Foraging during the winter months can be much harder than the rest of the year it’s true, however that’s not to say there aren’t still plenty of options out there if you just open your eyes and take a stroll.
I will mention a few of the plants that are easily found or most common in my area, and that most people would already know about but may not realize they are edible. I will describe their uses, and how to utilize the plant as best I know how.
1. First up is the Cattail.
Found in wet or swampy areas, this plant is best sought after prior to freeze up, however if you have something with you to be able to break ice then this plant is fine to harvest year round.
If you want to know what to look for. Look for the long hotdog like brown seed heads that have usually opened up into a mass of fluff (which makes a great tinder if you dry it out or spread thin). These grass-like plants will be 3 to 9 feet tall.
These plants can be found All over the world & throughout southern Alaska and Canada. My area has an abundance of them.
Uses- The white starchy material inside the roots can be peeled and eaten raw, or scraped out and used to thicken soups and stews. It can also be dried and ground into flour. While you collect the rootstocks, keep an eye out for little sprouts at the base of the plant. These small whitish spikes can be steamed, boiled, or fried as a tasty vegetable.
Warning – Several species of this plant also grow in wet conditions and bear rootstocks. These are poisonous, and do not have a “hot dog like” seed head. Make sure each plant you take has a cattail seed head attached to it, and you’ll be just fine.
2. Pine Trees, & their cones
The common pine tree produces needles that are great for tea, and pine cones, which can contain small nuts.
This common needle-bearing tree can provide tea and an edible inner bark.
The Needles of the pine grow in clumps of 2 to 5 needles, and pine cones are found on the more mature trees.
Various pine species can be found in open woods and most of North America. My area of Southern Ontario has an abundance of Pine.
Prehaps you’ve already heard of pine needle tea and pine bark flour? The tea is easy to produce. Just grab a tuft of green needles, rip or chop them into small pieces, and drop them into some very hot water. Don’t boil the needles! This makes the tea bitter and the heat destroys the vitamin C. Just steep the needles in hot water for 10 minutes and enjoy. You don’t need too much of the needles to have a very flavourful tea. Also it is very high in Vitamin C.
As for the the bark of the pine trees. Just shave off the inner layer of bark right next to the wood. This layer is rubbery and cream-colored. Dry the strips until brittle and grind them into flour. It has a mild pine flavor and is good for extending your food supply by blending in with other flours. Or try making some bannock bread wrapped around a stick and cooked over the fire with it. You may also be lucky enough to find some larger pine cones with nuts inside them. These are a valuable food high in much needed calories when your out in the bush.
Acorns are on both red and white Oak trees in our area. I know there are many different species of Oak tree, but I am specifically talking about the more common species found close to my area. I believe there to be closer to 600 different Oak tree species world wide, and most of them are actually found in North America.
Acorns alone are bitter to the taste due to the tannic acids, if eaten raw, you can remove the bitterness by soaking them in a bath of hot or warm water. I suggest, bring water to a boil then place the acorns in the water to simmer for an hour close to your fire, but not too close to be boiling the nuts. Repeat this process at least twice if not 3 times. The bitterness should be gone. It is easier to get the bitterness out of the white Oaks than the red Oaks I find, and it may be a good reason it’s a favourite food for the white tail deer. In-fact the white Oak acorns have a natural sweet taste to them.
I realize that this is quite the process in order to eat a few nuts, but to much tannic acid can cause upset stomach and nausea. If you were in a survival situation this is a readily available source of food that would give you all kinds of much needed proteins and calories. You can eat some raw without much problem to your system. But I don’t recommend it.
There are other nuts that can be easily found in Southeastern Ontario that may be of similar value as the Oak tree. I have never tried the following myself though.
and Hickory nuts.
Both of these species of trees can come in very useful in a variety of ways.
Warning- Buckeye Nuts
Buckeye nuts are also found in Ontario and have been mistaken for both Hickory and Black Walnut. I almost did this myself not too long ago. They can also look very similar to Chestnuts which I was looking for; however, Buckeye nuts are poisonous to humans if consumed. So please be sure when selecting your foraging foods.
4. Sugar Maple trees
The sugar Maple tree is where Canadians get their famous maple syrup from. It is a great source to be able to have a treat out in the woods.
Best harvested in the late winter months when temperatures are below freezing and warm up to above freezing temperatures during the day.
If you find yourself out for a wilderness adventure during this time of year it might be well worth your while to bring along the necessary items needed to harvest this delicious nectar.
Yes it takes work, energy, and time to get this right. You should know that in order to produce 1 liter of maple syrup you will need a minimum of 20 to 60 litres of sap from the trees. A general rule of thumb is 40 to 1 ratio.
You will need something to tap the tree with, something to catch the sap with, a container big enough to boil a large enough amount of the sap, and a fine cloth to strain the syrup into another container once it’s ready. But if you are just going off into the bush to play for a week, then this could be an interesting activity to try. And if you get it right then you’ll have an amazing reward at the end of it.
Ok lastly I will talk about the Birch Tree and it’s use.
The Birch tree is the last one I will talk about because it is the most versatile and sought after tree I use while out in the bush. It has so many uses. I have only used a handful of possibilities that this tree has to offer.
1st and the most talked about feature of the birch is it’s outter bark layer. The layer of paper thin bark can be gathered with no tools most often, it curls away from the trunk and simply peels off the tree. This papery bark contains very flammable oils that allow you to be able to start fires easily. All that is required is to scrape the bark gently until you see fibrous particles start to pile. Then simply use a ferro rod and knife edge to spark those fibres, and you will be surprised to see how fast a flame is created.
Secondly, the inner bark is edible. The live twigs, fresh leaves, and even pollen catkins can be foraged from birch to make a peppery minty tea rich in vitamin C. Because birch trees contain a compound similar to aspirin. They are also sometimes used for pain treatment. I myself have never used birch for this.
Collecting birch sap is a more time- invested utilization of the birch tree. It can also be hard on the tree. Please be careful and do some more research on ethical practices when harvesting any trees in the wild. You may be harming the tree if done wrong; however, I would support someone in a survival situation.
Im not saying that you shouldn’t ever forage birch syrup or birch bark, but you can minimize damage to the tree by choosing the right tree & in the right location. If you are going out to practice these skills, then please do further research on how to ethically play in the woods. Playing in the woods can be fun without damaging any natural habitat.
Birch trees have also proven useful for making boat ramps in the wilderness. Birch, if stripped down of its bark will last along time in or around water. If you leave the bark on the tree it will rot out much faster.
This is why in history, birch has been used to make so many other things as well. Such as, roof shingles for shelter building, or, as the outer waterproof layers of canoes, or bowls & cups, & baskets, & fish traps, not to mention birch is used for arts and crafts of all kinds.
Well that’s all I’m going to talk about for foraging plants and trees during the winter in Southeastern Ontario for now. Of course there are many more options available; however, I only wanted to talk about the plants and trees I felt would be recognized by most individuals. Regardless of their outdoor knowledge.
I personally have never had to rely on my limited knowledge of wild eatables in order to sustain myself for food. I do however think it would be a great experiment to try in the near future. For now I’ll continue to bring food with me when I go on my outdoor adventures.
Please remember to leave nothing more than footprints when you leave the bush.