by Lyza Hayn
Are you sad about summer finally winding down? Well, things in the forest are heating up. Contrary to what many assume, colder weather doesn’t mean the end of foraging. Cold weather ushers in unusual edibles, fresh flavors, and creative cooking techniques you just don’t see in the warmer months.
Rest assured, there’s plenty to harvest this time of year. Read on to discover my favorite edible plants to forage in fall and winter, and make this season a profound stepping-stone on your journey to self-reliance.
8 Plants to Forage in Fall and Winter
This list is by no means exhaustive. It’s just a short introduction to the world of winter foraging. Each plant listed below has a pretty wide range, but it’s unlikely all will grow near you. Once you learn to identify commonly available options, you can move on to more specific winter plants for your region.
Also known as a sunchoke, the Jerusalem artichoke is a delicious root vegetable best harvested in late fall and early winter.
You can recognize these tasty tubers by their gorgeous yellow blooms, which pop up in late summer and reach up to ten feet tall.
Look for sunchokes in the summer, when you’ll be able to recognize the flowers and become familiar with their habitat.
However, don’t harvest them until after the season’s first or second hard freeze—they’re comprised mainly of inulin starch, which is converted into fructose when frozen. So, sunchokes always taste sweeter after a freeze!
Black walnuts are a wild, gamier version of cultivated walnuts. The trees grow in fields, forests, and along riverways, generally dropping nuts in the late fall and early winter. The nuts are encased in a green, tennis ball-esque shell that is an absolute bear to break into, but it’s well worth the effort. Rich in fats and proteins, black walnuts prove a great boon to winter larders.
If you live in a temperate-to-humid area where the trees thrive, black walnuts are incredibly plentiful when the season rolls around. However, processing them is hard work and takes patience. You can store the nuts inside their green shell for several months if you’re not ready to take on the task. And if you’re looking to make a buck, the nuts can fetch a pretty penny at the market. They sometimes sell for upwards of $15 per pound!
Hop-hornbeam seedheads look quite similar to their namesake hops, but don’t be fooled. The two plants aren’t even related, as hop-hornbeam is a tree rather than a vine and would probably make a pretty gnarly beer. Winter foragers aren’t in it for the fermentation, but we are going after the seeds. Packed full of protein and fat, this plant provides crucial macronutrients in colder weather.
And you’ll have to wait for colder weather to take advantage of them, since seeds don’t actually become palatable until winter. If you find hop-hornbeam trees near you, harvest seeds from the dry, husky catkin. You can eat them raw, but I prefer them roasted with oil and salt.
Also known as wintergreen, teaberry is a tart trailside snack that provides a refreshing, colorful burst of red in the dead of winter. As surrounding trees drop their leaves, wintergreen has a chance to get at the sunlight and truly thrive. The resulting teaberries are where we get wintergreen flavoring for gum, tea, and other things.
While the pea-sized teaberries won’t provide an abundant source of free food, they do make an interesting garnish and can be harvested in larger amounts for jams, jellies, syrups, and teas. You’ll find them in deciduous hardwood and conifer forests, and they’re sometimes planted as ornamentals in the city.
Most pine species are edible, but take special care to avoid yew, ponderosa, and Norfolk Island conifers. These aren’t actually true pine, but they look very similar and are very toxic. Furthermore, never harvest from a living tree—only take from recently-fallen pines unless you really need the food. It could harm or even kill the tree.
With that out of the way, pine is probably the most underrated winter edible out there. You can harvest the outer and inner layers of bark for a rich source of carbohydrates, either grinding it down to a powder for baking, boiling it, or simply eating it raw. Spruce tips and pine needles make a delicious, vitamin C-rich infusion, while the seeds provide nutty flavor and a bit of fat to round out the experience.
Oyster mushrooms are a delicious harbinger of autumn and winter. Cold-weather varieties fruit prolifically in the dark recesses of damp forests, sprouting from downed hardwoods in delicious, snow-white shelves that fan outward in search of sustenance.
You’ll recognize these tasty shrooms by their gilled undersides and classic oyster shape. They can provide carbs, abundant vitamin B, and a few essential fatty acids during wintertime. However, it’s important to note that novices should never harvest mushrooms without the help of an experienced forager. Many varieties are highly toxic, and it’s easy to get mixed up!
Wood Ear Mushroom
Wood ear is a delicious nutritional powerhouse used both culinarily and medicinally. This hearty shroom actually grows year-round in my neck of the woods, though in other areas it does seem to prefer cooler temperatures. You can identify wood ear by its ear-like appearance, jellied texture, and rich brown color.
If you find a patch, you can slice it into strips, boil it, and use it like noodles. Other popular ways of consuming it include stir-fries and warming winter soups. You can also make wood ear tincture or vinegar infusion to take advantage of beneficial antioxidant compounds. Remember, don’t eat any mushrooms you cannot positively identify.
Crab apples are a delightfully tart cousin of the larger apples we find in the grocery store. Hunting them out in the wild can prove an incredibly fruit-ful endeavor, since they can be collected en masse and stored for use throughout the colder months. Making crab apple preserves or simply jarring the fruit provides easy energy in the form of sugar and doses you up on vitamins.
You’ll find crab apples along forest edges, sunlight-dappled understory, and planted ornamentally in parks and roadsides—though you should take care not to forage from areas that have been treated with chemicals.
Feeling hungry yet? Grab your jacket and get outside! Now that you know some of the best plants to forage in fall and winter, you’re ready to hit the trail for some cold-weather eats today.
Are you a year-round forager? Do you have any cold-weather edibles to add to this list? Have you ever prepared the items suggested in this article? Any tips?
Let’s discuss it in the comments section.
Lyza Hayn is an Ozark native forest-dweller and seasoned survival kitchen whizz. Foraging is her passion and wildcrafting is her (elderberry) jam. She knows how to gather, cook, and preserve hundreds of wild edibles, tincturing and pharmacrafting dozens more. By focusing on alternative food sources and natural remedies, Lyza knows we can all live a more independent lifestyle. Her mission is to help others utilize the world around them to reduce their dependence on established systems and create a more self-reliant future.
You can check out her website at www.letteredbylyza.com or follow her on Instagram @yourmountainhome to see her point of view in photographs.