One of the things new (and sometimes not so new) foragers are often surprised by is the number of winter edibles that are available in the Great Lake Region. I’m not talking about scraping lichen off rocks, or choking down the inner bark of pine trees, or wading into icy water to get cattail roots. I mean actual food. Things you can reasonably harvest and use in your kitchen, and not feel like you’re being punished for something.
Winter is the time for roots. While the above ground parts of the plants are dormant, all of their nutrition and energy is stored in the roots. So until the ground freezes solid, and if we get a mid winter thaw, and as soon as things start to thaw out in spring, think roots. Burdock, parsnip, thistle, day lily, sunchokes, garlic, onions, leeks, chicory, wild ginger, and sassafras are all prime in the winter. Some of these plants, like sassafras twigs, have obvious above ground parts that are easy enough to idenifty even when dormant. But for the most part, it pays to scout out these plants in the summer and fall so that you know where to look when the plant has died back.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds, left over from the fall, are also good for winter foraging. Red oak acorns, hickory nuts, and hazel nuts are cached by squirrels and other small mammals, and you can find their little piles in or near the bases of trees. But if you find someone’s hoard remember to leave most of the nuts for the animal that put them there. You arent’ starving, but by spring that little animal could be. If you look hard enough you can still find an occasional acorn or hickory nut of your own under the parent tree, so you don’t have to raid anyone’s stash. Black walnuts are plentiful and easy to find. They will gather in low spots near their parent trees all winter. Honey locust, redbud, and some types of maples have seeds that stay on the trees until late in the season, and they are easy to spot once the leaves have dropped. Queen Anne’s lace, several species of dock, and field garlic also hold their seeds well into the winter and can easily be seen poking up above the snow.
There are actually a few green plants who’s main harvest season is in the winter. Chickweed and several of the cresses (bitter cress, winter cress, watercress, and yellow rocket to name a few) start growing in fall or over the winter during brief thaws. These plants flower in early spring, and then many of them die back for the year, not to reappear until the next fall or winter. There are also several common lawn weeds that can often be found in protected areas, like south facing slopes or right next to builgings, where the snow is not too deep and there are warmer microclimates. Garlic mustard, plantain, dandelion, sheep sorrel, creeping charlie, and strawberry leaves are actually fairly common if you can find the right location. Like some of the root veggies, it is best to scouth these plants out and know where they are growing so that you can easily find them under the snow. If you are in the north, reindeer moss can be an interesting and fun addition to your meals. And if you are farther south you may be able to find things like nettle or chicory when there are mid-winter thaws. And then there are the plants that are green year round. Pine, juniper, cedar, spruce, and wintergreen can all be used in teas or as seasonings to provide great seasonal flavors for winter dishes.
Yes. Fruits. Cranberries are the classic example of a winter fruit, and can be found well into the season if you can find the right location. But several other plants hang onto their fruits into winter. Rose hips are plentiful and easy to harvest, and they are rich in vitamin C to help ward off seasonal colds and flus. Apples and crab apples of all types will also hang onto their fruit into winter. Juniper berries (although technically not a fruit) ripen in winter and make great additions to winter stews and crock pot dishes. Autumn olive berries can sometimes be found, along with a few of the viburnums, like nannyberry and highbush cranberries. One of the interesting things about fruits is that many of them- cranberries, autumn olive, many of the crab apples, and highbush cranberries- actually taste betterafter a frost or even a hard freeze. The freezing changes their chemistry and makes them sweeter.
There are a few mushrooms that can pop up when we get those mid-winter warm ups in the southern Great LAkes region. Especially if it rains. Look for oysters, dryads saddle, enoki, and wood ear. If you’re in the north there isn’t much chance for a warm up. However, in the north there are birch trees. And where there are birch trees there is chaga, which is most easily found in the winter when the leaves are off the trees and you can see some distance into the woods.
I know, I know. I said I wouldn’t talk about choking down pine bark. And I won’t. But some trees have bark that is actually worth harvesting, and winter is a good time to do that. Sassafras and spicebush both have very aromatic barks that are excellent additions to the spice rack. Both go really well in the standard holiday/pumkin pie type spice mix. Shagbark hickory bark is used to make a delicious syrup. And I hear that yellow birch bark can be fermeted to make a drink that tastes remarkably like cream soda (althouth I haven’t personally had the opportunity to try it).
So there you have it. Over 50 different wild edibles that are worth the time and effort to harvest in the winter. This was a fun post to write. Thank you to everyone in the Will Forage for Food Facebook Group who helped me brainstorm this grocery list.
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