Winter is obviously not the best season for foraging for wild plant edibles, but in a survival situation there are many plant-based foods you can use to keep you eating even when prospects for wild game come up short.
With a little work learning what’s edible in your area, you’ll be prepared should you find yourself hungry and on your own in the dead of winter. Here are a few options available throughout the United States:
1. Frozen or fermented fruit
Though by January, apple season has been over for months, many types of apples hold their fruit on the tree all the way through winter, especially native crab apples. Some heirloom varieties of apples have been selected for their ability to hold fruit without dropping them well into cold weather. One such variety is D’Arcy Spice, which is traditionally picked in November months after most apples have dropped, and then stored hung from bags off the tree in winter. The apples themselves will freeze, and slowly begin to ferment into calorie-rich hard cider within their skins when the temperatures rise above freezing. Scientists believe that our ability to digest alcohol stems from the ancient practice of harvesting fermenting fruit in winter and early spring, and needing to get as many calories from it as possible.
Other fruits also hang on the tree or vine through the winter include grapes and hawthorn fruit (an astringent native fruit, similar in some ways to a crab apple). For grapes, many wild species ripen long after birds have already migrated, and hang on the vines to be eaten by returning birds in the spring.
2. Water plants
Water has a buffering effect on temperature, and in less extreme climates the ground near small ponds may be workable during warm spells. That’s a good time to go looking for cattails, which can be identified by their dry stalks sticking up out of the water. Their roots are similar to potatoes and are a rich source of carbohydrates. Watercress growing along banks is also high in nutrients, though unfortunately low in calories. Together, steamed cattail roots and watercress can keep you going until your prospects improve.
3. Tree bark
The inner bark of many trees is easy to harvest and contains starchy calories that are easily accessed in winter with the use of a sharp knife or even a pointy rock or stick. Trees such as pine, aspen, beech, maple and linden are excellent choices, and some restaurants are jumping on the foraging bandwagon and making a pine bark bacon by marinating the inner bark in salt and spices before roasting it to a crisp in strips.
Though I’m sure pine bacon won’t fool a true carnivore, it’s something that might add a bit of comfort to an otherwise dire situation, and perhaps help you forget that you’re actually eating bark to survive.
4. Wild berries
While many softer fruits are long since eaten by birds or rotted away, some berries hang on through the winter and are a welcome calorie and nutrient source if you can locate them. Teaberries are the fruit of the wintergreen plant, a creeping forest ground cover. The berries remain edible all winter and can be found in melted patches of the forest floor. Cranberries, similarly, remain tasty all winter and can often be found as late as June of the following year still clinging to the low-trailing stems. Rose hips are a bit astringent, but generally hold on roses, wild or propagated, throughout winter and can help fight off vitamin C deficiency.
If you’re winter tree identification skills are decent, you can find acorns, butternuts and black walnuts by digging in the snow at the base of those trees. Take care to identify those trees ahead of time, noting the distinctive branching pattern of the butternuts and black walnuts, as well as the diamond bark pattern particularly prominent on butternuts.
Once you know how to spot them, they’ll likely be a great high calorie mid-winter food source anywhere squirrel populations are not exceptionally high.
6. Biennial roots
Biennial roots, or the roots of plants that store energy in the first year for seed production in the second year, are a great source of calories in the winter in milder climates where the soil can be worked. Good examples include burdock, wild parsnip, wild carrot (also known as Queen Anne’s Lace), Jerusalem artichokes, thistle root and dandelion.
7. Winter hardy greens
Many nutrient-rich salad wild greens do not die back in winter. They keep their leaves and pause growth during cold and snow-covered spells only to continue growing when temperatures warm slightly or snow cover melts off briefly even in mid-winter. Good examples include sorrel, chickweed, miner’s lettuce and watercress. While they’re not calorie-rich, they can help to balance a diet based on starchy roots or meat by providing micro-nutrients, and help to boost moral by giving you a taste of spring even in the coldest parts of the winter.
What would you add to the list? Share your winter foraging tips in the section below: