We can go ahead and admit the obvious from the outset: Wintertime is not the ideal time for foraging food, particularly in the temperate climates of the United States. During this time, plants have gone dormant, fruits have been picked, and most gardens—save the occasional winter garden—have been put to bed. The winter is notorious for food shortages.
However, were one so inclined to get outside for a little foraging, there are some viable options out there, and many of them aren’t all that difficult to find. In fact, there is everything from fruit to greens to roots to fungi. What’s more is that much of it is chocked full of nutrition that can help to keep our bodies healthy in the season of cold and flu.
Plus, even if it requires wrapping up warm, sometimes getting outside is such a relief.
1. Pine Needles
Possibly the most easily foraged fodder on the planet, the needles of pine trees, most conifers—pine, spruce, fir, redwood—actually, are edible. Though most folks wouldn’t eat them unless in a real pinch, many people like to make tea. Or, they can add something unusually festive to cookie recipes. They are also sometimes infused into alcohol.
Pine needles have lots of vitamin C and healthful properties, and they have been used medicinally for years. People still use them for a cold remedy. That said, it pays to be careful. There are some toxic species out there, particularly the Yew family. In other words, as always, it’s imperative to become familiar with which trees around and consult a professional and/or a guidebook.
2. Mixed Nuts
Though most nut trees drop their harvest in the autumn, rarely does all of it get swept away by squirrels and other nut-lovers. Coming in handy, hard-wearing shells, they are often fine to sit on the ground for a while and still have a delicious treat inside. There are loads of possibilities for what can be found. Acorns are the most plentiful, and in North America, the annual acorn crop surpasses the yield of all other nut trees combined. Acorns have been eaten for just about as long as human have been eating. Though they are easy to find, they do require a little work to eat. Otherwise, beechnuts, chestnuts, walnuts, hickory nuts, pecans, and pine nuts are some other options to look out for.
3. Rose Hips
Like nuts, rose hips are more commonly thought of as something to forage in the fall. However, they are often still hanging onto the plants into the winter. In mild climates, they might hold tight until spring. Rose hips have lots of vitamin C, and they are commonly used for making tea, jelly, and syrups.
Watercress grows throughout the US, and it is commonly found where shallow water flows. It will form dense mats of tiny green leaves atop the water. It’s rich in minerals and vitamins. Watercress has also been used medicinally for centuries, particularly for treating coughs, gout, and arthritis. The winter will sometimes knock it back, but there is usually some still around to be gathered.
Source: Dominic Alves/Flickr
5. Oyster Mushrooms
Fall is the season for foraging mushrooms, but there is one edible fungus that makes the rounds in the wintertime. Winter oyster mushrooms, as their name suggests, are available in cold weather. They are easy to identify, hard to mistake, and beloved for flavor. That said, as with anything foraged, picking oyster mushrooms requires caution and diligence when identifying.
6. Chickweed & Dandelion
Chickweed, dandelion, and other commonly foraged early spring greens are often available in winter as well, especially in places that don’t get ridiculously cold. Chickweed is mild, nutty and can be eaten raw in salads or cooked in soups. Dandelion greens are best when small, and they have oxalic acid (like spinach) so should be eaten in moderate quantities. The dandelion root is also edible. Burdock, wild onions, and sorrel might be out there as well!
Cattails are actually a fantastic source of starch. They are easy for foraging because nothing else looks like them, and we know exactly where to find them: fresh water. Cattails are crazy edible, from the enlarged tips to the bottom of the stalks and the roots below them. The roots take a little processing, but they can be converted into flour or boiled somewhat like potatoes (with some fibrous strands to contend with). Nevertheless, for the interested winter forager, these are probably available.
Source: Derek Gavey/Flickr
Coastal foragers could look for kelp in the winter. It’s highly nutritious. Giant kelp grows densely in underwater forests, is extremely fast-growing, and likes the shallow oceans. There are many other types of kelp commonly eaten, and in fact, it is the most commonly eaten seaweed. Kombu, wakame, and arame are three other types to look out for.
For that matter, there are lots of types of seaweed that are edible. We just haven’t fully embraced the potential in the West.
Well, that’s a lot of fresh, wild food considering that most of us think of winter as fairly barren. So, for those willing to don a puffy coat and some snow boots, let the forest (and the ocean) be bountiful. Good luck finding something good to eat.
Lead Image Source: Bobkov Evgeniy/Shutterstock