How to Find and Identify 13 Wild Winter Edibles
Learn to locate and recognize these forageable species in the coldest season of the year
If you’re serious about wilderness survival, then you have to get serious about learning plants. Being able to positively identify herbaceous plants, vines, shrubs, and trees (both with and without their leaves) will give you all sorts of advantages when it comes to survival. Plants can provide many fire-making essentials, as well as drinking water and medicines. But the biggest resource plants can provide us with in the winter is food. In the coldest season, we need all the calories we can get. And the right plants can help accomplish this when hunting, trapping, and fishing endeavors aren’t going well or aren’t an option. Here are some of the best wild edibles to keep an eye out for this winter.
These swamp-loving plants bear a number of edible sections throughout the year, but the part you’ll want in winter is the starchy rootstock. Dig them before the swamp freezes solid and you can take advantage of this valuable starch source.
Identifying Features: Look for the iconic brown seed heads that have exploded into a mass of ivory colored fluff (which makes for great tinder, too). These grass-like plants will be 3 to 9 feet tall with an oval cross section to the lower stalk. You'll find them growing in wet conditions.
Range: Various cattail species are found worldwide. The common cattail is found in the Lower 48, as well as throughout southern Alaska and Canada.
Even in the winter, there’s something sweet about wild roses. When the birds don’t gobble them all, you can carefully collect the rose hips from their thorny bushes.
Identifying Features: This perennial species of rose is a woody plant that has finely toothed, pinnately compound leaves that can persist into winter. The stalks have alternate branching and sharp, curved thorns. The branches have bright-red rose hips that bear an average of 8 to 12 pale yellow seeds per fruit.
Range: Both invasive and native wild roses are found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Wild roses favor open ground and pastures.
Best Bet: Native to Asia, the multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) can now be found globally. Its ripe red rose hips taste like sweet fruit leather (i.e. Fruit Roll-Ups).
Edible Uses: The pulp and skin of the rose hips can be eaten raw or the entire rose hip can be steeped to make rose tea. The tangy, sweet, red-colored fruits are a good source of vitamin E and also a vitamin C powerhouse, containing seven times your daily allowance.
One of the most winter-hardy fruits is the wild persimmon. If you taste one before it is ripe, the fruit’s sour and astringent qualities will flood your taste buds with a horrible cottony sensation. But if you wait until the fruit becomes a gooey wrinkled mess (late fall through January), the fruits are unbelievably sweet.
Identifying Features: The American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) is a deciduous tree with alternate simple leaves and small orange fruits that contain large brown seeds. A related species with larger fruits (sold in grocery stores) can be found in Japan and neighboring countries. The scientific name of this fruit is diospyros, which means "food of the gods." If you are concerned that they are overselling the quality of the fruit, you haven't tasted a ripe one.
Range: Wild persimmons are found in the eastern half of the U.S.
Best Bet: Look for very wrinkled fruits in late fall, persisting into winter. Typically, the rougher they look, the sweeter they taste. In late fall, you'll have to watch out for unripe fruit, which will give you a strong case of cotton mouth. In winter, you'll have to make sure you don't eat a rotten one. Trust your eyes and more importantly, your nose, to avoid rotten fruit.
Edible Uses: The completely ripe, native persimmon fruits are a sticky, gooey sweet treasure trove. The fruits of this eastern tree have 127 calories and a full day's vitamin C per cup of pulp. Eat them raw, turn them into jam, or ferment them into golden colored wine.
This common needle-bearing tree can provide tea and an edible inner bark.
Identifying Features: Needles grow in clumps of 2 to 5 needles, and pine cones are found on more mature trees.
Range: Various pine species (Pinus) can be found in open woods and mountains throughout much of North America. Related edible species can be found in America, Europe and Asia.
Edible Uses: There are many species of pine (the genus Pinus) throughout the northern hemisphere and most are capable of providing two winter survival staples – pine needle tea and pine bark flour. The tea is easy to produce. Grab a tuft of green needles, rip them or chop them into small pieces, and drop them into some very hot water. Don't boil the needles! This makes the tea bitter and the heat destroys the vitamin C. Just steep the needles in hot water for 10 minutes and enjoy. One cup of tea made from one ounce of needles should provide roughly four times your daily allowance of vitamin C.
And don’t forget about the bark. Shave off the inner layer of bark right next to the wood. This layer is rubbery and cream colored. Dry the strips until brittle and grind them into flour. One pound of this flour has about 600 calories. It has a mild pine flavor and is good for extending your food supply by blending in with other flours. You may also be lucky enough to find some larger pine cones with nuts inside them. These are a very valuable food with a high calorie content.
Watch Out: Skip the tea from loblolly pine in the eastern U.S. and the ponderosa pine in the American southwest, as recent studies suggest that they may be somewhat toxic. And an important reminder, women who are or might be pregnant shouldn't drink pine needle tea from any species, as it may be abortive. The nuts and bark, however, are safe for consumption.
Spicy and delicious, wild onions turn your wild-caught fish and game into a meal fit for a king! Diverse and frost-resistant, these plants provide a great wild seasoning throughout the winter season. Grab a little spade and a bag to hold your prize, because the wild onion is one of nature’s superfoods.
Identifying Features: Your first step to make sure a plant really is an onion or garlic is looking for the bulbous root and rounded stem that onions and garlic share. Once it passes that test, go to the scratch and sniff phase of testing. Scratch the bulb, or bruise the green tops, and you should immediately smell the familiar oniony odor. The plant contains numerous sulfur compounds, which mix with the salt in your tears, to create a weak sulfuric acid—the cause of the burning eyes and crying while dismembering these plants.
Range: There are over a dozen different species of wild onion growing throughout North America.
Edible Uses: Tender tops and juicy bulbs can be eaten raw or cooked. I like them finely chopped as an aromatic seasoning ingredient, in both salads and cooked dishes.
Watch Out: Onions and garlic are a group of plants that are edible to humans, and generally very tasty. But don't just wolf down everything shaped like an onion. The broader family they belong to is the lily family, which can be a problem for foragers, because some lilies are toxic and resemble onions at first glance.
Frequently confused with wild roses, these thorny bushes grow a crop of red berries that are often used as a trailside snack and a healthy tea.
Identifying Features: This shrub grows in old fields and new forests as a bush with thorny branches, red dangling berries, and whorled leaves. The Japanese barberry has solitary thorns, while native species have thorns in sets of three.
Range: The barberry family (Berberidaceae) has members throughout the world. Several species are found growing wild in the eastern US.
Best Bet: The American barberry (Berberis canadensis) is a common species in the American southeast and the Mid-Atlantic. Its juicy red berries are high in vitamin C.
Edible Uses: The berry skin and slightly-bitter pulp can be eaten raw and the seeds spit out. The berries can also be steeped in hot water to make a tea. Barberries contain an immune-boosting compound called berberine, which can help to keep us healthy in cold and flu season.
Friendly, familiar and delicious, maple syrup (or some facsimile thereof) graces many a breakfast table across the globe and it’s a welcomed treat to survivors at an otherwise bleak time of year.
Identifying Features: Maple trees have diverse bark colors and patterns, as well as diverse growth habits, but they are all opposite branching deciduous trees. For best results, ID them before the leaves drop and mark the trees you intend to "sugar" in late winter.
Range: There are dozens of maple species growing throughout North America.
Best Bet: The sugar maple (Acer saccharum) grows in Southeastern Canada and the northeastern quarter of the United States. Sugar maple sap has one of the highest sugar concentrations of the maples.
Edible Uses: I like to drill a 7/16 inch hole about 3 inches into the tree and hammer in a spile. This is a conical tube directs the sap flow and allows you to hang a container at the bore hole. Collect your sap as each container fills, and boil down the sap outdoors (too much steam for indoors) until you have a syrup consistency. February is the best month of sap production for most tree species. It will take 30 to 50 quarts of sap to produce one quart of syrup, but it's well worth the trouble.
Growing in protected areas in winter, this tender creeping plant is like a short little vine, and its leaves and soft stems make a great addition to salads and soups.
Identifying Features: This species is a low-growing herbaceous annual plant that often forms a carpet on the disturbed ground of farms, gardens and lawns. Native to Europe, it is now naturalized in many places. The small, ovate simple leaves grow in an opposite branching pattern on the round, green stems. Chickweed has white flowers, which appear to have 10 petals, but on closer inspection, it's really only five petals that are partially split.
Range: Native to Europe, chickweed can now be found throughout the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere.
Best Bet: The common chickweed (Stellaria media) is usually tender and mild tasting, and it's not as furry as other species.
Edible Uses: The tender leaves and stems can be eaten raw or cooked. The star chickweed (Stellaria pubera) and mouse-ear chickweed (Cerastium vulgatum) can be eaten as a cooked green and star chickweed can be eaten raw. Chickweed can also be used as an anti-itch poultice for irritated skin or eaten to relieve constipation.
You’ve probably seen this plant and said “Wow, that’s one fuzzy leaf.” Do your homework on this unusual looking plant, and you’ll discover that it’s far more than just a furry-leafed weed that your buddies call “hunter’s toilet paper.”
Identifying Features: Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) is a plant with very fuzzy oval leaves. Living for two years, each biennial plant forms a rosette of leaves during the first year of life, and a 3- to 8-foot tall flower stalk with yellow flowers during its second and final year of life.
Range: Dry sunny ground throughout the U.S.
Edible Uses: The leaves can be brewed into a tea for drinking, or mixed with tobacco for a Native American smoking blend.
Watch Out: Mullein has also been called "cowboy toilet paper," though that use may not have nice results. The irritating hairs and the vasodilating oil can cause an itchy rash on very tender skin, so skip this as a substitute for Charmin.
If you grew up in the American southeast, you’ve probably heard of chicory coffee. Well, here’s where it comes from: a common wild weed.
Identifying Features: To identify chicory, look for the dead stalks with dried flower sepals along the stalk and in the branch joints. You can also look for minute leaves at the base of the stalk which resemble dandelion, yet are slightly fuzzy (dandelion leaves are smooth).
Range: Chicory is a non-native plant that grows throughout the U.S.
Edible Uses: The tiny leaves that hang on during winter can be eaten as bitter salad greens. More commonly, the root can be dug, washed, chopped, and roasted until brittle to create a steeping mixture that can be used like coffee grounds. The root has been used as a coffee replacement since colonial times, though it doesn't possess any caffeine.
Enjoy the taste of pecans? Then you’ll probably enjoy the sweet taste of the pecan’s wild cousin. Pecan is a southern species of hickory with a flavor that resembles most other hickory nuts. Not only do hickories taste good (except for just a few bitter species), but these tree nuts are also a treasure trove of calories.
Identifying Features: Hickory trees are deciduous hardwood trees found in North America and Asia. The leaves are alternate compound and the nuts have a "double" nut shell. There's a husk that peels off, revealing a nut shell underneath. Just make sure you don't get a buckeye, which have a double-layered nut shell like hickory, but buckeye nuts are poisonous. Hickory nuts have a multi chambered inner nutshell (like a walnut), while the dangerous buckeyes have a solid round nutmeat (like an almond).
Range: Hickories are found in Asia, the United States, Mexico, and Canada.
Edible Uses: Hickory nuts are the most calorie-dense wild plant in this lineup. One ounce of shelled out hickory nut meat packs a whopping 193 calories, with most of that coming from fat. Most hickory nuts taste like their most famous relative: the pecan. These sweet and fatty nut meats can be used as a raw food, picked right out of the shell.
Watch Out: There are a few species of hickory that have very bitter nuts. They aren't harmful to eat, but they are so nasty that you won't be able to consume them.
These remarkable trees provide food, medicine, dye, and useful wood, and when the nuts are present, they are very easy to identify.
Identifying Features: Walnuts are tall growing deciduous hardwood trees with round or oblong nuts. Black walnuts (Juglans nigra) look like green tennis balls when they are freshly fallen, though the rough round husks turn black in the winter.
Range: Black walnut trees are found in the eastern half of the Lower 48.
Edible Uses: The tasty nut meat contains 173 calories an ounce, with a fair bit of protein, magnesium, phosphorus, copper, and manganese. The butternut walnut (Juglans cinera) can also be used like black walnut.
Watch Out: Wear waterproof gloves when working with goopy wet walnut husks. Not only will the walnut hull pulp dye your skin an odd color, but some people develop painful skin irritation from contact.
Acorns are one of the most common tree nuts, and with a little processing, they provide us with a nutrient rich power food.
Identifying Features: There are approximately 600 species of "oak" throughout the world. This list includes deciduous and evergreen tree species found in cool climates down to warmer tropical latitudes. Oaks have alternate simple leaves in a wide variety of sizes and shapes. North America contains the largest number of oak species, with a surprising diversity of 160 species in Mexico. The fruit of the oak tree is a nut called an acorn, borne in a cup-like "cupule."
Range: Oak species are found throughout the Northern Hemisphere.
Best Bet: Stick with the white oak (Quercus alba) and its round-lobed relatives for the lowest level of bitterness and the shortest leaching times.
Edible Uses: One ounce of acorn nut meat contains a little more than 100 calories, which many of our ancestors ate as a staple food prior to agriculture. The bitter acid in them is easily removed by cracking them into pieces and soaking the acorn nut meat chunks in repeating baths of warm water, one hour at a time, until the bitter is gone.
Watch Out: Eating acorns that still contain too much tannic acid can cause nausea and digestive distress. Also, make sure you don't collect any buckeye nuts. Once they have fallen out of their husks, buckeyes can have a similar appearance to acorns, but unlike acorns, buckeyes are toxic and unable to be leached.