Winter Foraging 101: Foraging Treats from the Trees
Although most fruit and nut seasons are over by winter, there are a few deliciously notable exceptions.
The most popular winter foraging options for fruits and nuts include American Hazelnuts, Paw Paw, Pine, American Persimmon, Sugar Maple, Prickly Pear, and Passionflower.
In this tree-focused article of our Winter Foraging 101 series, we’ll explain more about these interesting wild foraged foods!
The Best Wild Nuts to Forage this Winter
Keep in mind that nut production often varies from year to year and that in years of especially heavy nut production (called “mast” years) the supply of the nuts may exceed the demand native wildlife places on it as a food source— in other words, in some years there’s simply more than enough nuts to go around! Other factors, like an early snowfall or especially mild weather may influence how many nuts or fruits are still clinging to a tree or available on the ground under it in the winter months. Winter months are also a great time to use the lack of leaves in the forest to your advantage when scouting out some of the more elusive forest trees.
American Hazelnuts (Corylus Americana), or Filbert Bushes, are a slender and inconspicuous bush most easily identified in late winter when the male plants send out long catkins– once you’ve located a grove of them you can harvest their husk-covered hazelnuts some future winter!
Paw Paw Trees in Winter
Paw Paw (Asimina triloba) trees are another tree that can be located in isolated groves, often partway down sheltered south- or southwestern-facing hillsides on the far northern reaches of its distribution. Take note of their location in the winter months when their blueish-grey smooth bark is noticeable in the winter woods, and visit them again in early spring to enjoy their huge glossy leaves and look for their almost tropical flower, similar to a banana blossom. Then prepare to stand vigil, ready to throw down against all the squirrels for miles around, sacrificing pints of your precious lifeblood to mosquitos and deer flies as you await the ripening of that hillbilly banana in late September– one taste of wild paw-paw bread and you’ll understand why it’s such a popular forest delicacy.
In evergreen forests, certain species of Pine (Pinus sp.) have delicious “pine nuts” hidden away in their sticky cones. Many pine cones are triggered by forest fires to germinate so once you find a nut-producing variety, look for ripe but not fully opened cones and take them home and roast them gently to encourage the pine cone to open more and release its treat.
As immigrants poured westward over the last few centuries, fruit trees followed them. Once an important source of food for their families and livestock, as well as household necessities like vinegar, cider, and the once widely popular alcoholic “Apple Jack,” remnants of old orchards can still be found where the forests have reclaimed abandoned farms and homesteads. Other times the fruit you find will be the descendants of seeds or pits left behind after wildlife has enjoyed the fruit and carried farther into the woods. Some varieties of fruit are more likely to stay “true to type” when grown from pit or seed than others. Most fruit and nut trees are propagated by grafting cuttings of a parent tree to a hardier rootstock or one with traits such as a shorter height. When nursery fruit trees “go native” sometimes the grafted top fails and the rootstock grows back instead. Fruits like peach and plum tend to reproduce closer to form– especially self-fertile “Elberta” type peaches are often indistinguishable from the supermarket variety.
Apples tend to vary widely and often become smaller and more tart like crab-apple varieties– they might not taste as good right off the tree, but they’re great for baking and preserves. Finding your own wild orchard may not bring you a bushel in the middle of winter, but it’s definitely worth your time to investigate any fruit trees you notice in your winter wanderings. Sometimes you might even find a few “ghost apples” still clinging to a branch– don’t be afraid to snack if you should come across one of these frosty translucent skinned ghosts– you may note a slightly alcoholic smell and flavor but don’t let that dissuade you, humans evolved to be able to process alcohol for exactly such purposes.
American Persimmon Foraging in Winter
One notable wild native fruit worth tracking down is the American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana)– its small orange-colored fruit is often overlooked by people who have tried one too early in the fall only to be disappointed by its flavor and texture. Persimmons are one of those wild foods that really benefit from a few frosts closer to winter: try them when they’re soft and the skin peels away easily and the flesh is tender and juicy.
How to Harvest Sugar Maple Trees for Syrup
No article about winter foraging would be complete without mentioning tree syrup and sugaring! Sugar Maple is the most well-known of the syrup trees, but any kind of maple can be tapped and sugared. Other types of trees that can be tapped include Alder, Box Elder, Birch, Hickory, Walnut, and Linden, although in most cases you will need even more sap to render to get syrup. Sycamore is said to produce a syrup that has an almost butterscotch flavor. Even Palm trees can be tapped for syrup. There’s been a renewed interest in sugaring in recent years, and you can find lots of resources and equipment online if you would like to try it yourself. Keep in mind that sugaring season requires at least daily emptying of sap buckets– it will take a minimum of 40 gallons of sap to get a gallon of syrup– so plan accordingly when you decide what trees to tap. Although many people are content once they’ve reduced their sap to syrup, reducing it farther to pure maple sugar is well worth the effort— by the time you’ve covered every surface in your kitchen with stickiness from the final syruping process, you might as well go all-in! To get sugar from syrup (either your own or store bought) take a heavy, deep pot and melt a dab of butter in it and rub it all over the sides. Then heat maple syrup on medium-high heat WITHOUT STIRRING it to the hard-ball stage on a candy thermometer (257-262F). Then remove it from the heat and start stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon. Just don’t stop stirring and right around the time your arms start to hurt it will get grainy and then magically turn into a dish of warm sugar. You can sift it through a sieve and use it in recipes; the hard balls of maple candy left behind after sifting would make a great garnish for pancakes or cookies if you can resist eating them right away.
Wild Prickly Pear Fruit
Throughout this article we’ve mainly concentrated on things to forage in the wintry woods, but there are a few other native fruits worth mentioning. In warmer and more arid areas of the country, cactus fruits and pads require a bit of finesse to harvest and prepare, but the flavor is well worth the effort. Prickly Pear (Opuntia sp.) is a cactus that is widely distributed and reaches all the way into Canada. It often takes over waste-areas or grazing lands and can be gathered in great quantities without negatively impacting the environment. Just be sure to wear gloves and use tongs to collect it and destroy the tiny itchy hairs by burning them or cutting them off.
Another delicious native plant that is more widely distributed than many people realize is the Passionflower (Passiflora edulis). It grows in disturbed areas and in ditches from Florida all the way as far north as the central part of the east coast. Depending on how far north it’s growing and the length of the days, yellow may-pops may be found clinging to its vines in winter months. In Florida the new year’s vines are often just getting started growing in the winter months and it will fruit there in June.
We hope this article has inspired you to bundle up and go for a hike this winter to see what treasures you might be able to forage. Not every trip to the woods results in baskets brimming to overflowing to stock your larder, but oftentimes we find things we didn’t know we were looking for. At the very least, you can enjoy a day in nature– a gift in itself!