Yes, You Can Find Yummy Wild Edibles in Winter

Oh, the weather outside is frightful, but once the snow, sleet and freezing rain passes and the winds die down, it's time to head out for pine needles, birch bark and rose hips. Some foraged foods are meant to be
harvested in winter.

One advantage of learning how the plants look in all seasons is that you know just where to go when it's time to harvest.

                            Pine needles are rich in Vitamin C.

                            Pine needles are rich in Vitamin C.

Pine needles, the mature leaves of the pine tree, are very high in Vitamin C. They so familiar and accessible that we tend to walk right by them without really paying attention to them. All you need is a handful of pine needles, gathered nearest the trunk, where they are highest in Vitamin C. Making pine needle tea is as easy as boiling water.

                              Beautiful, icy rose hips in winter.

                              Beautiful, icy rose hips in winter.

Rose hips are the seeds of the wild roses have lost their blossoms, the bright red berries, are actually quite palatable after a night below freezing temperatures. I like rose hip tea best, but rose hips can be found in other recipes.

I do not know why the liquid created from the inner bark of the birch tree is called "beer." But common names are typically confusing. Winter is the only time to harvest the flavorful cambium, the layer between the inner bark and the wood, for a delicious beverage.

The technique for harvesting the cambium and preparing this beverage are easy, but you need to follow the procedure to ensure you do not harm the birch tree. This tree is easy to identify even without its leaves, because it has the distinct smell of wintergreen. Birch tree branches that have been broken during a storm are the easiest to harvest. You want a branch that is roughly as thick around as two fingers.  Use a paring knife or your pocket knife to shave the bark. Hold the knife at an angle when you do this and you will be able to see three layers. The outer layer is thin, like paper, the inner layer is the hard wood, and the middle layer is soft and easy to scrape. The soft middle layer, called cambium, is what you will use to make this beverage.

                                                                                                        Birch beer shavings.

                                                                                                        Birch beer shavings.

Winter is the the most challenging time of year to forage for plants. Our ancestors needed a large supply of stored food and remarkable hunting skills to survive winter. Maybe that is why my foraging soul finds pine needles, rose hips and birch bark so precious.

On A Quick Warm Winter Forage To Visit My Neighbor

I'm crossing an undeveloped lot where storms have caused maples and pines to break or fall. It's one of those winters with intermittent snow and warming spells. The frost heaves disturb the soil even more. Normally, the earth would be nestled under a blanket of snow.

Instead I can easily pull up a clump of field garlic. I shake of the earth and tie the long greens into a knot. It will be a delicious addition to the pot roast I am planning to cook. Garlic mustard and chickweed also respond as if it is early spring.

I know it's an unusual weather pattern, but it feels good not to have stiff fingers and to have a bit of fresh greens in the dead of winter.

                                                                          Stored, dehydrated, foraged foods to last through the winter.

                                                                          Stored, dehydrated, foraged foods to last through the winter.

This is the time of year when I open my pantry closet. I use canning jars to store dehydrated foods. I keep them in the dark closet and use them for soups and stews. The brightly colored carrots, beets, tomatoes and corn are all from local markets. But the sunchokes, wild leeks and mushrooms were all foraged. Parboiled wild greens including nettles, dandelions and burdocks fill in my freezer where the odd-shaped packages of venison take up most of the space.

Today I'll make chili with the dried beans, tomatoes, hot peppers, onions and corn in my pantry. I'll add field garlic, cilantro, cumin and ground venison. The cumin is the only ingredient that comes from a store.

Maitaike Mushroom Surprise

Wild food foraging is a lot more like hunting than farming. When you go to the farm, you expect to find what you planted. When you go in pursuit of wild foods, there is no guarantee that you will find what you set out to look for. One October a few years ago, I did a back yard forage. This is an adaptation of my notes.

                                     A large maitaike mushroom

                                     A large maitaike mushroom

Sometimes things just work out. It rained most of the day. When the sun came out, accompanied by a warm southwest breeze, I used the last few moments of the day to hunt for mushrooms

I live in New York's Hudson Valley. I can get the commuter bus and be in New York City in just over an hour. I also am within walking distance of Schunemunk Mountain.

I live in a cabin at the back of a property with a huge Victorian house. Next door is an interfaith cemetery. Now, before you get spooked, hear me out. 

Cemeteries offer the ideal border areas between fields and woods. Most of this property has not been developed, offering foraging opportunities and a chance to see a healthy, balanced ecosystem of plants and animals.

When there is a drought, cemeteries water their properties, so the plants and fungi have plenty to drink.

Besides the fact that my neighbors are quiet and respectful, cemeteries can provide some of the best urban and suburban foraging opportunities. 

I can easily do a regular check of specific trees in the cemetery next door, and I know I check this particular red oak within the last week. Did they just pop open after the rain or had  I overlooked these maitaike mushrooms? The larger one weighs about seven pounds; a little more than three kilos. A personal best for me in terms of a maitaike find. Some of my fellow foragers and mycophiles are finding maitaikes weighing 20 pounds or more. It’s almost like hunters or people who fish when it comes to showing off. I’m a rookie, but perfectly happy with my success.

I know a forager who likes to share what he finds only he totes around some of the dirtiest maitaikes. For years I thought that it would be wiser to buy cultivated maitaike than spend time cleaning these mushrooms.

One of the reasons maitakes are so popular, besides the fact that they are delicious, is that there is increasing evidence that maitakes benefit the immune system. The field of medicinal mushrooms is controversial. My foraging passions are driven mostly by the joy of eating. But as I get older, I get great comfort from the idea that there is an alternative to pharmaceuticals.  I add maitakes, which dehydrate beautifully, to chicken soup, as much to help fight a cold, as to enjoy how the mushrooms flavor the soup.

                                                                   Maitaike mushroom growing at the base of a red oak tree.

                                                                   Maitaike mushroom growing at the base of a red oak tree.

              Maitaike mushrooms have many healthful properties.

              Maitaike mushrooms have many healthful properties.

So far, I’ve been blessed to find fresh mushrooms that are also clean. Except for the tiny frog and one worm, I haven’t found too many creatures living in these mushrooms. The bottom lobes sometimes grow around blades of grass or bits of forest debris, but the majority of the maitaike is pristine.

Life is good. I’m happy wandering around in the woods and open places finding wonderful edibles to forage and enjoy.

Fat-Free Treats: Tasty Foraged Comfort Foods

Two days after my pipes froze, the air temperature rose just enough to ensure that the next storm delivered sleet, freezing rain and rain, instead of snow. The skeletal trees were covered in shimmering beauty until their branches released the icy coating that encased them. While snow provides opportunities for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, ice drives people, animals and birds indoors.

Once the danger of being pelted with ice shards passed, a few brave squirrels and a small flock of juncos ventured out in search of birdseed buried under the icy snow.

Woodchucks are the only true hibernating mammals in New York's Hudson Valley. Bears, raccoons, chipmunks and others go into a state of torpor in frigid weather and will emerge if the air temperatures warm up enough. Right now, every living creature is bracing for the next round of storms.

When I’m stuck indoors, I eat the dehydrated and frozen foods I prepared as rewards for my foraging efforts the rest of the year. Fresh morels are tasty, but the flavor of dried morels soaked in milk or cream is more satisfying than chocolate, or sex, for that matter.

I feast on the most exotic foods on the worst weather days. I savor fiddleheads, wild leeks, wine-cap mushrooms, wild hazelnuts and shagbark hickory nuts in anticipation of the warmer temperatures that will hopefully replace ice with rain as the days continue to lengthen.

Visit my recipe page for an easy to make foraged comfort food recipe.

Welcome!

I'm so excited to start a new year with a brand new website to bring the joys and benefits of foraging to a new audience. I've been a forager, lover of fresh, healthful food and environmentalist all my life. In 2015, my goal is to grow a community of Urban, Suburban and Rural Foragers armed with the knowledge to find great natural foods easily without harming the land or animals that live there.