By Caroline Clemmons
Suppose you were hiking and became lost. Or, perhaps you’ve been kidnapped and are escaping from your captors. Suppose you’re a pioneer whose horse is startled and throws you, then takes off with your provisions. What would you do?
This question puzzled me several years ago when I wrote a book in which the heroine rushed through a snowstorm to rescue her stepson (Surprise Brides: Jamie). They’re lost, but know the hero will come for them. Until then, what can she do to protect and feed them?
When I was a small child, our neighbor in Bakersfield, California, harvested wild foods such as mushrooms, prickly pear cactus pads and flowers, and dandelions. There were more, but small kids don’t notice everything. My mom—also known as the pickiest eater ever—thought her friend was going to poison herself and her family. Yet, the family thrived. But, that memory wouldn’t help me with the book set in snow by a forest.
Even in winter, edible plants are available. But beware! There are also poisonous plants (as I used in Brazos Bride and High Stakes Bride in the Stone Mountain TX series). How do you tell the difference?
After entering the University of Hawaii as a 36-year-old freshman, Gibbons majored in anthropology and won the university's creative-writing prize. In 1948, he married Freda Fryer, a teacher, and both joined the Society of Friends (the Quakers). The couple relocated to the mainland in 1953, where Gibbons became a staff member at Pendle Hill Quaker Study Center near Philadelphia. While there, he cooked breakfast for everyone every day. Around 1960, through his wife's urging and support, he was able to follow through on his earlier aspirations and turn to writing.
Capitalizing on the growing return-to-nature movement in 1962, the resulting work, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, became an instant success. Gibbons then produced the cookbooks Stalking the Blue-Eyed Scallop in 1964 and Stalking the Healthful Herbs in 1966. He was widely published in various magazines, including two pieces that appeared in National Geographic.
The first article, in the July 1972 issue, described a two-week stay on an uninhabited island off the coast of Maine. Gibbons, along with his wife Freda and a few family friends, relied solely on the island's resources for sustenance. The second article, which appeared in the August 1973 issue, features Gibbons, along with granddaughter Colleen, grandson Mike, and daughter-in-law Patricia, stalking wild foods in four western states.
Gibbons was not a survivalist, but simply an advocate of nutritious but neglected plants. He typically prepared these in the kitchen with abundant use of spices, butter, and garnishes. Several of his books discuss what he called "wild parties", dinner parties where guests were served dishes prepared from plants gathered in the wild. His favorite recommendations included lamb’s quarters, rose hips, young dandelion shoots, stinging nettle, and cattails. He often pointed out that gardeners threw away the more tasty and healthy crop when they pulled such weeds as purslane and amaranth out from among their spinach plants.
His death occurred December 29, 1975 in Pennsylvania. A rumor spread that Gibbons died from eating a bad mushroom. That is not true. He die of an inherited disease called Marfan syndrome, which caused a ruptured aortic aneurysm.
But that doesn’t help us survive in a Colorado winter.
Cattail–. I checked many sources and learned that every part of the cattail was used by Native Americans. My heroine dug up the bulbous roots and baked them like potatoes. In late winter the first shoots that are starting to emerge are reported to taste good.
Conifer Needles– The needles of evergreen conifers are probably the easiest and most widespread thing to forage in winter, even in the coldest climates. Most conifers are edible, with the exception of the yew tree, which is toxic. According to several sources, pine, spruce, fir, and redwood needles make a “tasty” tea.
Juniper Berries– aren’t really berries at all. They are actually a fleshy pine cone with a distinctive scent and flavor. They are most commonly used as a spice rather than a food, and they are the main flavoring agent for gin. A well-known Aspen restauranteur uses them as a spice and as a garnish.
Birch Bark and Branches–Birch trees are another one that can be foraged in colder regions. The bark and small twigs and branches can be made into a tea. The inner bark can also be made into a flour substitute. (Don’t take too much of the bark from one tree as it can be harmful to the growth of the tree.)
Tree Sap– Beyond maples, many trees can be tapped for sap, even black walnut. This is something that is usually done towards the end of winter, as temperatures are just barely starting to get warmer, but the exact timing is dependent on your location. Birch trees are tapped earlier than most, often in late winter, and you can even ferment the birch sap into wine.
Acorns– The nuts of oak trees, acorns (along with most other nuts) come into season in the fall, but you may still be able to find some in the winter if the squirrels haven’t gotten to them first. Acorns require processing first to make them edible, but the resulting flour is supposedly good enough to be used for flatbread. I heard a Native American lecture on the process, and if you were stranded, you might starve before you finished the process.
Maple Tree Seeds– The little helicopter seeds from maples are edible. They may be a bit dried up and may not taste great in winter, but they are often still hanging around.
Dock Seeds–Curly dock and yellow dock are common leafy weeds that are foraged in spring and summer for their greens. In late summer they shoot up a large stalk that will eventually be covered in seeds in fall. Once winter comes, the plant will die back, leaving the dried seed stalk. I’ve heard it’s a pain to forage dock seeds and do much with them, but they can be made into a flour.
Rose Hips–Rose hips are the fruit of the rose flower, and can be found in the wild or in cultivation. They appear in the fall, but may persist through most of the winter, often covered in snow or ice. They are high in vitamin C, and good for tea, jelly, or rose hip syrup. Supposedly, the cold makes them sweeter but a little mushy.
Hawthorn Berries– There are many types of hawthorn berries, and they also persist into wintertime. Not all varieties taste great, but none are poisonous, except for the seeds. Don’t eat the seeds! The berries are high in pectin and can be used to make jelly or jam.
Wintergreen (Teaberry or Checkerberry)–Teaberries, also called checkerberries, are the berries of the wintergreen plant. They will over winter and will often still be on the plant when the snow melts in the spring. The leaves of wintergreen are also edible and can be chewed on or made into a tea.
Uva Ursi (Bearberry or Kinnikinnick)– Uva Ursi is common in the Western states, and is highly prized for its medicinal properties, particularly for urinary tract infections. It does produce berries, but they aren’t tasty, so is more commonly used for its leaves. It’s a low growing relative to the manzanita, and looks somewhat similar. In winter it can be found under the snow, if you are willing to dig for it.
Watercress– This water plant loves cold water and will often grow all winter long. Watercress is a peppery tasting green that is used in salads or any other way that you would use leafy greens.
Oregon Grape– While there probably won’t be any berries left on Oregon grape plants in the winter, the inner bark of the stems and roots is highly medicinal. It contains berberine, the same compound that’s in goldenseal, which is beneficial for the immune system, as well as being antibacterial and anti-inflammatory. Note that Oregon grape is at risk for being over-harvested and is on the plants to watch list.
Burdock Burdock is a thistle that has an edible root. In fact, there are many types of thistles that have edible roots that you might be able to dig up, as long as the ground isn’t totally frozen solid.
Chicory–Chicory grows almost everywhere and the root can be harvested all through the winter (once again, if your ground isn’t completely frozen solid). It makes a nice coffee substitute if you’re in need of a hot drink.
Dandelion–Dandelion root can also be collected through the winter if the ground isn’t too frozen. One author (Wild Food Girl) wrote:
“Other recent snow-forage we’ve found in the Colorado high country includes dandelions, currants, and gooseberries. We found the dandelion greens poking out of snow from grassy beds under willows along the same mining road. Some were as long as my arm!
Many edible mushrooms can be foraged during the winter, especially those that grow on trees above the snowline. .
Yellowfoot Chantrelles– Also called winter chanterelles these tasty mushrooms in the chanterelle family can be found through most of the winter. They have the same false gills as chanterelles, but a hollow stem.
Oyster Mushrooms–Oyster mushrooms grow on downed logs or standing dead wood, and can often be found year round. They won’t tolerate a hard freeze.
Chaga Fungus–Chaga fungus is all the rage right now with its powerful medicinal properties. It presents as a large knobby growth, usually on birch trees. Great care is required when harvesting to ensure that it will come back year after year, as it is a very slow grower.
Turkey Tail Mushroom– This medicinal mushroom also grows on trees through the winter, making it great to forage in the colder months. Turkey tail mushrooms are usually made into a tincture. They support the immune system.
Now you know how to survive in the wilds of winter. Have fun foraging. As for me, I find writing about adventures far more appealing than having them. I’ll be waiting at home.