White pine twigs and multiflora rose hipsIt’s winter, and most people think winter is a time when there is nothing to forage for and not much to see in terms of plant life. But there is plenty that can be foraged, and it’s a wonderful time to observe and make note of what is around.
When I think of winter plants, trees immediately come to mind. In my area of eastern Massachusetts the white pine and white or paper birch trees stand out, closely followed by hemlocks (a native tree), junipers (red cedar) and arbor vitaes (white cedar). All offer food and or medicine at various times of the year, and all are easy to see in a winter landscape, with or without snow,
White pine needles
(photo by Kylee Foots)
My favorite tree for winter foraging right now is white pine (Pinus strobus). You can use different parts of the tree, including the inner bark and resin, but what I look for are the needles, which grow in bunches of 5 needles grouped together into bundles. I make tea with the needles and it has a lovely piney taste to it. I find it comforting to drink and I know it is helping me ward off colds and flus.
Seeds and Berries
Walking and observing I notice the seed stalks from so many warm-weather plants. They tell me where I can find those plants come spring and summer. But some of those seeds are also useful to use in the winter months. I can sometimes find the seed heads of Queen Anne’s lace, in their elongated nest-like shape, giving the plant one of its nicknames of bird’s nest. The seeds are carroty in flavor and are a nice addition to a hot dish. I have never seen any seed heads of poison hemlock (introduced Eurasian plant) which can be confused with Queen Anne’s lace in the warm months, and in any case does not have the same kind of seed head. PICTURE
I notice the small red berries of barberries and multi-flora rose. Both Japanese barberry and multi-flora rose are considered invasive in our area, but I love them dearly, and appreciate that I don’t have to worry about how much I use them for my food and medicine because I won’t be depleting a rare or at-risk plant resource.
Japanese barberry has red berries, which makes it easily identifiable, and they can be used for tea. I haven’t done that yet, but it’s on my list of teas to make.
The multi-flora rose hips—the red berries—can hang around for quite a while in winter, so if you didn’t collect them earlier in the fall, you can get them now (I am writing in mid-January). They are not that tasty right off the stem, but here is a fab way to enjoy them: when making a cup of tea, take a cluster of hips (no need to take them off the thorny stem) and place it into the tea as it steeps. They will give a little bit of rose hip goodness to you tea. After a few moments, or longer, the hips will have softened and can now be eaten. They taste like tart-sweet fruit and are so delicious! This is a treat only available in winter.
Walking and Noticing
When I am walking I like to notice all the plants around me. If there is no or minimal snow on the ground, I can see the leaves of biennials hanging out between their first and second year of life. I see the seed stalks of goldenrods and asters and sometimes spend time pondering which of those species a particular seed stalk belongs to.
I notice the oak trees with leaves still clinging to the branches, and note the different shapes and sizes of the leaves. Sometimes they are different species of oak, sometimes they are at different stages of how old the tree is. I also notice beech trees whose leaves cling onto them as well.
I look to see if there are freshly fallen twigs or branches of white pine, which I can take home for tea or other uses. The needles must still be a vibrant green, and it is wonderful that they will dry for later use, only losing a little of their luster.
I offer winter foraging walks where you can learn about these and other plants. You can find my information here winter foraging walks .
What have you observed on your winter walks or while driving? Is there anything you like to forage at this time of year? Let me know in the comments below.