The weather here in Maryland continues to be erratic with lows one night down to 18 degrees F, and the daytime highs up to 70 three days later. If feels and smells like spring outdoors; hopefully this warm, wet spell doesn’t last long or the trees and shrubs will start budding. I know with the fires raging across Australia, I shouldn’t complain about mild weather. But it’s still wrong weather for winter in the mid-Atlantic.
Yesterday we enjoyed a walk in the nearby woods. Very little forage exists this time of year, but the lack of leaves and undergrowth makes it easier to find plants to revisit once the warmer temperatures return for good. Here – in no particular order – are several winter identification highlights for foragers in this area.
Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)
In spring, pawpaw can be identified by the strange red blossoms that grace the branches before other trees start producing leaves. Once the leaves grow in, their large, tropical shape provides another clue. To say nothing of the fruit – and its strong aroma! – in the September / October timeframe.
In winter, you can more clearly see the rough, mottled bark and comparatively slender trunk. Pawpaws in my area are often crooked or bent compared to trees of similar heights, because of how much thinner (and weaker) the trunks are.
They also may have these funny “eye” looking marks on the trunk.
Locally, they are often favorite targets of woodpeckers. Without leaves in the way, it’s easier to see the ring of woodpecker damage around the trunks.
Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)
Most of the nearby hackberries torment me with their crunchy fruit beyond my reach. It seems by the time they are mature enough to bear fruit, the branches are too high to bother. It’s worth noting where the hackberries are, though, and keeping an eye out for low branches or shorter trees. Hackberries are one of the best winter forage options. Even if you don’t care for the consistency of eating the berries straight (they are hard and crunchy and leave little bits in your teeth), you can always use them to make a nutritious hackberry milk.
In this photo, you can see the hackberries – little black dots on feathery stems – silhouetted against the clouds.
Evening Primrose (Oenothera biennis)
In winter, the dried stalks of evening primrose continue to mark the location where the plants can hopefully be found next spring. I say “hopefully” because evening primrose is a biennial. This means the dried seedpods (seen in the photo below) indicate the second year of the plant’s life; you have to check back next year to see if other plants with a staggered growth cycle are available in the same location.
Evening primrose seeds are still hiding in those seedpods. They are edible, and can provide a crunchy topping on baked goods or other dishes; or (more my style) collected and dispersed as part of a reversed foraging strategy!
Black Raspberry (Rubus occidentalis)
Black raspberry canes are much easier to spot in the winter than any other time of the year, because the lack of foliage makes it easier to spot the purplish bloom on the canes.
If these canes were on my own property, I would clear an area around them, and mark them with landscaping ribbon to make sure I could find them again once the delicious dark berries were ready later in the summer.
Wineberry (Rubus phoenicolacius)
Wineberry canes are also more easily identified in the winter. Their canes are distinctly red, and covered with spiky hairs in addition to the brambles they have in common with other Rubus species.
(Personally I am less enamored of wineberries than black raspberries, so I wouldn’t work as hard to encourage this particular crop!)
Black Walnut (Juglans nigra)
Black walnut is one of the easiest nut trees to identify locally in the winter because you can’t miss the decomposing husks on the ground. The shelled nuts within are probably no longer edible at this stage, because bitterness from the husks soaks through the shell into the nutmeat. (Or so I have heard… I haven’t actually tried it myself!)
If the black walnut tree has low branches, you can return in late June / early July to harvest the immature fruit for nocino. (Hopefully yours turns out better than mine did!) Otherwise the nuts should be harvested as soon as they fall from the tree, when the husks are still green; or knocked out of the tree – just be careful they don’t hit you on the way down! I *will* eventually get usable black walnut meat. One of these days! They are too abundant locally to be overlooked as a source of calories, protein and fat.
Sunchoke, aka Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus)
Sunchoke tubers are marked by dead flower stalks. Sometimes they will be bent over, but the stalks will still display the small spiky evidence of where the flowers had been.
Since this isn’t my property, I can’t exactly dig up these particular tubers. Well, I probably could but I won’t. The weather has been warm enough lately that the ground has thawed, and the tubers should be fairly accessible. Thanks to my own backyard sunchokes, I know the edible tubers are attached to long ropey roots, and can spread quite a distance from where the plant originally grew. I actually need to finish harvesting the ones in my yard, or I will be overrun by them next year!
Multiflora Rose (Rosa multiflora)
The sad, small hips of the invasive wild multiflora rose. Compared to the hipsof cultivated roses, these miniscule fruit hardly seem worth the effort. However, they are comparatively easy to locate in the woods this time of year, and they can still be used for rose hip tea which is high in vitamin C.
American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)
I found two more female persimmon trees on the walk, both very young – which means relatively low branches and accessible fruit. Best of all, no roadside undergrowth impinging my ability to collect the fruit! …. when it is available again, next fall.
In this picture you can see the round shape of a persimmon against the sky. I did not bother trying to harvest it, since there weren’t many left, and it’s been on that branch a really, really, really long time at this point!
Beech (Fagus grandifolia)
I’m fairly new to beech trees as a foraged food source. I know they produce edible nuts which are supposed to be delicious. Apparently the nuts only appear every two to three years, and are so beloved by wildlife that it can be a challenge for humans to get any. I have never actually located any, but the trees themselves are extremely easy to spot in the winter. They are some of the few trees to still have leaves, which make a rattling sound when the wind blows.
Apparently young beech leaves are edible as well, before they completely unfurl in the spring. I’ll have to come back in March or April to try for myself!
Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica, Pleuropterus zuccarinii, Polygonum cuspidatum or Reynoutria japonica, depending on who you are talking to)
Throughout the winter, the reddish stalks of Japanese knotweed continue to stand out against the dull gray brown of the surrounding woods.
Because knotweed is such an invasive and destructive plant, it is important to fight back with the tastiest approach: eating it into oblivion. Well, maybe with this small patch such an approach is feasible. It grows next to a culvert, the concrete of which will be no match for the roots if the knotweed is allowed to spread.
This photo shows a closeup of where the flowering parts of the Japanese knotweed had been.
Wild Grapes (Vitis spp.)
I still haven’t found wild grapes low enough to harvest. In the winter, you can look up into the branches of trees and see the dried fruit and tendrils that indicate where to try again the following year!
Immature grapes can be used for a sour drink (or drink mixer) called verjuice. The young leaves are also edible, and can be stuffed like in the famous Greek dish dolma. The ripe fruit are often small and best used for juice or jelly, rather than trying to eat. Although… grape seed extract is potentially good for cardiovascular health, so eating a few grapes (seeds and all) may have additional benefits. I wouldn’t eat too many though, since wild grapes are also high in tartaric acid which can be toxic in extremely high doses.
Flying Dragon Citrus, aka Hardy Citrus (Citrus trifoliata)
You don’t find flying dragon citrus in many foraging books, and I have yet to figure out why. The fruit, while small, can still be juiced and used in applications calling for sour liquids (think lemon juice), and its easily spotted in the dead of winter because it is an evergreen shrub.
My local plant is very prolific and has many offspring surrounding it. You can see the three-part pattern to the leaf and the wicked spikes in this photo of a younger plant.
I have been able to start a few plants of my own, and I hope to add them to my food forest as they grow larger.
Dryad’s Saddle, aka Pheasant Back (Cerioporus squamosus)
In the spring, dryad’s saddle is the consolation prize of the frustrated morel hunter. The mature fruiting body is tough to the point of being inedible this time of year, but finding an inoculated (aka infected) dead tree gives me somewhere to check back in April, when tender young versions of this fungus appear.
Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)
What we didn’t see any sign of: spicebush berries clinging to the branches. We suffered a late April frost which killed the autumn olive flowers, and I suspect it did likewise to the the spicebush flowers as well.
This is how I first found spicebush shrubs, almost exactly two years ago. Luckily I have a photo to share from that discovery so you can see how spicebush berries (which are still usable as a seasoning at this stage) appear on the bare branches.
Here’s a closeup of the bark, which is smooth, light gray and speckled.
You can confirm this is spicebush by snapping off a twig to check for the spicy aroma. Spicebush twigs can be used to make tea as well.
Even in the winter, nature has much to share with us! What hints are you seeing or hearing from nature where you live?