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Winter Foraging

February 6, 2012

There are plenty of edible greens in the warm months of the year, but what is there to eat in the wild when the ground freezes and most plants are dead or dormant?

Certain weeds produce plant acids which prevent them from freezing in Winter. Even under the snow, these plants persist, furnishing food and medicine for the knowledgeable forager. It helps, of course, to identify a patch in the Summer or Autumn so you will know where to clear away the snow when the plants are covered. Otherwise, the dried flower stalks of certain plants may hint at the location of related greenery nearby.

 Winter cress

Winter cress is a mustard family member, related to watercress, A known phrase is: “Watercress grows in the water, and winter cress grows in the Winter.” The summer phase of this plant, with small yellow flowers on a knee-high leafy stalk, is inedibly bitter, although the flowers and seeds make a spicy condiment. The low-growing basal rosettes of late Autumn, Winter, and early Spring, are tasty in a pungent, mustardy fashion, with an unexpectedly sweet undertone. The longish stems are lined with tiny, irregular leaflets, ending with a large, spade-shaped terminal leaflet. Add the leaves to salads and soups for a spicy touch and a supply of Vitamin A and anti-oxidants. Look for them in moist meadows and near streams and ponds.

  • Onion grass or Field garlic

Both names refer to a familiar plant of lawns and disturbed areas. Its leaves superficially resemble blades of grass but are easily distinguished by their tall, often drooping appearance, dull green patina, cylindrical shape (they are actually hollow), and finally, their oniony smell and taste. They look a bit like several other lily family plants that happen to be toxic; however none of them have the onion smell, so always test for the odour before harvesting. Use the leaves and bulbs for flavouring as you would scallions. Like garlic, onion grass contains Vitamin C and anti-microbial properties, for preventing and treating colds; it should be eaten raw for this effect. Raw or cooked, it helps regulate blood pressure and cholesterol and provide B vitamins and many trace minerals. Children are generally experts at identifying this plant and are excited to discover a practical use for their knowledge, such as making a vinegar extract of onion grass to use in cooking or put on salads.

  • Garlic mustard

This common weed grows in open woods and at the edges of gardens, woods, and buildings. The roughly heart-shaped leaves grow on individual stalks 1-4″ high and are often visible above shallow snow.
In late spring, garlic mustard puts up a slender, thigh-high flower stalk. In winter, the dried stalk often survives, with inch-long narrow, tan pods sticking out from the sides. Although the leaves grow year-round, it’s the small Winter and Spring examples that are most tender and least bitter. They can be added to soups and salads for extra piquancy and a dose of calcium, potassium, B vitamins, and cancer-preventing antioxidants.


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