The majority of these plants are also available in spring. Foraging in winter provides its own unique seasonal rewards, that foragers do well to take advantage of! So, I often wonder why more people don’t forage in winter, or offer winter foraging courses….
Although we are choosing from a much smaller larder, the wild food we can find in winter offer some fantastic plants and fungi, that are full of flavour, and give us welcome winter nourishment from their array of vitamins, minerals, and other health-promoting phyto and myco-nutrients.
Here then for starters are more than 25 plants and 5 different fungi we can forage for in winter!
Jack by the hedge (Alliaria petiolata) Kidney shaped leaves, smells of garlic and mustard when crushed. All parts edible; the roots make a delicate horseradish sauce replacement.
Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) Synonymous with the returning spring. Loves the Western half of Britain, especially in old woodlands and hedgerows. Almost as medicinal as bulb garlic.
Wild onion (Allium vineale) Another quite weedy Allium, can be found in grasslands, vergers, roadsides, parks and gardens.
3-corner leek (Allium triquetrum) Invasive, naturalised, and spreading. Milder than wild garlic, stronger than wild onion. Western/Southern areas, prevelent Devon and Cornwall.
Daisy (Bellis perennis) – Probably the most widespread of all our flowers. Perennial, with spoon shaped leaves and flowers that open for the day and close by night (Day’s eye).
Silver Birch (Betula pendula) Sap for syrup/wine rises late winter, use mature trees. Young twigs in Spring can be used to infuse a subtle mint-like aroma into veg e.g peas. The sap from birch, once distilled, contains salicylic acid (aspirin precursor) and is now the commercial source of ‘wintergreen’ oil.
Darwins berberis (Berberis darwinni) Bright orange flowers appear in late winter, before small blue/purple summer fruit. Flowers taste sour, like plum skins. Great in salad with fish.
Shepherds purse (Capsella bursa-pastoris) Mustard family annual, offers mild peppery leaves and flower tops for stir fry’s, steam wilting, or chopped finely in salads. Lovely looking heart shaped pods. Grows everywhere, and pretty much available all year round!
Hairy bitter cress (Cardamine hirsuta) A prolific winter specialist, loves disturbed soils anywhere. Takes around 10-12 weeks to grow from seed to seed. A great peppery salad.
Red valerian (Centranthus ruber) Semi-evergreen, walll loving, oval-elliptical leaves. Magenta flowers. A relative of valerian (Valeriana officinalis), but NOT used for medicine.
Ox-eye daisy (Chrysanthemum leucanthemum) Perennial. Similar shaped leaves to our common daisy, much larger flowers. Adorns road verges and embankments in summer.The tight flower buds make a superb caper substitute.
Ivy leaved toad-flax (Cymbalaria muralis) Found almost always on walls. Succulent leaves, pretty pink-lilac flowers. Best Winter/early spring, before sunlight makes them too bitter.
Ground ivy (Glechoma hederaceae)– Mint family. Gorgeous blue/purple two-lipped corollas. Aromatic with delicate mint / spicy savoury tones. Use in soups, broths and stews. My No.1 remedy for soothing/arresting nettle stings, due to its cooling essential oil.
Gorse (Ilex europaeus) Stout, evergreen, spiny and leguminous. Bestows heaths, fields and hedges with lemon-yellow, pea-like flowers. When young, they have hints of coconut alongside their pea flavour.
Wall lettuce (Mycelis muralis) Another lettuce relative with similar textures. Pretty hardy, can be found on walls and waste-ground. Composite flowers have just 5 ray florets.
Mahonia species (Mahonia spp) The different yellow flowering Mahonia species can be used now for garnish and salads. Sour tasting flowers, very similar to sorrel in flavour. Oval purple berries follow in summer. Pectin rich and tart, they are suitbale for jam making and cordial. Found planted as an amenity planting up and down the land, and you can thank my Grandad Hope for discovering it in the 1950’s when planting up the Queens woodland garden in Windsor Great Park!
Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosa) Trifoliate woodland resident, with heart shape leaflets,and a distinctive sour acid taste. Often carpets woodlands with its pretty white flowers and trifoliate leaves. These will fold up before rain and at night, like the unrelated clovers.
Sorrel (Rumex acetosa) Sour, acid-tasting, grassland loving salad leaf. Acutely angled and downward pointing lobes at base of leaf. Dock genus, so has very similar flowers.
Hedge mustard (Sisymbrium officinale) Another biennial mustard relative. Pinnately-lobed leaves are acutely angled. Distinctive leaf rosettes and tiny (3mm) yellow brassica flowers.The leaves are much refined on flower stems, so you may need to trace the leaves back to the base to see the numerous pinnate divisions.
Alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum) Very versatile, all parts edible, aromatic. Black spicy seeds. Big carbohydrate-loaded tap roots. Tender young stems in late winter. All parts are edible, and versatile in the kitchen. Carrot family.
Sow thistles (Sonchus species) Not true thistles! These plants are actually closer to lettuces. Three major species of interest, (the smooth, prickly and perennial sow thistles). All are equally versatile. Leaves, stems, flower buds, roots edible.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) – A former salad staple. Low growing, annual weed of gardens and allotments. Found everywhere!
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)- V. common perennial. ‘Lion’s tooth’ pinnately-lobed leaves – hence ‘dent de lion’. The leaves are a strong saluretic diuretic. Hence also known as piss-en-lit (wet-the-bed)! For food I use the root and leaves. Surprisingly tasty roots after leaching the bitters by soaking in cold water for 24 hours before cooking.
Lime tree (Tilia vulgaris)- Commonly planted in parks etc. Leaves, buds and cambium, are all edible and quite mucilaginous. Cambium can be dried and made into flour. Aromatic flowers are very effective sedative, as well as being delicious. You may find leaves with a coating of sugar on them thanks to the aphids, for a rare sweet vegetable treat!
Wall pennywort (Umbilicus rupestris) Succulent, crunchy, round salad leaves with the petiole centrally located underneath. Grows on old stone walls and bases of mossy trees, mostly in the moister west of UK, Harvest prudently as its a slow grower.
Corn salad (Valerianella locusta) Another valerian relative. Tiny pale blue white flowers in Spring. A very hardy plant, also grown commercially as a winter salad, as lambs lettuce.
Landcress /wintercress (Barbarea species) Glossy, dark, often large leaves. Lobed with much larger terminal lobe. Yellow flowers (6mm wide), late Spring. Loves damp grassland.
Always get 100% positive identification before eating anything. Cross reference your finds for peace of mind!
Although plants are my major interest, I can’t be a forager and not like mushrooms! Even though the major fungi hunting season is in the Autumn, it is possible to find a few really tasty fungi for the table in winter.
You could argue that these mushrooms are often easier and safer to identify because of their season of fruiting, and the usual lack of lookalikes to confuse. So next time you are out foraging in winter, keep your eyes peeled for these five fabulous edible fungi!
Velvet shanks (Flammulina velutipes)
Wood blewits (Clitocybe nuda)
Field blewits (Clitocybe sauve)
Sheathed woodtuft (Galerina mutabilis)
Scarlet elf caps (Sarcoscypha coccinea)
Some fungi are winter specialists. When out walking with friends from Wild food UK, I first harvested blewits in mid December when they had ice on the surface of the cap. These were the first ones I ever harvested, and my winters have never been the same again.
So when winter approaches, I now look forward to the umami hit once again from slow roasted wood or field blewits. I also love the creamyness you get from pan frying them, and they’re so good in soups and sauces.
As my arch foraging buddy Anna proved, these gourmet mushrooms are possibly at their magnificent best if slow roasted, then blended into a pate with onion, sweet chestnut or walnut, elderberries (or a splash of elderberry syrup), some aromatic bitter herbs like tansy or mugwort, and some ricotta or panna cotta cheese. Top it off with clarified butter to seal. Delicious!
Winter woodland walks in the West Country from mid January can provide a really good supply of scarlet elf caps. This particular fungi has fast become one of my favourites. I still harvest these in woodlands right up to Spring equinox.
As a vegetarian friend pointed out, they offer the texture of bacon rind when fried in a tad of butter for 3 minutes. In pies they are great with garlic, bulked out with lumps of feta cheese and sweet potato, and layered with wild greens such as ground elder, nettles or best of all, sea beet.
Velvet shanks and tufted woodsheath are both clump forming mushrooms, that love growing on stumps and trunks. They look quite similar. Both have brown caps, but the velvet shank will have stipes that are quite dark and velvety, almost black towards the lower half.
The tufted woodsheath will take on a two tone colour on its cap once picked, and their spore prints are different colours. I usually first see Velvet shanks in December or January. Both are great fried with garlic on toast, or in pies.
If this has whetted your appetite for foraging in the winter months, then visit our foraging walk pages . Remember that these guides can be used in conjunction with my colour coded harvesting charts, available from our shop.