22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

It’s late November here in Quebec, and the snow is already a foot deep. The pantry has been well stocked with home-grown and foraged bounty. That said, we like to forage year-round, and the cold months are no exception. Below are 22 plants you can forage in the winter, ranging from nuts and seeds to fruit and fungi.

22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

Plants and Trees

Herbaceous plants drop leaves or die off in the wintertime, but many still have fruits clinging to their branches. Furthermore, many also have edible and medicinal roots that you can dig up.

As for trees, there are both deciduous and coniferous species that can be foraged and enjoyed during the cold months, depending on where you live.

1. Rose Hips (Rosa spp.)

22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

Do wild roses grow in your area? If so, it’s likely that you’ll find rosehips clinging to the vines—even beneath the snow. These fruits are packed with vitamin C and are incredibly tasty in tea, jam, jelly, and even dried into a powder.

2. Stinging Nettles (Urtica spp.)

22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

If you’ve ever tried to get rid of nettles, you’ll know how stubborn and persistent they can be. Truth be told, it’s this persistence that makes them invaluable for winter foraging. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve dug into the snow and uncovered nettles growing just above soil level.

3. Wintergreen (Gaultheria spp.)

22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

These low-growing evergreen shrubs are widely distributed worldwide. Their leaves have a sharp, minty fragrance and are often used medicinally. Some species also have edible fruits.

Do some research to determine which wintergreen species may grow near you, as well as the trees they often grow near. Then brush away snow from the area to check whether any of these plants are growing beneath it!

4. Sunchokes (Helianthus tuberosus)

22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

These can be difficult to dig out of frozen soil, but hunger can be a great motivator.

As members of the sunflower family, sunchokes’ aerial parts can grow up to 10′ high. These dry into tall canes in wintertime, which are easily visible above even the deepest snow. To dig out the edible tubers, clear away surface snow and then use a pickaxe to cut into the frozen ground beneath. The knotted tubers will contrast brightly against the dark soil.

5. Pine Needles and Bark Cambium (Pinus spp.)

22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

Pine trees might not be the first to come to mind when you think about plants you can forage in the winter, but they’re rather wonderful to work with. Try brewing the needles into tea, or drying out the inner bark (cambium) to use as flour in baked goods.

Note that some pine species can have abortifacient properties. [1] As such, women who are pregnant or trying to conceive should avoid eating or drinking pine products.

6. Fir Needles (Abies spp.)

22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

Fir needles can be used in the same way as pine. Furthermore, they have a gentler flavor and are less resinous than other conifers.

Just be very careful when harvesting them! The rule for identifying fir trees is that their leaves are “flat and friendly”. That’s great, but there are some highly poisonous trees out there whose leaves also fall into this category.

For example, yew tree leaves are flat as well, but a cup of yew tea can be deadly if ingested.

7. Spruce (Picea spp.)

22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

Use spruce needles for tea the same way you would with pine or fir.

Additionally, spruce beer is a lovely, non-alcoholic soda that’s gorgeous during the festive holiday season. You can buy it from Canadian grocery retailers, or try brewing your own!

8. Cedar (Cedrus spp.)

22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

Much as with pine and spruce, cedar tea has been sipped by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. Its high vitamin C content can help stave off scurvy, and its warming, anti-inflammatory properties can boost immunity and reduce cold and flu symptoms.

Simmer a handful of fresh cedar leaves in about 4 cups of water for 15 minutes. Then sweeten to taste, if desired.

9. Birch Bark Cambium (Betula spp.)

22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

Dry and pulverize inner birch bark the same as you would with pine cambium. It has a lovely, earthy flavor with just a hint of minty sweetness.

Please don’t pull bark off living trees, however. If you cut one down for firewood, take the bark off once felled, and scrape out the cambium then.

10. Burdock Root (Arctium spp.)

22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

You should be able to find burdock plants even in the dead of winter. Their tall stalks, covered with the velcro-like burrs that stick to literally everything, tower several feet upwards, out of the snow. Just chop down the stalk, get the burrs out of your hair, and dig up the long edible taproot.

This can be cooked and eaten like a potato or turnip. In fact, pickled burdock roots are often used in Japanese and Korean cuisine. We julienne them to add to kimchi, or pickle them for sushi rolls.

11. Cattail Roots (Typha spp.)

22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

If there are wetland areas near you, then you can pull up some tasty cattail roots. They’re starchy and delicious, and can be cooked and eaten as they are, or transformed into flour.

Cattail roots were a staple food for First Nations peoples for millennia. They’re remarkably versatile, and ideal additions to the winter diet.

12. Usnea (Usnea spp.)

22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

Be sure to keep usnea in mind when looking for plants you can forage in the winter. This fruticose lichen is one of the most medicinal plants out there! Furthermore, it’s easier to find in the wintertime because it isn’t obscured by dense foliage.

Look for it on dead or dying coniferous trees throughout North America and Europe. You may also find it growing on dying walnut, apple/crabapple, hickory, or oak trees.

Nuts and Seeds You Can Forage in the Winter

If you’re going out winter foraging, remember that you’re not limited to living plants. Many species have edible nuts and seeds that stick around after the plants themselves have died back.

13. Pine Nuts (Pinus spp.)

22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

You know all those pine cones that people gather for decorations? They’re filled with edible seeds commonly known as “pine nuts”. You can eat these raw or cooked, tossed into various dishes, or made into pesto.

Just please be sure that you know which Pinus species is growing near you. Norfolk Island pines, Lodgepole pines, and Ponderosa pines are all toxic to humans. Foraging for edible and medicinal plants is fun, but significantly less so if you poison yourself and your family via misidentification.

14. Acorns (Quercus spp.)

22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

If you have the time (and the patience) to leach tannins out of acorns, then add these to your list. Acorns are easier to find in autumn than winter, unless you’re in a place that doesn’t get heavy snowfall. Out here, if we want to find acorns in the dead of winter, our best bet is to dig the snow away and search for them under leaf bracken.

Acorns are quite tasty when leached properly, but winter-gathered acorns can be hit or miss. The key is to examine them carefully when you find them. If you see a small hole anywhere on the outside of the acorn, toss it to the squirrels. Those holes show us that worms have taken up residence, and they’re not tasty at all.

15. Black Walnuts (Juglans nigra)

22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

Are you lucky enough to have black walnut trees growing nearby? Then be sure to forage for some of their tasty nuts over the cold months! You may have to fight a few squirrels to get to them, but you can probably win that battle.

Unless they gang up on you.

16. Beech Nuts (Fagus spp.)

22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

Beech trees aren’t as common as they were a century ago, but their nuts are worth foraging for. If these trees grow anywhere near you, be sure to go out scavenging—even if it’s cold and snowy outside. The nuts have to be leached of tannins, like acorns, but the sweet, earthy flavor is well worth the effort.

17. Curly Dock Seeds (Rumex crispus)

22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

The seeds of Rumex crispus plants are as tasty as they are nutritious. They turn dark brown in autumn and winter, and can easily be found poking above the snow. If local wild birds and mammals haven’t taken them all yet, you can harvest these quite easily.

Once they’ve been harvested, roast or toast them lightly to dry them out. Then add them to baked goods, cook them into porridge, or grind them into flour.

Then, use them to make pancakes, mix them with other flours, etc. Just note that like their buckwheat cousins, these seeds can be quite bitter. As such, you’ll need to counterbalance that with honey or maple syrup if you’d like palatable baked goods.

Fungi

There are a number of fungi species that you can still forage in winter, depending on where you’re located.

18. Velvet Shank Mushrooms (Flammulina filiformis)

22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

Are oak, ash, willow, or elm trees plentiful in your area? Then hunt around for these lovely, velvety, edible ‘shroomies. Flammulina velutipes mushrooms are wild cousins to farmed enoki mushrooms and are as beneficial to our health as they are scrumptious.

Look for them throughout Europe, the UK, and North America, but be sure to identify them properly. There are some lookalike species that are significantly more toxic and less tasty.

19. Turkey Tail Mushrooms (Trametes versicolor)

22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

These may not be the tastiest plants you can forage in the winter, but they’re certainly some of the most medicinal. These mushrooms are packed with antioxidants and are natural immune boosters. Furthermore, they contain polysaccharide K, which is used as a cancer adjunct therapy worldwide. [2]

20. Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus)

Growing blue oyster mushrooms

Depending on how severe winter gets near you, there may be oyster mushrooms available. These delicious edible mushrooms grow on dead or decaying hardwood trees such as oaks, aspens, birches, and beeches. They’re found all over North America and parts of Europe and are some of the most common wild edibles you can find.

Just be sure to do your research so you know you’re identifying them properly.

21. Chaga (Inonotus obliquus)

22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

If you live in a colder section of the Northern hemisphere where birch (Betula) trees are plentiful, then definitely try foraging for chaga.

This beneficial fungus grows exclusively on birch trees and is treasured in the Scandinavian and Slavic countries for its healing properties. In fact, modern studies are confirming why chaga has been used to effectively treat cancer for thousands of years. [3,4]

Winter is my favorite time to forage for chaga, since it’s much more visible. Additionally, it’s easier to pry it loose when it’s cold out.

22. Reishi (Ganoderma spp.)

22 Edible and Medicinal Plants You Can Forage in the Winter

This polypore fungus is known as the “mushroom of immortality”. It’s been used medicinally in China and Japan for thousands of years, and contemporary studies are currently delving into its efficacy.

Use Caution

As with all plants — edible or medicinal — please do thorough research before foraging and/or ingesting anything. Take note of possible contraindications with pharmaceuticals you’re taking, as well as potential allergens. For example, someone who’s allergic to buckwheat may react to curly dock, and someone with a mildew allergy shouldn’t take chaga or reishi.

Collect these items with the help of an experienced forager whenever possible. Furthermore, try a tiny bit to see if you’ll have a negative reaction. Everybody will react differently, so use caution and common sense.

Finally, when foraging plants in the winter, please dress warmly and take precautions. Foraging is no fun when you’re freezing, and getting ill (or frostbitten) will put just about anyone off wildcrafting in the future.

References:

  1. Stegelmeier BL, Gardner DR, James LF, Panter KE, Molyneux RJ. The toxic and abortifacient effects of ponderosa pine. Vet Pathol. 1996 Jan;33(1):22-8. doi: 10.1177/030098589603300103. PMID: 8826003.
  2. Standish LJ, Wenner CA, Sweet ES, Bridge C, Nelson A, Martzen M, Novack J, Torkelson C. Trametes versicolor mushroom immune therapy in breast cancer. J Soc Integr Oncol. 2008 Summer;6(3):122-8. PMID: 19087769; PMCID: PMC2845472.
  3. Lee MG, Kwon YS, Nam KS, Kim SY, Hwang IH, Kim S, Jang H. Chaga mushroom extract induces autophagy via the AMPK-mTOR signaling pathway in breast cancer cells. J Ethnopharmacol. 2021 Jun 28;274:114081. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2021.114081. Epub 2021 Mar 30. PMID: 33798660.
  4. Géry A, Dubreule C, André V, Rioult JP, Bouchart V, Heutte N, Eldin de Pécoulas P, Krivomaz T, Garon D. Chaga ( Inonotus obliquus), a Future Potential Medicinal Fungus in Oncology? A Chemical Study and a Comparison of the Cytotoxicity Against Human Lung Adenocarcinoma Cells (A549) and Human Bronchial Epithelial Cells (BEAS-2B). Integr Cancer Ther. 2018 Sep;17(3):832-843. doi: 10.1177/1534735418757912. Epub 2018 Feb 27. PMID: 29484963; PMCID: PMC6142110.

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