For the past seven years, David Muska has led troops of nature enthusiasts at Ondatra Adventures through the Capital Region in search of edible and useful resources. He recently took some time to tell The Alt about some of winter’s most common finds.
The New York State licensed guide has been foraging “wild edibles” since his early teens. “I asked myself, ‘How did people live off the land? Did they just walk around outside and pick things up?’ Later I realized, ‘Yes, you can, but it’s more complicated than that,” he says. “This is definitely a rabbit hole of learning and fun.”
Muska hosts a foraging apprenticeship program from the spring to the fall, running about five months, where people can learn more deeply about the plants and their uses. “Most people in the classes come with a certain amount of knowledge already so there’s a community atmosphere,” he says. “I’m always learning things because there’s so much to know. We’re learning about our relationships with the organisms we share this earth with.”
The guide also leads edible foraging classes with local environmental organizations such as the Mohawk Hudson Land Conservancy and several preserves.
“In the winter, from a survival or emergency standpoint, it’s pretty grim,” Muska says. The most abundant resource this season aside from hunting for meat, he adds, is in the form of teas.
“It’s about warming your body from the inside out, keeping that core temperature up. Even if you’re out hiking for the day, you can bring a backpack stove or–if you’re in a designated area–start a small fire and enjoy a cup of tea.”
Some of the tea bases you may find in your search can include:
- Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens): A low growing plant whose leaves can be brewed into tea and berries can be eaten raw or cooked.
- Black Birch (Betula lenta): The tea from this tree’s young twigs “yields a refreshing spearmint type flavor,” Muska says.
- Nanny Berry (Vibernum lentago): This nickname, Muska explains, comes from the name for a female goat as the fruit bears a striking resemblance to the animal skat, or droppings. It is also referred to as Wild Raisin or Black Haw and can be eaten raw or boiled–its peeled fruit is very sugary and can be made into jams and puddings. “It’s a persistent berry that will hang on the trees through the winter until the birds eat them. They’re usually a last resource after the other nutrients are gone,” he says.
Some of the plants are particularly rich with vitamin C, including:
- Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis): A tree whose needles can be made into tea.
- White Pine (Pinus Strobus): It’s inner bark is also edible.
- Staghorn Sumac (Rhus typhina): Tea is made from the plant’s seed heads, or the dried flowering or fruiting part of the plant containing the seed.
- Rose Hips (Rosa spp.): “There’s a lot of wild rose, or escaped rose, around New York,” Muska says. These usually bloom through the fall, when its fruit can be eaten whole or made into jams and such. The hip (shown above) contains the most vitamin C and its petals are edible year round.
“In the winters we have that aren’t really frozen or if we have an early thaw, greens are pretty accessible,” Muska adds. One common find is dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) that can be eaten raw, steamed and sautéed (though bitter in the winter). Its taproot can also be eaten cooked, sautéed or roasted into a ‘coffee’ and is used for digestion or as a liver tonic. Cattail (Typhus spp.) is also widespread. “This time of year, the underwater root is full of starch and an incredible source of carbohydrates,” Muska says. It can be cooked just like a potato and is best roasted over the coals of a fire.
There is plenty to find, however when venturing out into the wilderness there are a few important things to note.
“Gathering anything in New York state is essentially illegal unless you’re on private land,” Muska says. The guide recommends that foragers first check up on the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation regulations.
Ask permission if you see something worth harvesting on someone’s private property. “A lot of things like acorns, oak trees and black walnuts are annoying to residents,” Muska says. It might be worth knocking on a door and offering a free cleanup job in exchange for some of the harvest.
It’s important to be familiar with your area. Muska recommends steering clear of any areas where there may be herbicides, insecticides or fungicides applied as well as any industrial area where pollution may have occurred. Roadsides should especially be avoided as vehicles regularly pollute the air and nearby water and soil.
Make sure you know what you’re looking at. “If you’re harvesting in the winter it’s incredibly important to understand said plant in all of its seasons…so that you can recognize it and properly ID it. Especially so for wild root vegetables or a plant that loses its leaves, for example Queen Anne’s Lace, or wild carrot, can be confused with poison hemlock,” he says.
Most importantly, be a conscious and ethical forager. The less impact on the land you are exploring, the better.
“It’s fun and important to be a ‘participating’ member on the landscape,” Muska says. “Take no more than you need. Understand the plant you’re harvesting. Is it protected? Population threatened? Is it invasive and already a contender for population removal or control? You might be taking a food source from wildlife in the area. When I’m foraging I take no more than 10 to 20 percent of [a plant’s] population, but that differs from instance to instance. In a weak population, I won’t harvest at all.”
If you are interested in learning more about foraging or have questions about something you’ve found on your property, email David Muska at firstname.lastname@example.org