Winter may not seem a promising time to go foraging. The quiet bareness feels magical, to be sure, but not exactly abundant. Many of the wild animals are hibernating. Plants have either died back or their growth has slowed down radically in response to the diminishing light. What could you possibly find that might be of edible or medicinal use for humans?
Yet a winter forager who knows where to look can fill a basket and even make a meal from the forest. Evergreen trees, with their fragrant needles, are still standing strong. Some berries and rose hips hang on to the plants through the ice and snow. Winter is a great time to dig for roots, such as dandelion or burdock. In more temperate regions, like where I live (zone 7a), a few mushrooms persist and the hardiest of wild greens will brave the crisp, cold air.
The Basics of Safe and Responsible Foraging
- Be 100% positive of plant identification. Get a good plant identification book that’s specific to your region. Even better, learn from a real, knowledgeable human.
- Consume only a small amount of a plant if it’s your first time trying it.
- Only take what you can reasonably use. Always leave some for birds and animals, which have a harder time finding food in winter. Be aware of which plants are especially vulnerable to overharvesting. As a general rule, “leave more than you take.”
- Always avoid gathering wild foods in polluted, contaminated, or sprayed areas.
What to Bring
- warm winter gear and good boots
- pocket knife or hand pruners
- trowel or hori hori (for digging roots)
- basket, and bags for keeping your gathered goods separate
- a thermos with your favorite hot beverage (optional, but highly recommended — such a comfort when the cold starts to get to you)
- a plant or mushroom identification guide for your region if these species are new to you
9 Edibles and Medicinals to Harvest in Winter
The needles of evergreen conifers are among the easiest things to identify, and grow widely in a range of climates. Most conifers are edible; the only one that’s toxic is the yew tree. Be sure to harvest only from mature trees and clip small branches.
I’ve had a love affair with evergreens for a few winters now. Their soothing and uplifting fragrances make me swoon. I bring evergreens into my home, even after the holidays, I use them in bath salts, and add drops of Balsam fir essence into the water bucket in our barrel sauna.
Conifer needles are actually at their most flavorful and fragrant in the winter, making them a great go-to winter foraging crop.
The simplest way to use conifer needles is in tea. Pine needles are my favorite for this purpose. They are a great source of vitamins C and A, and have anti-inflammatory properties. They are especially good for any respiratory ailments. This pine needle syrup can be used either as a cough syrup, or as an addition to sparkling water to make a sweet, foresty drink.
All parts of the pine tree are edible, actually. My grandmother survived on bread made out of pine bark flour during WWII. (I very much doubt she would recommend it for a culinary standpoint, but the point is that it pine bark is edible and will sustain you.) See below for uses for pine resin!
The dried, ground berries are most commonly used as a seasoning. They are a classic ingredient in many delectable dishes, and can also be used as a medicinal tea.
Rose hips are the small, red to orange colored, berry-sized balls left on the rose bush stems in the winter. All roses produce rose hips, although those of Rosa rugosa are the tastiest. These tart fruits are very high in vitamin C, and can be used for jellies, jams, syrups, or even as a seasoning. In my childhood, I would eat rose hip jam with my viili (a yogurt-like Finnish fermented dairy product) for breakfast almost religiously. So this one’s close to my heart.
As long as the ground hasn’t frozen solid, you can dig for edible roots of burdock, dandelion, chicory, or Jerusalem artichoke. This is where a good digging tool, such as a garden trowel or the Japanese hori hori, is your best friend.
Burdock is a vigorous plant that thrives across the continent and is easy to identify, thanks to the large, heart-shaped, almost rhubarb-like leaves and the brown burrs that stick to your clothing. In its first year, burdock doesn’t have a stem, only a basal rosette of leaves that stays close to the ground. The aboveground plant part usually dies back in winter, so it’s best to identify and mark your burdock patch in the summer or fall. The root remains viable even after the aboveground part dies.
Burdock root contains inulin, which supports the gut microbiome and thereby improves digestive health. Here are some of the ways to use it:
- steamed gobo, Japanese-style condiment: wash and scrub burdock roots and peel off any bits that are particularly tough. Grate. Steam for 3-5 minutes and serve with toasted sesame oil.
- make a tea with chopped burdock root (fresh or dried)
- use as a base for root beer (recipe in Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide
- make a tincture
- make pickled burdock root.
Dandelions are easy to identify. Almost everyone can recognize a dandelion, and it has no poisonous look-alikes.
In the winter, we harvest dandelion’s roots, a bitter root with excellent medicinal qualities. One of the best uses for dandelion roots is roasting and grinding them to use as coffee substitute. Here’s the long and short of it: Clean the roots, then chop small and spread on a baking sheet. Bake in a 400F oven for 30 minutes or until dry and crispy, but not burned. Grind in a coffee grinder and use as you would use coffee in a French press.
Chickweed, purple deadnettle and onion grass make my favorite “yard pesto” which I can make even in the winter if we get those stretches of warm days that invite the greens to reach towards the sun. Stinging nettles are also exceptionally hardy.
Turkey tail mushroom
Most mushrooms get “mushy” if they freeze. Turkey tail mushroom is an exception. This mushroom is too tough to eat, but is valued for its medicinal properties. They grow in large clusters on fallen logs or standing dead trees, and are quite easy to recognize because of the the leathery feel and stripes that can be quite colorful, ranging from reddish brown to gray-blue or even almost black.
Turkey tails can be made into a tincture or decoction with immune-boosting properties.
Black walnuts drop in our region all through the fall and are best foraged then, but technically you can still find them in winter. They are a tough nut to crack. I have the luxury of a local nuttery where I take mine to be de-hulled and cracked, and then I sort them at home. But once that’s done, you’re looking at a fabulous, local source of good fats and proteins.
My friend Annina created this recipe for a black walnut chocolate crunch bar. That’s right: a chocolate treat made with wild ingredients from the forest!
Pine resin is the sticky, amber-colored goo that pine trees secrete to close any wounds on their bark. Over time, large globs form that are easy to harvest. Friendly tip: use an old pocket knife that’s dedicated to this purpose, as pine resin is just about the stickiest substance imaginable. Alternatively, wipe down your tool with alcohol to remove the resin.
Pine resin is a medicinal rather than an edible. It has antiseptic and anti-bacterial properties, and can be used as survival first aid (forest aid?) to treat wounds or stop bleeding. You can also use it for other glue-like purposes, and as a highly flammable substance, it makes excellent kindling.
I’d love to hear from you — what other things do you forage in winter in your region?