Winter foraging is not an activity you’ll find on many “top 10″‘ lists for a winter date or things to do in the city for under 20 bucks.
Nor is it yet a popular way to find dyestuff for wool, increase your knowledge of winter fungi, or pick yourself a delicious, vitamin-C rich cup of tea.
People are missing out.
For all of summer’s bonanza, there is a simplicity to the winter hunt. With many leaves gone, tree fungi and lichens are easily spotted.
The orange red of a rose hip or the green of a Labrador Tea leaf leaps out against the snowswept landscape. Jelly fungus the colour of Kraft Dinner pops off weathered branches, and alder cones are easy game, dried and brittle they snap right off the twig tips.
Traversing bogs that would not be passable in summer adds fun too, you get to see parts of the woods you normally wouldn’t. With snowshoes, waterproof pants, a few paper bags or small containers, a knife and a thermos of coffee or hot chocolate (Baileys optional), the boreal forest is your oyster.
On our trip we collected Labrador Tea leaves and rosehips for tea. Labrador Tea is medicine as much as tea, use only a small amount. The tea contains tannins and gallic acid, is good for coughs and bronchitis, and is known as a shamanic herb in Siberia and other Northern regions. Rosehips are a delicious treat rich in vitamin C, but avoid the hairy seeds and stick to the red flesh of the hip.
Alder cones (actually female catkins, but they look like small cones) make a brown dye for wool. So do several species of lichens, including ones used to dye the wool of the original Harris Tweed coats.
We have a rare lichen in Newfoundland, the Boreal Felt lichen, officially listed as a Species at Risk. Lichens are especially vulnerable to air pollution. They serve as a great bioindicator of air quality. They are also suffering due to habitat loss, be it direct impact or associated changes in microclimate from nearby logging or development.
Yellow jelly fungus known as Witch’s Butter can be one of several almost identical varieties, and there is enough debate on its edibility to keep me away, but it’s the bling of the winter woods, so cheering and vibrant to look at. It is said in Sweden that burning some in a fire protects against malignant spirits. Some have watered indoor plants with a tea made from it to treat fungal issues.
Conk mushrooms, semicircles of fungus that grow off tree trunks, are an almost alien life form, smooth , hard and unlike traditional images of fungi. Amongst their realms one can find Artist’s Conk, which has a smooth white bottom ideal for drawing on, as well as several medicinal mushrooms. We found fat white grubs squirming when we removed a small conk from a tree, proof that the woods are still full of life just below the surface.
It’s not such a feast for the full time inhabitants, as the bark eaten off the lower parts of tree trunks told us. The bottom scrapings were from rabbits, higher up was fodder for moose.
These animals can digest twigs, bark, and evergreen needles, helping them survive winter. We didn’t see any of either, but plenty of tracks from both. Rabbits spend most of their time in winter eating or resting in a hidden space to conserve energy and stay safe.
Other treats we did not find, but you might, would be partridgeberries if there is no snow cover, either frozen or thawed and fermented. This is a royal treat, and I once found so many of the fermented berries I am quite sure I got a bit drunk on them.
Juniper berries are under their rough, low bushes with sharp needles protecting them. The skeletons of last year’s yarrow still make great tea, or the throwing sticks for a home made I Ching, the stalks considered to have the perfect balance of yin and yang. Seaweed is also an option if you are near the ocean.
This is just a sampling, there are far more treats and treasures hiding out in the woods. Ask your nan.