We don’t often think of winter as a prime time to harvest. It’s cold, the ground might be frozen, and nothing is really growing. Almost everything is dead or dormant… or so they would have you believe. Winter is a great time to forage if you know what you are looking for and you’re willing to brave the snow and chill. Plus, it never hurts to make nature your grocery store, especially when you see your heating bill!
Just remember when out foraging in winter (or any time) to make sure you have permission to harvest and that you eat nothing that has been sprayed with chemicals. Also, make sure you are 100 percent with your identification as you should never eat anything you cannot identify. With that in mind, let’s take a look at five easy-to-identify plants that are worth putting your boots or snowshoes on for.
The hackberry tree is unique and very easy to identity, even in the wintertime, as its bark is very distinctive. They have extremely knobby and warty bark that reminds me of those decorative warty pumpkins you can buy in the fall. I have also heard this bark called “alligator skin” but that would have to be one very warty alligator. As the name “hackberry” implies, this tree produces little fruits that are quite edible.
Hackberries have been eaten for millennia, not just by the myriad of critters you will certainly find in the tree, but by humans as well. The “berry” is more nut-like than fruit-like, and is small and purplish with a crunchy shell. They are very high in fat, protein, and vitamins, making them an excellent trail snack especially in winter. To harvest, simply shake or knock the branches until your prize falls and then collect them from the ground. It may take a while to collect enough to do something with, but trust me, your patience will be rewarded.
Take them home and grind in a mortar and pestle and form them into your favorite snack shapes which can be stored for a long time at room temperature. Think of them like nature’s energy bars free for the taking.
If you have ever bitten into an acorn, you probably spat it right back out and wondered why the squirrels make such a big deal out of them. Acorns are very bitter because of tannic acid which, coincidentally, is what makes “dry” wine dry and gives coffee and black tea its bitterness.
Some species of oaks produce more tannic acid than others, so I would recommend you look for acorns that came from the white oak family as opposed to red, as white oaks generally produce less tannic acid than red. (This is a general rule of thumb, but your results, and trees, may vary.) White oak acorns start to germinate in the fall, while red oaks, in the following spring. If you are out foraging in the winter, you may only have red oak available, but if you have a choice, do try to prioritize collecting white oak acorns as it will make processing them much quicker.
Don’t know if the tree you’re looking at is a red oak or a white oak? Look at the leaves, if they have any left. If the leaves are rounded you have a white oak; if they are very pointed and jagged you have a red oak. If there are no leaves, look at the bark. If it is very deeply furrowed, then you have a white oak tree, if very smooth a red oak.
Once you have your acorns collected, make sure to remove any that have holes or that the nut rattles on the inside, and then crack them using a hammer or blocks of wood. Remove the inside meat and discard the shells. Now, in order to make acorns palatable, you will need to remove the tannic acid. This can be done by soaking the acorns in several changes of water until the water remains clear. This can take several days so be prepared to wait. I have heard of people putting the acorns in a mesh sack and putting them in the water tank of their toilet to soak; every time you flush, new water!
Once you have your acorns soaked, roast and then grind to make gluten-free acorn flour which can be added into your favorite baked goods like breads or muffins.
When foraging in the winter, there are many evergreens from which to choose. From cedars to spruce, they all have something worth harvesting. Just remember that some species, like yew, can be potentially toxic so know before you eat, and don’t eat anything you cannot positively identify.
Eastern red cedars have little purple berries that are, in effect, the “pinecones” of the tree. They were used for centuries as a flavoring for meats, but also as medicine by Native peoples. These berries are also what give gin its flavor.
Spruce and pine needles can be made into teas, simple syrups, and fun wines and beers or added to other recipes to give them a taste of the great outdoors.
Rosehips are the fruit of the rose bush. While they form in fall, they often persist into the winter. Rosehips have, pound for pound, more vitamin C than an orange and can be found on both wild and domestic roses. Rosehips make excellent teas, jellies, and even soups and stews. For best results in your rosehip harvest, make sure to pick them after a good frost, as this breaks down the cell wall of the fruit making it softer and juicer.
Don’t get frosts where you live but still want to try rosehips? Just pick and put them in the freezer for 24 hours before using them. Tada, artificial frost!
Jerusalem artichoke is a fun plant to forage in winter, or any time of year. However, they are neither an artichoke nor do they originate in the Middle East. They are in reality the tubers of a flower that looks like a sunflower. They go by other names such as “sunchoke,” or “fartichokes” as they are full of fiber and have a propensity to well… you know.
In the wintertime, the plant dies back leaving the edible tubers in the ground, so it may be best to identify a potential crop while it is still blooming. Some people grow Jerusalem artichokes as privacy screens or in gardens for their tall and beautiful flowers, but they are still a plant that you can find growing out in the wild, especially in undisturbed areas.
After a good frost, most roots and tubers will taste sweeter, and this is the case for this plant as well. If the ground isn’t frozen or you get a good thaw, dig some up and prepare much the same way as you would potatoes. Don’t worry about the plant, as it should come back up from the tubers you are sure to miss during the digging.
Frozen Food: Checking Out
Winter may not be the most productive time of the year, but certainly still has its fair share of free food if you know where and what to look for. From the ubiquitous acorn to the hidden gems of Jerusalem artichokes, make winter a time to throw on the old snow boots, grab your foraging basket, and head to your nearest woodlot.
Who knows? You might just find your latest ingredient in the frozen food department.