Collecting edibles near your home can be a satisfying and money-saving hobby. It’s fun realizing there are things right under your nose that are tasty and available in quantities needed for a family meal.
Winter is a lean time of the year though. Squirrels are steadily cleaning up all the pecans and planting them everywhere, especially in our flowerbeds. They have a slightly harder time moving black walnuts around, so many of them could be lying around near the trees. If the grass is thick you might need a rake to find them.
Live oak (Quercus virginiana) are the only acorns I collect. They’re often fine to eat without any treatment at all. However, squirrels like them too, and bushytails can clean up a tree in a hurry.
Another favorite that often hasn’t been ravaged by squirrels or deer is the beechnut (Fagus grandiflolia). These require a little processing, but they can make a great addition to a pancake or biscuit mix. Collect the little triangular nuts and roast them on a cookie sheet at a low oven temperature. Crush the nuts and separate the meal from the chaff. Add to your favorite baking mix. The taste will remind you of buckwheat.
Most fleshy fruits like crabapples (Malus sp.) are falling prey to birds. Grapes have long since passed. Rose hips are a possibility. They don’t usually develop well on knock out roses, but the ones on rugosa roses (Rosa rugosa) are very tasty and loaded with vitamin C.
Here in eastern North Carolina, our winters aren’t severe, so there’s a lot of plant growth still going on. It’s not like summer, and selection can be limited, but if you’re a fan of greens, you’re in luck. Flavors are many and varied.
If you like mild greens that can be consumed raw or cooked with equal delectable results, then common chickweed (Stellaria sp.) is for you. It’s coming out in full force now and should be in good supply throughout the winter. Plants are tender and pointed teardrop-shaped bright green leaves emerge in groups of two.
There’s also another benefit from foraging this one. You won’t have to fight it in your flowerbeds next spring. For best results, get chickweed before you see the white flowers.
If you like a little more bite to your greens, try collecting some bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta). It has featherlike leaves that radiate around a central stem. Its flavor reminds me of kale, and this one’s also great fresh or cooked. As spring advances, the foliage will get progressively more pungent. Sowthistle (Sonchus sp.) makes a good green raw or cooked, but it gets fibrous when it gets old.
If pungent is your pleasure, most grassy areas have a good supply of wild field garlic (Allium vineale). I’m always surprised when I talk to folks about this one. It’s not poisonous. All parts of the plant are edible, but I don’t often mess with the below-ground portion. It’s a lot of work cleaning up each bulblet. I prefer to clip the green above-ground portion.
These happen to be some of my favorite wild winter foods. Always be aware when collecting from any area that pesticides were not used. It’s not worth the risk.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.
The beginning of winter is the leanest time of year here. There are no native nuts, although the nearby California black walnut is somewhat naturalized. Acorns are sparse, and those that we get need to be leached. Greens will be growing now that the rainy season has started.
Winter annual greens are my main bounty. I love several of them both raw and cooked.