At first glance, the winter landscape might appear totally barren; dry fields, bracken, brown leaves, maybe even a covering of snow. Nothing really looks...alive. It doesn't seem like a prime foraging situation.
But what I have found over the years is that even in the deepest darkest months of winter, the earth is alive and brimming with delicious wild foods. Life is still happening out there - you just have to look a little harder. There are birds flickering in and out of the thickets, deer bounding through forests of brittle reeds, foxes hunting in the snowy fields. And seeds, greens and fruit to collect.
There are so many things to gather in winter, but I'll just narrow it down to the things I feel are the easiest to identify, collect, and use. As always, make sure you have a correct ID before harvesting anything, and be sure to forage ethically. It's also a good idea to be sure that the area you're harvesting from hasn't been sprayed with pesticides or herbicides.
Rosehips (Rosa spp.)
Many people completely overlook roses in the winter, forgetting about them once their blooms have faded at the end of the growing season. But roses continue to give all through the year.
Rosehips are the fruit of the rose, forming after the flowers are pollinated and die back. From the showy rugosa rose to the scrappy multiflora, all rosehips are packed with vitamin C. They're tasty and tart in the fall, but the first few frosts of winter sweeten them up.
Rosehips can be dried and added to infusions, cooked into jam, made into a syrup, or dried and ground into a seasoning.
Species like rugosa have larger, jucier fruits that lend themselves better to things like jam and syrup, but don't discount the smaller ones such as multiflora - you may not find enough to make a jam, but they're just fine dried and added to tea or soup.
To harvest, just prune off the hips and collect them in a small jar or bag. Thick gloves might be a good idea, too, if you're not in the mood to be stabbed by thorns.
Note: rosehips have seeds and small, potentially irritating hairs inside. The best way to handle this is to slice them open and scoop them out. For the smaller multiflora hips, I give them a chop and then separate the seeds out. If you're making jam, you can skip this and just run the cooked fruits through a food mill before jarring them up.
Chickweed (Stellaria media)
Chickweed is one of the few wild greens that persist through, and even favor, colder temperatures. Odds are, if you clear away the snow where you saw a patch of chickweed in the spring, there it will be, still growing fresh and bright.
Chickweed has a sweet, green, slightly salty flavor - it's lovely added to salads or brewed into a nourishing infusion. It has a cooling, clearing effect on the body, encouraging healthy lymphatic flow and therefore giving a helping hand to the immune system. Although some herbalists do dry chickweed, I find its much better and more effective when fresh, especially if you'll be using it to make a tincture.
To harvest, just trim the tops off - think of it as giving the chickweed a haircut. This allows the plant to continue growing, and even encourages it to flourish.
Yellow Dock Seeds (Rumex crispus)
Towards the end of summer, the seed stalks of yellow dock turn a deep, rusty amber and begin to dry out. They stay this way throughout the winter, and make one of the best and most reliable winter forage foods.
The seeds can be ground down into a fiber-rich flour that's delicious when added to baked goods (it can make things a bit dense, so I like to sub it in in small amounts).
To harvest, just snip the seedheads off and collect them in a bag. You can also hold a container under the plant and strip the seeds off the stalk - although that's much easier to do at home when you aren't freezing. When you get home, leave the bag outside for a bit to let any wee critters escape (don't worry, they will GTFO as quick as they can).
To process the seeds, add them in handful batches to a spice or coffee grinder and pulse until you've got a flour-like consistency. Don't worry about removing the papery little husks - trying to separate them out is a recipe for a mental breakdown. And besides, they add a bit of extra fiber to the flour.
Hawthorn Berries (Crataegus spp)
The berries of the hawthorn tree cling to the branches long after the last leaves of autumn have fallen. Like rosehips, a few frosts sweeten them up. Early winter is a wonderful time to harvest them, as later in the season they may lose their freshness and start to blacken (not exactly appetizing...).
Hawthorn berries are packed with antioxidants and have a steadying effect on the heart, regulating its beat and toning the muscle over time - many people take them consistently as a cardiac tonic. They taste pretty good, too, and can be processed and prepared in the same way as rosehips; jams, syrups, tinctures, cordials, dried and added to tea.
To harvest them, pick them like you would any berry - just watch the long, sharp thorns that give this tree its name.
The pines, spruces and firs are the beating heart of winter. They are a sign to us that life that continues even under the harshest circumstances. Just breathing deeply in a grove of conifers is a kind of medicine.
The needles of most species, with a few exceptions, are edible. The bark is edible too, but, well, let's just say the work involved and the potential harm to the tree isn't worth it unless you are really in a survival situation.
But the needles are delicious, tart, lemony, and filled with vitamin C. You can infuse them in honey or vinegar, or grind them finely and add them to baked goods. I love to make a sweetener by adding them to a spice grinder with some sugar. A tea of the needles can help you breathe easier when you have a cold, and may help clear up infection, too.
To harvest, first try to find fallen branches. In my experience, conifers, especially white pines, tend to lose their branches easily in storms or heavy snow - you can usually find some scattered on the ground and still fresh. If you can't find any or need some right away, it's all right to snip the ends of a few branches. Just make sure your cuts are clean and sharp, harvest sparingly, and try to take only from the lower branches of mature trees. (It may be tempting to take a few snips from your Christmas tree, if you have a live one, but I'd advise skipping that - many of them have been sprayed with pesticides.)
As I mentioned earlier, some conifers are not edible and may even be toxic, so be sure you've got a correct ID before harvesting. My favorite conifers to forage are white pine (Pinus strobus), norway spruce (Picea abies), fraser fir (Abies fraseri), and douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). All of them have a slightly different flavor, but they're all delicious.
Winter blessings and happy foraging, friends!