Foraging Challenge Mode: Finding Wild Foods in Winter in Minnesota | News

Minnesota is rich in edible wild foods, but it’s hard to find anything alive and growing when it’s all buried under inches of snow and ice. Foraging for wild foods in winter is a bit like a scavenger hunt – it gets you outside and busy through the winter months, with the promise of a tasty reward at the end.

Below are some wild foods you can pick even in the dead of Minnesota winter. Most are best made as a tea, but what better way to warm up after a long foraging walk than with a hot cup of spruce needle or rosehip tea?

Conifers are easily identifiable year-round, and tasty tea can be made from their needles. Make sure you can correctly identify the tree from which you want to collect the needles. Most Minnesota conifers are safe to eat, with the exception of yew, which is poisonous.

White pine and spruce are among the best for flavorful tea. Winter weather naturally tends to drop small clusters of needles to the ground, where they are easy to pick up. Some people prefer the milder taste of young needles, but you probably won’t find them until spring arrives. The needles have a light citrus flavor, which is complemented by honey and lemon. Pour hot (not boiling) water over the needles to get the most out of their natural vitamin C content.

Chaga is a fungus found primarily on paper birch and yellow birch trees. This fungus attacks injured but living trees, growing like a tumor from within. On the surface of the tree, the chaga looks like a big black burn mark, but inside it’s a burnt yellow-orange color. The interior color is a dead giveaway that you have a fungus and not just an old burn scar in front of you.

Chaga grows very slowly. If you choose to harvest chaga, it is best to take a piece no larger than the size of a fist, so that the remaining fungus can continue to grow. Winter is the best time to harvest, as the mushroom is naturally dried in the cold winter air. The texture of chaga is hard and woody, so it must be cut into small pieces and ground into a powder with a food processor or coffee grinder. This powder can be combined with hot water or milk to make a thick, coffee-like drink. Cinnamon and maple syrup can add to the richness of chaga tea.

The fruit of rose bushes sometimes remains on the branches for a long time in winter, providing a naturally dried source of rosehip tea. Wearing thick gloves while harvesting can avoid painful punctures from thorny branches. The hips can be used whole soaked in a tea mixture, but crushing them will release the gritty seeds and fibers inside, which no one wants to ingest. Rose hips are rich in vitamin C and can help boost the immune system, a great benefit for the time of year when seasonal illnesses are rampant. Add a little honey or mint leaves to your rosehip tea for a more complex flavor.

Turkey tail is a fungus that grows year round on decaying wood. It is a visually appealing mushroom, easily recognized by its colorful concentric stripes resembling the patterns of wild turkey feathers. Turkey tail has many health benefits, including antioxidants and prebiotics that aid digestion. The easiest way to use these mushrooms is in a turkey tail tea. This can be easily turned into a warming turkey tail chai latte with the addition of some spices and your choice of dairy or dairy alternatives.

Watercress is a plant from the mustard family. Watercress is found in shallow, fast-flowing streams and is easy to spot from afar due to its bright green color. This plant should only be harvested from clean water sources and the leaves should be washed thoroughly before consumption. The taste is similar to arugula or other peppery, savory greens, and is often used on sandwiches or in salads.

Most people know wintergreen as a popular chewing gum flavor, but it’s a wild plant that grows in northern regions of Minnesota and Wisconsin. As its name suggests, its leaves remain bright green even when snow is thick on the ground. Wintergreen berries and leaves are safe to eat. But there’s a trick to making wintergreen: unlike other herbal teas, adding boiling water doesn’t release the strong flavor of the leaves. Instead, the leaves should be fermented in a jar of water, covered with a small towel, and placed in a warm place for several days. When bubbles start to form, all you need to do is heat the water for a refreshing wintergreen tea.

The number one rule of foraging is to never eat anything you can’t identify with 100% confidence. There are many Minnesota-specific guides for identifying and foraging plants and fungi. Smartphone apps such as Seek and iNaturalist can also give you a good start in identification, but are not always accurate and should be checked with a field guide or expert opinion.

It is important to ensure that you have permission to enter and harvest the land where you plan to forage. Some items can be found right in your garden, especially if you have a vegetable garden. You should also be certain that the area where you plan to feed has not been treated with harsh chemicals.

Be aware of how much you collect. Many foragers take only the amount they will use and leave wild food behind for wildlife or to allow seeds to spread for the coming spring.

Managing Editor Jackie Bussjaeger can be reached by emailing [email protected] or calling 651-407-1200.

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