for us to forget the wild foods that once sustained our ancestors during the coldest months of the year, there are still plenty of foragers that refuse to let seasonal weather from their favorite cold-weather finds. Those that are brave enough to dredge through the snow in below-zero temps are often rewarded with surprisingly tasty and healthy treats. For some folks, it's almost a sport!
We've compiled a guide that will help you tap into your regional flora for both sustenance and survival. While winter foraging isn't always easy, it is often a worthwhile and satisfying experience. In unfortunate circumstances, knowledge of local plants can even serve as a lifeline.
Without further ado, here are the basics of winter foraging:
First, Some Useful ResourcesWe can understand and empathize with the fact that you're likely eager to get out there and do some harvesting. Still, it's best that invest in a collection of regional plant ID books and study them closely before you hit the ground running. Here are a few of our favorite texts on the subject:
The New Wildcrafted Cuisine: Exploring the Exotic Gastronomy of Local Terroir by Pascal Baudar
Baudar's book will help you identify, forage, and cook wild ingredients. He is based in southern California, so there are very few cold weather plant staples in the book. Still, his innovative preservation and fermentation techniques are worth exploring.
The Official U.S. Army Illustrated Guide to Edible Wild Plants
The U.S. Department of the Army recently published this illustrated guide to wild edible plants. While this text was originally used as a survival guide for members of the armed forces, it has been reimagined and redesigned for civilians. Aren't we lucky?
Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide to Over 200 Natural Foods by Thomas Ellas
Ellas's gorgeous full-color guide contains pictures and descriptions of over 200 wild plant and fungi specimens. The vast majority of the flora are native to the Northeast. The book is small enough to take along on expeditions.
Chaga Got Us Hooked on the TopicLiving for many years in the mountains of New England, a few folks we knew kept finding something called "Chaga." We looked it up, and there was some interesting stuff on line that intrigued us about this fungus (which happens to grow on birch trees up in our neck of the woods).
And find it we did! Actually one of us finds it, and the other one grinds it and brews it. Since one member of the family spends weeks in the mountains each year, he has become the "chaga whisperer" and never comes home without a couple of pounds of the stuff.
The photo to the left is chaga from our personal stock.
Common Winter Wildcraft FindsWe could easily compile a novel on the all wild finds available during winter! We've done our best to sum up some of the most common finds found throughout the continental United States and Canada. With a little help from the books and resources listed above, you can expand upon this foundational knowledge.
Keep in mind that plant availability varies between climate zones and regions. Moreover, you'll have better luck scouting out winter finds if you take the time to familiarize yourself with them during warmer months.
NutsWhile Mother Earth's "Fall Field Guide: Foraging for Nuts" is over 30 years old, it's still an excellent ( and free) resource we like to recommend to aspiring cold weather foragers. Acorns, beechnuts, chinquapins, black walnuts, butternuts, pecans, hickory nuts, and pine nuts all fall to earth in late fall. While the chipmunks, birds, and squirrels do an excellent job of raking up their share of the loot, there usually still plenty of nuts left to freeze under the snowfall.
Finding nuts during winter is much easier for those that know how to identify trees by their bark. There are plenty of online guides and apps that enable you to identify trees by their bark, including this UNH forestry extension guide.
Of course, a paperback field identification book (such as this oldie but goodie) is going to enable you to do your research regardless of your cell phone's reach. Ultimately, you want to have this knowledge memorized.
SeedsSeeds are yet another type of nutrient-dense food that is usually plentiful to still be available during winter. Some common winter seed finds include:
- Hop hornbeam seeds
- Dock seeds (these are rich in protein, lysine, fiber, phosphorous, calcium, and more)
- Maple seeds (Some people call these 'helicopters' because of their unique shape and the way they "fly" to the earth in the circular motion seen on a helicopter rotor)
- Goosefoot seeds (also known as wild quinoa)
BarkSome tree species produce bark with medicinal and/or nutritional value. In fact, many First Nation tribes considered tree bark to be a dietary staple. Trees with edible park include:
- Black Birch
- Yellow Birch
- Balsam Fir
- Slippery Elm
As you see, the process is easy. The cambium can be eaten raw or dried. You can even ground it up to make a unique and flavorful flour. It's an excellent source of carbohydrates and antioxidants. It's certainly something you're going to want to keep an open mind about if you're lost in the wood or intentionally bugging out.
It's also worth noting that pine needles steeped in warm (not boiling) water produce a Vitamin C elixir that is more potent than oranges. You can find the Farmer's Almanac's recipe for pine needle tea here.
Fruit and BerriesThe most die-hard winter foragers will tell you that there are plenty of perfectly edible fruits and berries to be found during thaws.
Apples, cranberries, crab apples, teaberries, and rose hips are just a few fruits that can maintain their freshness even after a deep freeze.
Fruits and berries tend to get mushy after they are frozen, but that should keep you from turning them into delicious drinks, sauces, and syrups. Four Season Foraginging even calls crabapples "the winter sweet-tart."
GreensMany wild greens maintain their freshness even after they have been covered with a thick blanket of snow. Take advantage of a brief thaw, and consider searching for some dandelions, watercresses, Shasta daisies, sheep sorrel, or plantains. You can dry them, eat them raw, or toss them in a hot dish.
Roots and ShootsIf the weather warms up enough, you may be able to dig up some buried treasure. We're talking about roots and shoots. Edible and medicinal roots that can be found during winter include:
- Yellow Dock
SyrupPeople of the Northeast tap maple trees to make highly lucrative batches of maple syrup. However, tree tapping is a practice that originated with the people of the First Nations. They were known to tap a wide variety of trees, including sugar, black, red, and silver maple, box elder, birch, and black walnut.
Sap can be boiled down into a sugary syrup or drunk on the spot. We've been known to participate in both! In fact, it has become a late winter/early spring tradition to host "sugar on snow" parties for kids, as well as "Sugar Sunday" events where the public is invited into maple sugar operations to observe and learn about the art.
And, as easy as it is to purchase maple syrup from just about any store these days, we support our local sugar house. It takes over 40 gallons of sap to make 1 gallon of syrup, and an enormous amount of work and time goes into sugaring, including what most folks don't see behind the scenes (e.g. maintaining the tap lines, tapping and transporting the sap, and then of course, tending to the boiling process).
We prefer a very dark and robust maple syrup, and our young homesteaders from whom we purchase our syrup always save us a few quarts, we know that not everyone can find this particular blend (a lot of the commercial sugar houses tend to sell the "Grade A Amber" which we find a little light and not as "mapley" in flavor).
With that said, we did find someone on Amazon who sells a dark variety (it used to be called "Grade B"), so if you are interested in that, and cannot find it locally, Anderson's Pure Maple Syrup seems to get high marks and appears to be a small family business in Wisconsin, so if it's impossible for you to find this locally, Anderson's may be a good alternative.
FungiWinter mushrooms are arguably some of the most delicious and nutricious specimens that can found during the winter months. iNaturalist's online guide features colored photographs and descriptions of wild North American mushrooms that can be found throughout the United States and Canada. The U.S. Forest Service's "Field Guide to Common Macrofungi" is also a must-see. Popular specimens include:
- Late Oyster Mushrooms (Panellus serotinus)
- Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus)
- Turkey-Tail (Trametes versicolor) (BTW: We find those up north too!)
- Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) (Which we mentioned earlier)
- Velvet Foot (Flammulina velutipes)
- Blewit (Clitocybe nuda)
- Brick Caps (Hypholoma sublateritium)
- Wood Ear (Auricularia angiospermarum)
SeaweedIf you're lucky enough to live along the coast, then have even more winter foraging possibilities. Kelp, dulse, velvet horn, bladderwrack, and sea lettuce continue to grow throughout the winter months.
In the following video, the hosts of the Way Out West vlog demonstrate the proper way to trim and prepare seaweed.
Lisette Kreischer and Marcel Schuttelaar's book "Ocean Greens" is an excellent illustrated resource book on the subject.
Lichen and MossBeggars cannot be choosers. So, if you desperately need food and only moss and lichen are available, it is good for you to know that these plants are edible. Given the fact that most varieties taste terrible and do not offer sufficient nutrients, they should only be thought of as an absolute last resort.
You should also know that it takes dozens of years for most moss and lichen to grow. If you consider yourself a conservationist, this fact alone should be enough to deter you from participating in a taste testing session.
Scientists at the University of Adelaide recently discovered a complex carbohydrate in some moss species. Still, even they are not advocating that people start eating the plant.
Winter MedicinalsIn a survival situation, your foraging goal may simply be to meet your caloric needs. However, that doesn't mean you should overlook or ignore the rich medicinal potential of the plant specimens that can be found amidst the snow.
Black walnuts are the fruits of towering deciduous tree that is native to North America. Their hard shells preserve their meaty flesh even long after the first frost. If you're lucky enough to find some black walnuts that squirrels have forgotten, you can enjoy an omega-3 fatty acid and antioxidant-rich herbal supplement.
As the Maine Primitive School points out in the following video, oak and beech trees are also lucrative sources of medicinals. Identifying trees in late winter isn't always easy, as most hardwoods lose their leaves. Both trees produce nuts with lots of tannins. While tannins should never be consumed as food, they can be devoured as medicinals or used as an antimicrobial wash.
Preserving Your FindsThe good news is that winter presents cold and often freezing temperatures that are ideal for food preservation (for example, if you grow carrots, you can cover them with straw and leave them in the ground for harvesting later in the winter). However, there are many other traditional methods of food preservation that you can employ in the wild.
Rinse your finds in water. While lakes and ponds are likely frozen over, most rivers and streams do not freeze fully during the winter months. Clean, bunch, and hand your goods in a dry, airy location. You can easily rehydrate wild food by soaking them in warm or boiling water. You may also chew your dried provisions to soften them and release their nutrients.
Fermentation is also a viable food preservation technique that can elevate the flavor and lifespan of your wild finds. Pascal Baudar's book, "Wildcrafted Fermentation: Exploring, Transforming, and Preserving the Wild Flavors of Your Local Terroir," is an excellent resource for wild kraut, kimchi, brew, brine, and plant-based cheese recipes. Many of the ingredients in his recipes, including mustard greens and wild radishes, can be found during the winter.
Farmers and homesteaders have used root cellars to ensure that their crops last them through the fruitless winter months. Check out the Provident Prepper's video for some tips on making easy and inexpensive root cellars.
Share the KnowledgeForaging, or wildcraft, knowledge can be lifesaving in the event of an emergency. These skills can help both adults and children become more self-reliant and confident. The Woodland Classroom offers some free educational resources and lesson plans for parents who share their foraging skills with their children.
Children can be picky eaters. So, we recommend that you start with only the most delish and aesthetically pleasing edibles. Don't be discouraged if you live in an urban area or your backyard isn't the best source of wild plants. There are plenty of delicious specimens to be found in public parks and other wild spaces.
Foraying is the act of observing but not picking forageable plants. Foraying is a great way to assess what's available for eating. You might consider going on a foray with an experienced forager. When you look but don't touch, you are an active participant in conservation.
Never Take More Than You Can Use
While there are times that it makes sense to take a surplus of a wild plant, you must never take more than you can use or preserve. You should always leave a portion of the plant behind so that it can replenish itself. As a forager, you need to serve as a steward of the land.
Do As Little Damage as Possible
You will find that there is a right way and a wrong way to go about foraging. Most foragers strive to do as little damage to plants and fungi as possible. Be mindful that there is likely a proper extraction method for every plant species you come across. You can learn harvesting techniques from YouTube videos, published foraging guides, and experienced foragers.
Beware of Natural and Manmade Contaminants
Spoiled and contaminated foods exist in both the wild and the developed world. Bacteria, parasites, and pollutants can leave you with serious health issues. You should avoid areas with high contamination potential. These include but are not limited to roadsides, drainage paths, and areas with sitting water.
Some contaminants are easily observed. Meanwhile, others can only be examined through toxicology tests. Lab tests are simply not a viable option for regular foragers or survivalists.