When the Leaves are Gone

As the year draws closer to its end, the quiet and stillness of the forest might lure you into thinking that foraging is done for the year. But now that the leaves have fallen, it is the perfect time to identify foraging opportunities for future seasons. Here are a few examples, in no particular order.

Sweet Birch (Betula lenta)

OK, I might seem obsessed with sweet birch lately. But it provides a perfect example for today’s post. If you weren’t comfortable identifying the tree based on its bark, the male catkins and delicate twigs with alternating buds clearly mark the tree when silhouetted against the winter sky.

Sweet birch catkins and stems
Sweet birch catkins and stems

The photo below shows a sweet birch (left) next to another tree of a different species (right), and you can clearly see the difference in stems between the neighbors.

Sweet birch (left) compared to a different species (right)
Sweet birch (left) compared to a different species (right)

I’m currently trying to locate enough birches large enough to tap in the spring, and this identification method is very helpful to make sure I have the correct trees!

Beech (Fagus grandifolia)

Beech trees stand out in a dull gray forest because their coppery leaves cling to the branches the entire winter. The pop of color is unmistakable. (Today I learned the term “marcescence” describes when a plant hangs on to dead organs – like leaves in the winter – that are usually shed.)

Beech's coppery leaves
Beech’s coppery leaves

I have yet to find an actual beech nut on any beech trees I’ve encountered, but I hold out hope for someday. Apparently the trees need to be at least 40 years before they produce nuts, so this little specimen has a long way to go!

Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina)

The clusters of drupes cling to the female staghorn sumacs year-round, making it easy to find them in winter to mark for future foraging.

Female staghorn sumac drupes
Female staghorn sumac drupes

While the drupes will linger, the quality will likely deteriorate. Plus any precipitation (i.e., snow) will wash the sour flavoring off the outside of the drupes. But now that you know where they are, you can return next summer. Just make sure not to harvest sumac drupes from along roadsides!

American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may have noticed I’ve been quiet this year about persimmons. I have decided until I have my own trees (at least one male and several female for this dioecious species), I am not going to forage them. The abandoned roadside persimmons of my acquaintance are just too tannic to eat, no matter when you harvest them.

American persimmons
American persimmons

That said, if you are looking for persimmons in the wild, you can find the females more easily after their leaves have fallen and a handful of remaining fruit become apparent against the sky.

Wild Grapes (Vitis spp.)

Wild grapes are another fruit which is often hidden by summer foliage and then revealed in silhouette in the late fall.

Wild grapes
Wild grapes

Not that I would recommend trying to forage them at this point, mind you. (No matter how disappointed I was by my pitiful grape harvest this year.) I’m sure they are shriveled to the raisin stage, or rotten, or fermented, and these clusters are still way out of reach. But I can start thinking now about ways to encourage growth closer to the ground, perhaps by strategic removal of a branch or two on the supporting tree. Or maybe I’ll just rent a cherry picker next year!

Hackberry (Celtis occidentalis)

Also maddeningly high above the ground: the fruit of the hackberry tree.

Hackberry fruit out of reach
Hackberry fruit out of reach

Without the leaves blocking my view, it’s easier to see which hackberries do or do not have fruit. The one growing in my yard? Does not. The ones growing along our street? Do. But not within reach!

Unlike grapes, however, the hackberries will last all winter thanks to their low moisture content. So I have some time to strategize a way to reach them.

American Hazelnut (Corylus americana)

Alright, this picture might be cheating, given that it’s obviously a “domestic” hazelnut rather than a wild one.

Hazelnut male catkins
Hazelnut male catkins

This diminutive specimen is one of my reverse-foraging attempts, and of the three hazelnuts I planted, the only one to show signs of maybe producing nuts next year. (YAY!) Hazelnut trees generally don’t produce nuts until about four years of age, so I’m not sure what that says for this one. However, the drooping male catkins on the hazelnut branches are much easier to see when the leaves are gone, and helped me identify my first wild hazelnuts well over a year ago.

Sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum)

Sourwood is easy to spot because the remains of last year’s panicles (flower stems) dangle from the end of the branches like tassels.

Sourwood "tassels"
Sourwood “tassels”

(Note the birch tree catkins in the background!)

Sourwood flowers, which make their appearance in the spring, can be used to make jelly. I’ve searched online and not found an actual recipe for said jelly, but I’m guessing it would be similar to the approach we used for Queen Anne’s Lace jelly this past summer.

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