The intensity and length of this winter’s coldness reminds me of a survival disaster that happened to me during one particularly frigid and frightening winter in the Adirondacks at our wilderness homestead.
Back in the 1970s, I had moved my family away from hectic, urban living to the peaceful and beautiful Adirondack area of upstate New York. One summer I happily foraged and harvested many wild edibles I found all around me. I gathered enough nutritious bounty that summer to prepare and can 420 mason and atlas jars of food in the form of pickles, wild berry jams and jellies, cattail inner piths, milkweed buds, and other edibles that were suitable for canning. I had already collected that many jars for that purpose, so all I needed to get were new lids. When I was done with that process I stored the jars in my handy, insulated, 9 foot refrigerator pit that we had dug on our property. That many jars filled the entire storehouse. I calculated that between those cans and additional wild foods I’d harvested, dried, and stored, we’d have an ample supply of food to last us through the winter and into spring. By then it would be time to harvest the early wild edible leaves, buds and blossoms that would herald the arrival of new wild food–my favorite time of the year.
Alas, I learned a difficult but vital lesson that winter. And that is, when you live in the wild and are not near a grocery store, you had better create and maintain multiple stores of long-lasting food. (And of course, free wild food would be my first such choice.)
Imagine my terror and despair when, after a particularly intense January blizzard in -20 to -30 degree Fahrenheit temperatures, I dug out to my refrigerator pit only to find that nearly all of those carefully-prepared and stored jars had exploded from the severe cold! I was heartbroken and very afraid. As I pondered the mess, that just two days ago had been a wealth of nourishing food, the thought came into my mind that I would have to do what the Algonquin Indians did when they were desperate for food in very harsh winters; they became tree bark eaters. In fact, the name Adirondack is a derivation of a negative word that the Algonquin’s neighbors (the Iroquois) used that means “bark-eater.”
I did not care that it was a negative term. All I cared about was that I was able to recall it when I needed it, and that the innermost part of the birch bark is what you can scrape off to have a powdery kind of substance that is very nutritious.
That winter day, I mentally rolled up my sleeves, surveyed the immediate area where a number of branches had been blown down by the storm, and found a birch branch. I cut into the reddish inner bark, scraped until I had some powder, made myself some birch bark tea, and sipped it slowly. Making a tea out of a wild plant and drinking it slowly is not only refreshing, but is also one of the essential steps I developed to help me determine if a wild food is okay to consume or not. Over time and through much experience, I worked out my “Rules of Foraging”, and I followed them rigorously throughout my foraging life.
Those rules are based on years of trial and error, as I tested the various wild plants I came upon and added the acceptable ones to our diet and to my ever-expanding list of “forageables”. The “Rules of Foraging” are provided at the end of this article, and in my wild food books and my DVD. I knew, when I left the woods and set out to teach the skills of the forager, that the essence of getting to know a potential wild edible plant would have to be boiled down to a procedure that anyone could apply. I was also very aware that the single most important bit of advice I could impart was how to safely eat the bounty that is wild food. The rules are as complete as I could make them, so feel free to copy and use them for yourself, and supply them to anyone who has the wild food adventure spirit!
Because winter vagaries are the norm in New England, where I grew up, I did have an idea about the environmental challenges of winter living. However, that first winter of living fully in the wilderness had its own unique set of circumstances, as did the following winters that I lived away from civilization. Some additional wild food tips on winter survival that I discovered are these: In case you were wondering about whether any leaves that get blown off during winter storms might be edible, my experience is that they are not. I found a black mold on winter leaves in the snow, so do not consider them a food source in winter. The next tip is that if you have any apple trees in your vicinity, chances are that there may still be some frozen right on the branches that you can pull off and eat when they defrost in your home, or you could dig beneath the trees and find frozen apples there. The same would be true for berries on bushes or that have fallen to the ground.
It’s kind of amazing what you can come up with when your survival depends on it, and I was very fortunate that our family chose a location where we did have access to land where many naturally growing plants could be harvested all year long. This next tip is something you do before winter happens, and that is to memorize each of the edible plants and trees in your area so that when their leaves are gone and other identifying characteristics are under snow, you’ll know where and what they are and can forage from them. You could also make this a warm weather game to play with your children before winter comes, so they will feel empowered by their edible plant and tree identification when it is winter. There are any number of ways to interest and involve children to learn the survival value of wild edibles they can find right nearby.
One thing to know about another edible tree– the pine tree– is that when you are foraging in the cold and need nourishment, and you know there is a pine tree nearby, get some needles from the tree, wash them in the snow, and twist the needles to get the pine juice from them. It really helps to pep you up a bit.
Birch tree twigs are similarly beneficial in that chewing on them is not only satisfying to the taste but also is a good workout for your teeth! So that first winter I discovered birch tea and chewing twigs, and I wanted to increase my options to include birch flour. The first birch inner bark piece I brought home was from a large branch and that bark was very hard. I knew I would not be able to grind it into flour with my little non-electric, cast iron meat grinder, so I went back outside and found a younger, thinner branch.
The curl of that inner bark reminded me of cinnamon stick rolls that come from the inner bark of the cinnamon tree, and that birch inner bark was easier to cut into and peel out the inner layer. That bark piece I was able to further slice into long slivers that I could grind (and grind, and grind), and I was finally able to produce a kind of coarse flour that I used for baking. At that time I wasn’t able to get the flour as fine as I would have liked, but nowadays you can get really sturdy grinders to do the job. I recommend that you have at least one that can operate without electricity as part of your survival arsenal.
One other reason I thought of the birch tree as my first tree-foraging attempt is because that tree, as well as the willow tree, have parts that have can be isolated to become the active ingredient in aspirin (acetylsalicylic acid, which Bayer has marketed so successfully). So, I knew that I would get a double benefit from the winter birch– food and medicine. Since birch has that medicinal quality, you’ll want to combine birch flour with other flours when you are baking with it. Birch sap is also another food source from that tree, but since it takes gallons of birch sap to boil down into a little bit of syrup, that turned out not to be as viable as tapping maples for their syrup.
As a note here, over the years I learned quite a lot about harvesting various useful and edible parts of trees to the point where I had so much information to share that I wrote a book about it. That book is “Eat the TREES!”, and it includes a wealth of details, stories, and specifics on identifying, harvesting, and storing tree parts. For example, I learned that pine inner bark can also be ground into flour, but that it has an intense flavor, so you would want to combine it with other flours to make it taste better. I experimented with the various flours that I created from edible trees and plants, and I came up with some good combinations. In the Wild Food Recipes section of “The Essential Wild Food Survival Guide”, I discuss which wild plants make good flours, and there are many recipes in that book that include wild flours.
While that first winter was a true survival challenge, it did show me how valuable trees can be when you really have a hunger situation in the dead of winter and not many other food options. I was very fortunate that during the previous summer and into fall I’d had the foresight to dry a good quantity of various wild edibles that grew freely nearby. These included lamb’s quarters, amaranth, clover, and others of the plants I discuss in my materials that are found on my website– OfTheField.com.
The wild plant, amaranth, in addition to being very plentiful, is a particularly excellent wild food and makes such a good flour that today you can find it in many food stores. It is also listed as one of the recommended flours in gluten-free recipes. My first attempts at amaranth flour were coarser than current commercial, finely-ground flour, and they use amaranth seeds while I used the entire plant. I used to pour out my dried amaranth parts into a pillowcase, pound it into a powder and store it in glass jars. At the time, in the wilderness, it was wonderful to have that nutritious food on hand.
I want to mention specifically here, because it’s very important, that if you are going to store any wild food, you have to be sure to get it bone dry– crinkly dry. It is possible to dry wild food over a fire as long as you string the food up high enough! You can string up your plants to dry around the house (sometimes my rooms looked like a forest!), and in warm weather I would place my tray of edibles in the car to dry beneath the back window. And if you are considering building a solar food dehydrator for your food drying needs, my son Eric has compiled an informative and entertaining .pdf course on that topic, which you can find on our website. The reason I stress the drying aspect regarding wild food is because I had some instances of mold growing on my stored, wild food, and I had to get rid of it. Such a waste. You do not want to think you have food available, and then find out you didn’t dry it well enough before storing it.
With thorough drying and storing procedures, it is possible for wild food to keep for many years, and still retain the nutritional value. I still maintain pounds of dried amaranth, both leaves and grain tops, for possible survival use, and I can tell you that I have even now dried pine needles, mints, balsam leaves, curly dock, and others that I gathered and dried carefully 38 years ago. It is a real treat to have flour that you made from various wild plants, but that flour lasts generally only about six months, while the sustainability of adequately dried plant parts is measured in many years.
The spring that arrived after that harrowing winter was probably the most eagerly awaited of my life. As the weather started to warm enough for the beech trees to bud, I gathered tree tips and buds and brought them home to put into stews, stir-fries, and salads. I also gathered the buds and tips of pine, balsam, and oak trees that had begun to grow but then froze when the weather turned colder again. I knew they wouldn’t be continuing their growth and that there would be plenty more, so I gathered to my heart’s content and added them to my food ingredients. I also revisited the birch trees and gathered some spring inner bark, which is kind of buttery and much easier to harvest and grind. And then as spring got underway for real, I was able to go about my usual harvesting routine for the early spring wild plant parts, and on into the rest of the harvesting season that would continue until the snow fell again.
I can assure you, I was much better prepared for my next winter in the Adirondacks!
About The Author:
Linda Runyon is the editor of the “Of The Field” website and the author of many wild plant books and instructional materials.
THE RULES OF FORAGING
These rules are for your own protection when investigating plants that are new to you. If followed closely, they will protect you in the field.
- DO NOT collect plants closer than 200 feet from a car path or contaminated area.
- NEVER collect from areas sprayed with herbicides, pesticides, or other chemicals.
- DO NOT collect plants with RED STEMS, or red striations or stripes.
- ALWAYS BE FAMILIAR with all dangerous plants in YOUR area of collection.
- POSITIVELY IDENTIFY all plants you intend to use for food.
- Take a piece off the plant and roll between your fingers. SNIFF CAREFULLY. Does it smell like something you would eat? If it doesn’t, DISCARD IMMEDIATELY. If it does, go to rule 7.
- Take another piece off the plant and roll until juicy. RUB the tiny piece on your gum above your teeth.
- WAIT 20 minutes.
- DOES YOUR GUM ITCH, BURN, TINGLE, SWELL, OR STING? If no reaction occurs, go on to rule 10.
- Take another piece of the plant and put in a teacup. Add boiling water and steep for 5 minutes. SIP SLOWLY for 20 more minutes. WATCH FOR NAUSEA, BURNING, or DISCOMFORT. If no reaction occurs, you may ingest a small amount.
- WAIT ANOTHER 20 MINUTES and watch for any reaction.
- Keep all samples AWAY from children or pets.
- Store all seeds and bulbs AWAY from children and pets.
- Teach children to keep all plants AWAY from their mouths, and DO NOT ALLOW children to chew or suck nectar from any unknown plants.
- AVOID smoke from burning plants. Smoke may irritate the eyes or cause allergic reactions QUICKLY.
- BE AWARE of your neighbor’s habits with chemicals, pesticides, and herbicides.
- BEWARE: heating or boiling doesn’t always destroy toxicity.
DISCLAIMER: This is information about wild food. The editors of SurvivalBlog and the author make no claims as to the correctness, safety, or usability of the data. The information contained herein is intended to be an educational tool for gathering and cooking wild plants. The information presented is for use as a supplement to a healthy, well-rounded lifestyle. The nutritional requirements of individuals may vary greatly; therefore the author and publisher take no responsibility for an individual using and ingesting wild plants. All data is to be used at your own risk. Using the above Rules of Foraging greatly helps to reduce that risk, but they are not fool-proof.