It goes without saying that winter can be a tricky time to coax ourselves out from our cosy warm blankets and heated houses into the frigid January air. Whilst hibernation might be a very attractive option (wake me up in April perhaps?), there’s a surprising amount to discover on a winter’s foray, and getting out into the crisp, cold weather might be the invigorating shake by the shoulders we all need…at least I’m definitely speaking for myself. In this post, I’ve put together a list of some of my favourite things to forage in the winter. From winter mushrooms, to nutrient-packed seaweeds and young green leaves, there’s a lot out there even in January and most of it is incredibly nutritious too – perfect to keep our bodies and minds feeling vibrant until the weather warms up again.
These delicious wild mushrooms can be found at any time of year, but especially in the winter as they tend to prefer cooler temperatures and cope well with frosts. They can often be found growing in tiered brackets on dead or dying beech trees, so it’s worth having a look if you come across any fallen trees on your walks.
Wood ear mushrooms
Also called jelly ears, they really look the part! Like oyster mushrooms, these can also be found all year, but thrive on elder trees during the winter months when not much else is around. They are used a lot in Asia and I’ve especially come across them in Thai and Lao cuisine. They can be used fresh or preserved by drying. I’ve even heard of people soaking them in liqueur or juice and coating them in chocolate for a yummy jelly sweet treat! I must try it one of these days.
Turkey tail mushrooms have recently shown a lot of promise for their medicinal qualities. Apparently high in antioxidants and immune boosting nutrients, a broth made with turkey tails could be really good for you. They’re less of an eating mushroom mainly because of their tough texture, but they impart a lovely flavour when infused into stocks and soups. I’ve seen so many of them this year so they certainly aren’t a rare species. They are only found on dead wood forming an overlapping layered pattern of growth and have distinctive rings of different colours of reds, browns and yellows with a pale edge (other similar mushrooms don’t have the same contrast between the layers of colour). The mushrooms are thin and leathery to the touch and have a white underside with very small pores.
Perhaps surprisingly, winter and early spring is the best time of year for gathering seaweeds if you’re lucky to live somewhere on the coast. Seaweeds are growing at their quickest when the water is cold and are packed full of nutrients during the winter. The best thing about foraging for seaweed, though, is that it’s almost impossible to go wrong. There is only one poisonous seaweed in the UK and it only grows in deep water, so nowhere you’re likely to be foraging. You might gather seaweed that’s tough or tasteless, but it’s unlikely to cause you any real harm.
My favourite seaweed has to be pepper dulse. These delicate fronds pack a huge punch of peppery, truffle-like flavour in every gram. I’ve only ever found small amounts of it (mainly as I don’t live near the sea so don’t often have the opportunity to look), so it’s only ever been a tiny mid-forage snack, but I hope to hit the jackpot one day and be able to take some home to experiment with. Other seaweeds such as sea spaghetti and kelp are great too, and sea lettuce is delicious fried until crispy and eaten as crisps or as a garnish.
Pine and spruce needles are great for infusing into a delicious tea or syrup for a taste of the winter woodland, or to impart a unique flavour in a soup or stew as part of a bouquet garni. Make sure you know how to identify your conifers and avoid the deadly poisonous yew. Pines are probably the easiest to identify with long needles that grow in groups of two or more from the same point on a branch like the image below, but consult multiple trusted sources as with all wild edible identification.
These lovely, golden flowers can be found growing all year round from their viciously spiky branches. They have a delicate coconut-like scent that makes a delicious infusion or syrup, or the flowers can be mixed whole into biscuits and cakes or scattered over a wintery salad, curry or laksa.
Berries are largely finished for the year, but it’s not too late to come across some late rosehips, haws or crab apples.
After flowering and setting seed in the warmth of summer, these hardy greens start to re-emerge in the middle of winter. Nettle, dandelion, garlic mustard, three-cornered leek (pictured here with flowers although these come later in the year), ground ivy and hairy bittercress can all be found if the weather is fairly mild and they are full of vitamins. At this time of year I love to gather a few leaves of each to wilt into a lovely mushroom broth with some pearl barley.
Part of the beauty of foraging is that there’s always something to find, even in the depths of winter, and some of the edibles listed above can be surprisingly abundant. I hope this inspires you to have a look on your next walk to see what you might be able to find.
This blog is not intended as a foraging or identification guide. Always use a trusted guide when foraging and comply with local laws.