Foraging or wildcrafting for free food in Late Fall and Winter
Winter is not usually a time of year that comes to mind when you think about foraging for wild foods or hunting wild edible mushrooms, but actually there are some excellent and nutritious plants and fungi readily available even though much of the natural world is sleeping.
Because the leaves have mostly fallen and the trees and bushes are bare it makes it easier to see any vegetation or fungal growths that are about and on a mild winter’s day a walk around the countryside and woodland should turn up several valuable food sources.
Winter foods and one to avoid
Chickweed greens (recipe)
Salt and pepper
Spring onions (chopped)
Grated nutmeg (optional)
Wash the Chickweed and place it wet in a saucepan with no additional water. Add a knob of butter, chopped spring onions and seasoning to taste. Simmer for about 10 minutes stirring and turning lightly as it cooks. Add a dash of lemon or some grated nutmeg and serve.
Jew's Ear Fungus
Two edible wild mushrooms that come to mind immediately, and both are common and easy to recognize, are the Jew’s Ear fungus (Auricularia auricula-judae) and the Winter Mushroom (Flammulina velutipes).
The first of these got its name from the idea that Judas Iscariot hung himself on an Elder tree after he had betrayed Jesus and so the fungus, which loves to grow on this type of wood, and which does look very much like an ear, became known as Judas’s Ear Fungus. Over the course of time this was shortened and corrupted to Jew’s Ear.
It will also be found on Beech and Spindle and is a reddish-brown or purplish-pink colour, fleshy in texture and clammy to the touch. The Jew’s Ear withstands frost well and can be frozen solid with no harm being entailed. It grows all year round and in summer can also be dried up by the heat and then revive with a shower of rain.
Jew’s Ear fungi are regarded as a great delicacy in Japan and China and often find their way into dried mixed wild mushrooms on sale in delicatessens. They are best stewed in stock or milk for about ¾ hour or fried with garlic and chopped onions. Preserved with the addition of salt and Potassium sorbate the fungus is on sale as “Instant Jew’s Ear Fungus from China” but it’s a lot healthier to get them fresh from your local woods.
The second edible wild mushroom that is easy to find at this time of year has the moniker Winter Fungus or Winter Mushroom and can be found growing in clumps on dead Elm and the stumps and trunks of other trees. It has orange-brown or yellowish-brown caps and the stems are covered in dark velvet when mature. The spores and gills are white and there is no annulus ring on the stalks.
A variety of this edible mushroom is cultivated in the dark and is known as the Enokitake or the Enoki Mushroom, which is sold in delicatessens and gourmet restaurants. It can be used in soups, stews and other dishes.
A little plant that you will probably find on your way to the woodlands to hunt for fungi is the very common Chickweed (Stellaria media), which may even be growing in your own garden or street. This edible and nutritious herb grows in flowerbeds, allotments, waste ground, the edges of fields, roadsides and even in cracks in the pavement, in fact anywhere it can establish itself.
It is one of the most widely distributed weeds in the world and grows in warm countries and cold ones and in the UK it can be found all year around, which is good news for the winter forager. Chickweed is easy to recognize with its tiny white star-shaped flowers, small leaves and straggling stems.
It is good in green salads or cooked like spinach and is rich in vitamins and minerals. Chickweed reminds me of peas fresh from the pod and because of this I will often munch on a mouthful of the plant.
Herbalists use it as an ointment for skin diseases, sores and piles, and as a poultice for boils and abscesses. An infusion of the dried herb is also used to treat coughs and a decoction of it fresh is good for constipation.
Another common weed you may well find is the Shepherd’s Purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris ). It got its name from its heart-shaped seedpods, which form after its small white flowers.
Shepherd’s Purse is in the cabbage family and very popular in China. It can be eaten in salads or cooked as greens and has been grown as a potherb. It is one of the best herb teas for stopping any form of internal bleeding and diarrhoea and has stimulant and diuretic properties.
Other useful plants you can find whilst foraging in winter are the Cow Parsley (Anthriscus sylvestris), the Yarrow or Milfoil (Achillea millefolium), which sometimes flowers right up to Christmas and has edible feathery foliage, Goosegrass (Galium aparine), which can be cooked as spinach, and the Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) with leaves which can go in salads and roots that can be roasted and ground to make a substitute coffee or cooked in the Japanese Nituke-style.
Cow Parsley grows in woods, along footpaths, on hedge-banks and on roadsides and often covers the ground with its feathery foliage. Later in may it has umbels of white lacy flowers.
It is very versatile herb and is good as a flavouring for omelettes, salads and soups and stews. But be very careful not to collect it from by busy roads where it will be polluted by traffic fumes and not to mistake it for the deadly Fool’s Parsley (Aethusa cynapium) or the Hemlock (Conium maculatum), which have slightly similar leaves and might be found in the same sort of locations.
Fool’s Parsley normally is a much flimsier looking plant than Cow Parsley and is usually found as single isolated plants. Hemlock is bigger, has stouter stems spotted with purple and an offensive smell if bruised.
However, if there is any doubt about identification either consult someone who is practiced at collecting wild plants or a very good wild flower book. It’s better to be safe than sorry, although in winter there is far less chance of misidentification.
Yarrow tends to grow in grassy places including lawns. In summer it has white or pinkish flower heads and some related species are cultivated in gardens.
It makes a good herb tea that increases perspiration and is a remedy for colds and flu and is also helpful for the relief of indigestion. Because of its astringent properties herbalists have used it for treating wounds.
It is quite bitter but may be added to salads in small quantities. The leaves can also be stripped from the tough stems and mixed in with greens, although again only in moderation.
Goosegrass is a herb that children young and old love to throw at their fellows, because as its alternative name Cleavers suggests, it sticks to clothing. This is due to the microscopic hooks that cover the plant and are all over its small hard burr-like seeds. Later on in the year when these are plentiful they can be collected and roasted and ground up as yet another coffee substitute.
Fortunately in winter it should be free of seeds and fresh and tender. The herbalist John Evelyn recommended the young shoots in spring puddings and soups but there’s no reason not to use it in dishes made at other times of the year. An infusion of the fresh herb has been used as a springtime tonic in parts of central Europe and it is believed to help purify the system.
Dandelions can be found in all but the very worst winter weather with prolonged snow and ice and in the UK today this is becoming increasingly scarce. Where you can find the leaves you will also find the root and so you are getting 2 types of food from this common plant.
Another one to look out for is the Winter Cress (Barbarea vulgaris), which has dark green leaves similar to Watercress in appearance, and is found in waste places and on the banks of streams. It is good in salads or cooked as greens and in America it is so popular that it is sold in markets there.
Food For Free
If you happen to live near the sea you can look for Alexanders (Smyrnium olustratum), because this potherb likes to grow on hedge-banks on the coast, and, as Food for Free author Richard Mabey points out in his book, its young sprouts and glossy leaves can often be found pushing through the snows of January. The stems can be lightly boiled and eaten like asparagus with molten butter. Cut them at the base and don’t worry about the smell like Angelica because this disappears with cooking.
On a short walk you may be able to find most, if not all, of these wild flowers and fungi and there’s a lot of satisfaction in thinking you have managed to gather foods from nature in the depths of winter.
NB: First published in Permaculture magazine Number 46, Winter 2005