As the weather turns cooler and the frosts start to creep in at night, for most people the main foraging “season” is coming to a close. Of course, the notion of a defined foraging season would have been nonsense to our ancestors who were relying on gathering their food from the wild in order to survive. There is still plenty to find in the winter if you know what to look for, and there’s something so magical about a cold, frosty walk, especially if you can take a moment or two to enjoy a wild, foraged herbal tea.
I’ve been fortunate to be able to enjoy some wild infusions this autumn with my friend and colleague Gemma from Earthwild London, brewed over a campfire, and learning about their traditional uses as medicines and remedies. I wanted to share a few of my favourites to warm my hands and body with on a wintery afternoon in the woods.
Golden Beech Leaf Tea
I love the copper tones of beech leaves in the autumn and their beautiful colour makes a lovely autumn tea. Gathering fallen leaves for tea can take a bit of time, particularly if you like to make sure you’re getting the best ones, but it can also be a really mindful process. When I was picking the beech leaves in this picture I was lucky enough to see a deer quietly run past me through the woods.
Beech leaves are quite easy to identify at this time of year. Their shape is oval with a pointed tip and slightly serrated edges, and the veins are evenly spaced and parallel. They are somewhat similar to hornbeam leaves, but are more glossy and have a much richer gold-to-copper colour in autumn.
￼Being sure to gather leaves from an area free from a lot of trampling or dog-walking, I check them for insect galls (and discard any￼ with these) before giving them a rinse. About half a teapot of leaves infused with boiling water for a few minutes yields a golden tea with a flavour not dissimilar to black tea (likely due to tannins in the leaves), if a little milder.
Birch Polypore & Bay Tea
This one might seem like a strange idea for a tea, but the common birch polypore mushroom makes a subtly mushroomy tea that I actually really enjoy. Considered antibiotic and antifungal, birch polypore has traditionally been used as a medicine in wound healing and a clean slice across the porous underside can be used as a plaster in a pinch.
Birch polypore mushrooms are smooth and grow as brackets exclusively from dead birch trees. The flesh is fairly tough (so although edible, it’s not really suitable for eating) and bright white all the way through aside from its grey-brown top. Gemma has described it as looking a bit like a frothy cappuccino which I thought was spot on.
Brewing this tea takes a bit more time and care as birch polypore can give off a lot of bitterness if the water is too hot. Low and slow is the trick to get the depth of flavour without it becoming unpleasant. I slice the mushroom, put it in a slow cooker and steep it for as long as my cooker will allow. Then I strain out the mushroom, add some bay leaves and bottle the tea to keep in the fridge until I need it. Once the mushroom pieces are removed, the tea can be heated fully as needed. I like to sweeten it with a drop of honey, but it doesn’t necessarily need it and I don’t always.
Rosehip & Pine Needle Tea
This final tea is a combination full to the brim with zesty flavour. The fruity vanilla notes of rosehips provide a rounded, warming companion to the citrusy perfume of the pine needles. Both rosehips and pine are high in vitamin C which is good for maintaining healthy cells and bones, and keeping our immune systems in tip top shape for the winter.
Rosehips, the berries of the wild rose, are easily identified by their conical, bottle-like shape. Pine needles are similarly straightforward if you pay attention to how the needles attach to the branch. Look for needles that attach in groups of 2, 3, or 5 and you’ll know you have pine. Although pine is quite different to yew which is poisonous, it’s worth being clued up on how to identify this toxic tree so you don’t end up with any in your wild infusions.
To get the best out of this tea, I chop the pine needles and rosehips, heat the water and take off the boil for a minute or two before steeping to avoid breaking down the vital constituents of the ingredients. Straining the water thoroughly or using a fine mesh teabag is important to make sure no tough pine needles or throat-irritating rosehip seeds end up in the final tea.
Wild infusions like these have been a new way for me to connect to the turning of the seasons, and to embrace autumn in all its colour and flavour. I hope I’ve shared some inspiration for you that you can take away and experiment with. I wonder what combinations and flavours you will find?