Foragers gravitate toward the margins – hedgerows, roadsides, the shallow waters at the edge of a pond or lake, and the unkempt boundaries between woods and lawn. The forager’s path seldom winds through deep woods. Unless it’s time to gather nuts or wild leeks, there’s little food to be found there.
But throughout the year, even in the depths of winter, a few wild foods do grow on the forest floor that make worthy additions to a forager’s pantry. Red berries and white flowers, they are the rubies and pearls of the woods.
Best known is the fresh taste and the bright-red berry of wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens). Wintergreen (pictured) is a woody, evergreen shrub that only grows a few inches high. It has thick, shiny, oval leaves and little, white, bell-shaped flowers that, when fertilized, grow into dry but flavorful berries. These mature in the fall but can be found all winter long, hiding under the snow, and well into the spring of the next year.
Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) might be mistaken for wintergreen by a casual observer. Like wintergreen, it grows close to the ground with woody stems, evergreen leaves, and berries of a similar shade of red. You’ll find both fruits through the colder months, and they often grow side by side. But unlike wintergreen, partridgeberry is a creeping plant with paired leaves and fruits. Its leaves are smaller than those of wintergreen and veined with white. A taste of the berries will quickly reveal the difference. Compared to the strong, familiar flavor of wintergreen, the fruits of the partridgeberry seem bland. But they have a pleasant texture and are a welcome find peeking out of the snow on a winter ramble.
Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis) is neither woody nor evergreen nor found in the cold, but its berries are also flamboyantly red. A plant of summer, its whorled leaves are distinctive, with veins running parallel to the leaf margins like those of dogwood trees, another member of the Cornaceae family. Unlike wintergreen, whose berries grow singly, or partridgeberry, whose berries are paired, bunchberries occur, as one might guess, in a bunch. Eight to ten berries form a globe of red color on an erect stalk above a single whorl of leaves. Bunchberries are a summer plant and their long-lasting fruits can be found from July through September.
Care should be taken, however, not to confuse bunchberries with the egg-shaped bunch of red berries that mature from the strange, hooded spathe-flower of jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema atrorubens). Jack-in-the-pulpit berries contain calcium oxalate crystals whose microscopic needles puncture and poison simultaneously to give a nasty burning sensation. When I was 10, my friend nibbled on some. (He’d seen a TV show in which lost soldiers tested wild foods with a tentative nibble.) Immediately, he ran screaming to the garden hose to rinse his mouth and spent the afternoon holding an ice cube to his tongue.
Red berries are fun to find, but my favorite food of the forest floor isn’t a berry at all. The delicate flower of the trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) is a sweet, trailside treat of early spring. Like wintergreen and partridgeberry, it is a creeping, evergreen, woody-stemmed plant. Its leaves are leathery, but its flowers are delicate and they bloom at the first hint of spring, sometimes as early as February. A long corolla (flower tube) easily pulls away and tastes of sweet nectar.
The forest floor may not be a place where the forager can gather an entire meal, but one can gather a tasty snack, even in the winter months. Rubies and pearls can be found anywhere if you know what to look for.
Snow Queen's Salad
1/4 cup wintergreen berries (a little goes a long way)
4 ounces baby spinach greens
4 ounces baby arugula
1/3 cup sliced almonds (lightly roasted)
1/2 cup coarsely chopped pears
1/4 cup dried cranberries
For the dressing:
1/2 cup olive oil
1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp. maple syrup
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
salt and pepper to taste
Lightly crush the wintergreen berries with the flat of a cooking knife and chop coarsely.
In a large bowl, toss greens and pear. Add cranberries, wintergreen, and almonds.
For the dressing, whisk together vinegar, maple syrup, Dijon mustard, and salt and pepper.
Let sit a few minutes before slowly whisking in the olive oil.