Winter Foraging: Greens under the snow

A few years ago when I was doing small game trapping more regularly in the late fall and winter, I would regularly enough forage in between checking traps. Even going into winter with the snowfall I’d be able to find at least a little. The main area I trapped at that time was along a major river in areas that semi-regularly flooded.

What I discovered early on is that several of the common wild greens I like happen to grow a small amount in winter, even under the snow. Chief among those I found out on the trapline were garlic mustard and stinging nettle. These leafy plants are considered pretty nutritious additions to diets in terms of vitamins and minerals added. I suspect part of the reason they grow just fine even under snow is that neither are annuals.

Stinging nettle is a herbaceous perennial with leaves that are often eaten. They can be eaten raw or cooked, with the caveat that the entirety of the plant is covered in hairs that deposit formic acid just under your skin, earning the plant the stinging part of it’s name. Careful grasping almost always negates that, since the sting generally comes from brush against it. I like to carefully pull off a leaf, roll I into a small ball, and eat it raw.

Stinging nettle, Urtica dioica

Stinging nettle can be found as an understory plant mostly in wet places, but it’s not uncommon to see clusters in drier open areas like meadows. They can be identified by their spearhead shaped leaves that grow in an opposite pattern with serrated looking edges. As I said above, the entirety of the leaves and stem have small hairs all over them. The stems tend to be fairly woody, and long fibers harvested in the summer or autumn can be used for cordage or even weaving textiles. I recommend only harvesting the freshest growth at the top to eat; if you’re doing so in winter that’ll be most of what’s showing.

Garlic mustard is a highly invasive plant here in North America that also happens to be one of my favorite greens. It’s a biennial flowering plants related to cabbage, broccoli, turnips, and the like. In the first year of growth the plant mostly just grows roundish leaves close to the ground. The tall flower stalks with heart shaped leaves comes the second year. The leaves have something of a garlicky smell and taste most of the time, but I recommend harvesting through the first year and at the beginning of the second. If you do harvest from older second year plants, I really recommend the unopened flower buds; I think of them as spicy broccoli. This is true of other wild mustards.

Garlic mustard, Alliaria petiolata

I hope you’ll incorporate these two greens into your diet at least occasionally, and that I’ve helped you realize that there’s fresh vegetables available from the wild year round, even if the pickings are a little slimmer.

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