Edible Wild Plants of Winter

Foraging for nutritious, native wild foods, including cranberry, cattail and watercress.

| January/February 1984

  • 085-130-01-im1.jpg
    Wild food foraging doesn’t have to be a fair-weather activity.
  • Cattails
    Grind cattail root into flour for biscuits. 
  • Cranberry
    Finish your edible wild plant feast with cranberry dessert.  
  • Watercress
    Wild watercress grows quite well in the middle of winter.

  • 085-130-01-im1.jpg
  • Cattails
  • Cranberry
  • Watercress

In my opinion, the mark of a real wild food foraging is the ability to rustle up a square meal from nature's larder in the dead of winter . That's why, one cold day up here in northern Wisconsin-with the temperature hovering around 9 degrees F — I decided to put myself and a neighbor's son (a young fellow who had never searched for edible wild plants before) to a test: Come dinnertime, we would either sit down to a hearty foraged feast . . . or go hungry.

Actually, I had another motive for my idea, too. I wanted to teach Muskrat (a nickname given my companion by his father, in reference to the lad's inborn affinity for water) the value of our region's wetlands as a source of food. I knew that streams and marshes are prime foraging territory year round . . . and I wanted to illustrate that important point to the youngster.

So Muskrat and I sat down to plot our strategy and decided that—with any luck—our menu that night would be a chowder of cattail shoots, watercress, and freshwater clams (actually a type of mussel found in this part of the country) . . . biscuits made from cattail-root flour . . . roast rabbit . . . and highbush cranberry for dessert. I figured that we could find all those goodies within walking distance. I suspect that Muskrat, on the other hand, probably wasn't quite so sure. Nevertheless, he grabbed his .22 rifle while I rustled up a plastic bag and a couple of pairs of insulated rubber "trapper's gloves". Then we headed off (dressed in appropriately warm garb, including watertight boots) for a nearby ice-free stream. 

Clams And Cattails

Even in these parts, where freshwater mussels abound, finding the succulent wild-lings can be difficult if you don't know where to look. In the summer, I frequently search along the banks of streams until I come across shells left by marauding raccoons. Usually, two or three such remnants in the same place mean a clam bed is nearby. But during the winter, of course, snow covers the ground and hides the evidence.

So, Muskrat and I simply waded into the creek and headed upstream (that way, any silt we kicked up would be carried away behind us), peering intently into the water and feeling around on the bottom with our gloved hands for clam-shaped objects. Sometimes the little rascals are almost entirely buried in mud—with just the edges of their shells protruding—and sometimes they're lying flat, hidden among a seemingly infinite number of rocks of a similar form. But persistence generally pays off . . . particularly if you search (as Muskrat and I did) around the downstream sides of boulders or other large obstructions—or at the upstream end of a deep pool—where the diminished current drops floating food to the bottom and into the open mouths of waiting shellfish. Within a few minutes my young apprentice and I had extricated four good-sized freshwater clams . . . enough for our chowder.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: All bivalves are filter feeders and thus readily accumulate pollutants and pathogens in their bodies. It's important, therefore, that you forage shellfish only from pure waters. Also, you should keep in mind that of the approximately 300 species of freshwater mussels in this country (nearly all of which are edible), 16 are included on the federal government's endangered species list . . . and others are protected on the lists of individual states. Because these varieties are rare, your chances of coming across one on an occasional foraging outing are very slim . . . nevertheless, you should check with your state's wildlife or natural resources authorities before you go mussel hunting, just to see what the situation is in your locale. Some specific areas may be closed to the practice.] 

11/18/2013 2:15:01 PM

There are some good pictures for a lot of wild edibles at www.WildUtahEdibles.com and some books that are very good on the topic are: The Forager's Harvest and Nature's Garden by Samuel Thayer Edible Wild Plants by John Kallas Ph.D. These are helpful books because they actually go in detail about identifying, harvesting and preparing wild edibles.

1/10/2013 12:32:55 AM

I've looked for books on this topic. Any suggestions? Also, when these articles come to us can there be pictures so the reader can see the steps in the project?


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