Winter Foraging at The Lodge at Woodloch

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Ferns in snow

Here at The Lodge at Woodloch, the first snowflakes of the season have already begun to fall, blanketing the bare tree limbs in a thin sheet of white and laying a soft white path to walk beneath the pale gray-blue sky. Yes, Winter is just around the bend. The season for skiing and snowshoeing, cozy evenings by the fire, shared meals with friends featuring preserves and cured meats and baked goods. We don’t typically think of Winter as the season for fresh food foraging. The plants have all gone into their long winter slumber, gestating seeds and building energy in their roots for the burgeoning spring. But what if I told you there were still wild edible and medicinal plants that could be found just beneath that chilly blanket of snow?

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Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) berry 

Venture through the orchard gate and onto the blue trail that leads you down a corridor of drying ferns and blueberry bushes with towering Oaks overhead, but don’t walk too fast or you might miss the scarlet berries at your feet. These are the berries of the humble looking Wintergreen. Wintergreen, also called Teaberry, is a low-to-the-ground evergreen belonging to the Heath family. It never grows more than 6 inches tall nor puts on more than a handful of paddle-shaped leaves. However, in winter it is as if this plant dresses up for the season, ornamented in perfectly round red fruits, reminiscent of tiny Christmas bulbs.

Kneel down to its height, pinch off a leaf and crack it in half, smelling its minty aroma. Better yet, pop a berry in your mouth and taste its minty flavor just as strong as your stick of wintergreen gum. In fact, this plant used to be used in the flavoring of gums and candies. Ever heard of Teaberry chewing gum? This lil’ plant gave it its name. However, I think the berries are best blended with oatmeal or yogurt or if you manage to collect a number, sprinkled into muffins or cookies. The leaves make a delicious medicinal cordial. That minty smell is evidence of its containing methyl-salicylates – a chemical constituent that has anti-inflammatory and muscular pain relieving effects. Place a few in the bottom of a mug, pour several drops of your preferred liquor overtop, muddle, and add steaming hot water. Place a saucer atop mug and allow to steep for 10 minutes. Remove leaves with a spoon, add honey and sip your way into relaxation.

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White Pine (Pinus strobus) cone and bundle of 5 needles

 Walk further down the path and soon meet the green softly spikey sprigs of Pine saplings. Take a moment to notice that the blue-green needles are somewhat twisted and twined and bundled together in groups of five by a papery sheath at their base; this is your best indicator of White Pine. White Pine is our tallest Northeastern conifer and although native, was once planted extensively for its use in lumber because it grew so straight and tall. Consequently, White Pine is well-spread throughout our forests and abundant, common to many a Northeastern woods.

But just as valuable as White Pine’s wood are its sweet-tasting needles. Attend the Wild-crafted Medicinal Infusions class and make a Pine Needle infusion, which provides a Vitamin C rich, virus-fighting, warming tea. One mug will warm your bones, open your lungs, and leave your tastebuds happy. It’s flavor is both lemony and pine with a subtle sweet taste of sap. Look for these same trees when you return home and pluck some bundles of needles. Drop a bundle in hot water and with each sip be reminded of your time at Woodloch.

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Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) roots with leaves attached

Let’s not forget the those nutrient-filled roots! Follow the wooded trail as it circles back to the garden. Although we may be a bit limited on just what we can grow this time of year in our neck of the woods there are some plants that grow nearly year round and require no attention at all…the weeds. Among these weeds, there is one particularly hardy fellow…the Dandelion. Throughout the year, Dandelion will put on fresh green leaves. During a warm winter spell you may even see a sunny Dandelion flower peering out from the melting snow. Dandelion’s name originates from the French phrase dent de lion, meaning tooth of the lion, referring to it’s sharp lobes that run along the edge of the leaf and the arrowhead-shape of the leaf tip. Its slightly bitter leaves provide a nice accompaniment to a greens salad, but its long taproot can supply its own host of nutrients.

Dandelion root naturally contains a healthy fiber called inulin. Take a look at the back of your yogurt cup and you may very well see it listed in the ingredients. Inulin acts as a prebiotic in the gut, essentially feeding your healthy gut flora or probiotics. Slivered Dandelion root can be steamed, sauteed, or roasted just like any other root vegetable. However it does have a bitter kick, so it is best combined with other sweet vegetables like corn, butternut squash, or sweet potato. If too bitter for your taste, simmer Dandelion root slivers in hot water for 10-15 minutes, remove root and discard, reserving resulting infusion. Sweeten with honey and sip, not only will your digestive tract thank you, but so will your liver which benefits specifically from Dandelion’s bitter quality.

These are just a few of the plants that you can expect to find while at The Lodge at Woodloch. Join in on an Edible and Medicinal Plant Walk, take a virtual plant walk through the Seasonal Foraging presentation, or even sip a cup of wild tea at the Wild-crafted Medicinal Infusions Class. To find these plants at home and prepare them for food and medicine, visit the boutique and take home a copy of my book,  A Guide to the Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Mountains to Sea Trail. Most all of these plants can be found in your own backyard or favorite wild spaces!

By Resident Naturalist Heather Housekeeper

About Heather Housekeeper:  I am a Certified Herbalist, long-distance hiker, author, and lover of all things wild. I have hiked the Appalachian Trail, Mountains to Sea Trail, Finger Lakes Trail, and Long Path, researching the plants and foraging along the way. I aspire everyday to learn more about and connect deeper with the natural world in which I live, as well as open my eyes ever wider to the beauty of which I am a part.  I have been working with The Lodge at Woodloch in Hawley, PA as their Resident Naturalist. The grounds are fantastically beautiful and maintained in reverence to nature. Find my activities such as plant walks, herbal workshops, and hiker Q&A  on the weekly schedule:  https://www.thelodgeatwoodloch.com/outdoor-adventures/.

This blog was reposted with permission from: http://thebotanicalhiker.blogspot.com/