Winter survival plants are few and far between, but that doesn’t mean foraging is impossible when the cold hits. If anything, this is the time when foraging skills can be most useful. So if you’re up for a bit of a challenge this winter, put your skills to the test by hunting down these winter survival plants.
Winter Survival Plants You Should Start Growing Now
Depending on your latitude, sometimes it can feel like the only thing that grows in winter are the weeds. Luckily, this doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Almost all thistles found in the continental United States are not only non-poisonous, but also generally edible. In fact, thistles have been used throughout history for human consumption, and make for one of the most common survival plants. Over in southern Europe, various types of thistles have long been used in rural areas as a cheap source of easy food. Meanwhile in Japan, the cabbage thistle (Cirsium oleraceum) was traditionally farmed. Similar practices were once common in India as well.
Human consumption of thistles was also likely common in antiquity. Even the genus name, Cirsium, is derived from a Greek word meaning “swollen vein” – a reminder of a time when thistles were used as a treatment for swollen veins.
How to prepare: There’s many ways to prepare thistles, though most of them start with the root. The secret is to use a spade to gently push the tap root to the surface. Remove the spiny stem and clean the root well. At this point, the root is edible raw, though it’ll either have no taste, or be a bit bitter. Either way, it’s not pleasant, but better than starving. If you’d rather something tastier, the thistle roots can be treated just like any other; boiled, fried, or even roasted. Personally, I’d recommend lightly fried with a bit of salt and chili. The chili can do wonders to cover up the otherwise lousy taste.
These guys are some of the best eats you’ll get all winter. Much like walnuts, hickories taste good and pack a serious caloric punch. Edible species are usually sweet and delicious. Some like the shagbark hickory can be slightly bitter, but never overwhelmingly so. If you find some that taste seriously bitter or otherwise downright unpleasant, then don’t eat them! As for calories, we’re talking around 193 per ounce. To put that in perspective, hazelnuts have just 170.
In winter, you’ll probably be hunting for fully mature hickory nuts, meaning they’ll be a rich dark brown, and should be no more than 2.5 inches long and wide. The nut itself will be inside a larger husk, which is usually fairly easy to separate. The hard part is opening the nut itself. Like walnuts, they can be a bit stubborn, but shouldn’t stand much of a chance against a hammer or ordinary nutcracker. Overall, the humble hickory is one of the most sustaining winter survival plants you can be lucky enough to stumble across.
How to prepare: hickory nuts can be consumed raw or cooked. They can be tossed in with salads, or otherwise used like a walnut or similar. Try experimenting. I’ve heard they can even make a decent pie. Follow any recipe for regular pecan pie, but substitute the pecans for hickories. Personally though, I think they’re best roasted over an open flame. Other options include lightly toasting or baking. If you’re planning on storing them for long periods, make sure to subject them to the float test. Any nuts that float in water may be contaminated by grubs, and should be consumed/thrown away immediately.
All plants of the allium genus are considered edible. You might know a few already: onion, garlic, leek and chive being among the most commonly consumed. However, allium is more than just these four commercially produced foods. Dozens of types can be found across the United States, and over 500 are currently known to exist worldwide. The hundreds of types that aren’t cultivated commercially are collectively called “wild onions”. All are edible, though taste varies considerably. As the name suggests, many taste just like onion, while others can be a little garlicy. Some don’t really have much of a taste at all, but are still easy to get down. Better still, wild onions can grow year round, making them one of the easiest winter survival plants to forage. As long as they get a bit of sun, they can grow. Open fields are your best bet for foraging.
The only one problem is that wild onions can be hard to distinguish from poisonous lilies. Some signs you’re dealing with a legitimate wild onion include keeping an eye out for the distinct, bulb-shaped root, and sniffing for that classic onion smell. If the leaves don’t smell, try cutting a small incision in the root. As always though, if you’re not 100 percent certain, don’t take the risk.
How to prepare: Wild onions can usually be treated just like regular onions. They can be eaten both raw and cooked. Depending on the taste, you might want to consider boiling or stewing. So far, the only times I’ve used them have been with some instant ramen on the trail. They actually added a good amount of flavor, and were genuinely tasty.
Not the most reliable of winter survival plants, you can’t necessarily expect to find too many edible pine nuts during the dead of winter. Usually, the nuts are ready to eat around a week to 10 days before the pine cone itself opens. As anyone who has ever enjoyed a spring stroll through the countryside knows, the cones tend to start opening around mid spring. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean you can’t count them among the more important winter survival plants. On the contrary, pine nuts are often still easy to forage even in late autumn, making them a great food to stock up on in early winter. The trick is to look for a tree with both open and closed cones. Grab a few of the closed ones, and expose them to heat to make them open. An open fire will do the trick, though stay away from microwaves (trust me, you’ll just ruin both the nuts and the microwave itself).
All pine nuts are edible, though some are easier to munch down than others. The best are the biggest ones, such as the Colorado pinyon. I find the New Mexico pinyon has a wonderful buttery taste, and can be found up the east coast.
How to prepare: The various uses of pine nuts are worth an entire article on their own. For brevity’s sake, some of the common applications include: in salad, homemade pesto, roasted or even in soups. You can add them to marzipan balls to make a classic Catalan desert, the panellet. In rural Russia, pine nuts have been traditionally added to vodka bottles to make a drink called “kedrovka”. The oils from the nuts seep into the vodka, and can turn bottom-shelf booze into a delicious treat that will keep you warm til spring.
If you discover your pine tree is out of nuts, then don’t worry: there’s still a feed to be had. Cut through the rough exterior of the trunk and extract the softer bark beneath. It might not sound appetizing, but pine bark is surprisingly starchy, and can fill you up on a cold winter day. The same can be said for a handful of other trees with edible bark, such as the maple, beech and aspen. In other words, all these common trees are, in themselves, great winter survival plants.
How to prepare: One trendy way to prepare pine bark is to make vegan bacon. Marinate the bark in salt, then roast til crispy. If you close your eyes and think positive thoughts, it can almost taste like the worst bacon you’ve ever eaten. In all seriousness though, pine bark is an extremely useful winter survival food. It’s common, easy to forage and simple to prepare.
The supermarket of the swamps is open all year round. Cattails are a classic survival food that every survivalist should know how to use. These common plants are incredibly useful, with each part of the cattail having a practical application. As one of the most easily obtained winter survival plants, they excel thanks to their high starch content. You should try searching along the shores of swampy waters, and be prepared to get a bit muddy while foraging.
How to prepare: Cattail roots should be thoroughly cleaned and peeled, before being used much like any other root. They can be eaten raw, but are much better boiled or fried. Just treat them like potatoes, and you can’t go wrong.
The shoots, on the other hand, can be genuinely delicious. Clean them, soak in vinegar, then prepare them as you would a similar green vegetable. Personally, I find they’re pretty good when chopped thin, and fried in oil. Then, smother them in butter and eat with roasted potatoes. You’ll be surprised by how good they taste.
You probably didn’t expect to see any berries on this list, but the teaberry can’t go unmentioned. Found across much of North America, the eastern teaberry is around 6-9mm wide with a reddish color. You’ll find them growing on low bushes, and can be foraged all year round, making them one of the more reliable winter survival plants on the east coast. The best place to look is in hardwood forests, especially among pines. Look out for sunny clearings in the forest, where the berries are most common. If there’s snow, just scratch beneath the surface, and you might get lucky.As for taste, expect something distinctly minty.
How to prepare: In some parts of the east coast, teaberries are serious business. You can find teaberry flavored ice-cream, gum and tea. New England is particularly fond of teaberries.
You can eat the berries raw, and they usually pack a lot of flavor. You can use the leaves to make an excellent tea, though you’ll have to dry and prepare them as you would any other tea. Ideally, you should also ferment them for 2-4 days to maximize their potency.
Usually considered more of a spring survival food, dandelions are still extremely useful in winter. Long after the flower has withered, the rest of the plant is still perfectly edible. Dandelions are super common, and even in winter you shouldn’t have trouble finding a few plants.
How to prepare: You can eat the dandelion plant raw, but tastes pretty mediocre. Frankly, I find them better when boiled, which dulls the bitter taste somewhat.
This common plant grows all year round across North America. Look for it in shallow, running streams, with each stem usually having somewhere between three and nine small oval leaves. The taste is nothing to write home about, though the leaves are rich in vitamins, calcium and iron.
Some traditional societies have used watercress to treat minor ailments such as coughs. However, it’s also a diuretic (it’ll make you pee a lot). So if you’re concerned about hydration, give watercress a miss.
If you’re keen on trying watercress, it’s not hard to find in shallow streams. In winter, the plant does shrivel up a lot, and can be hard to forage. Also, avoid watercress in unclean water. The plant is like a sponge for toxins, and can make you quite ill if it’s been growing in contaminated water. As for the harvesting process itself, it’s pretty simple. Bring along a par of scissors, and snip the plant at the waterline. You can also just rip it out at the root, but this is more labor intensive, and you’ll have to remove the grimy roots later anyway.
How to prepare: Watercress is best used like collards. Cook them, and toss ‘em in with some vegetables. You can eat them raw, though they don’t make for a particularly satisfying meal on their own. One good option is to make a salad with watercress leaves and hickory nuts. The flavors go together really well, especially if you throw in some pine nuts and oranges. Drizzle with a nice zesty vinaigrette, and you’ve got a respectable salad.
If you’re going to store your watercress, that’s totally possible, but be careful. Keep them in shallow, clean water, and change the water everyday. If they smell bad or start looking downright disgusting, throw them out immediately. Which of these winter survival plants will you start growing?
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