A Winter’s Foraging Walk

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Folks frequently ask, “Can you forage in winter?” and my response is always a resounding yes! While there aren’t the summer’s berries and flowers to be found in the deep snow of the Great Lakes; a forager can delight that there are barks, buds, and even sap to be gathered in the cold of January and February.

Not only are there plants that can be gathered in the winter, but wintertime is a perfect chance to practice your plant identification skills – you can practice keying out plants and trees from last season’s leaves, stalks and barks as well as discover new plant stands for spring harvesting. Moreover, I am a believer that we should spend time outdoors in all four seasons – it helps with seasonal depression, can boost immunity and is just all around good for the soul to get outside and appreciate the natural world around us.

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Just this past weekend, I headed out with my trusty and patient companion, Rosie, to walk along the icy Lake Michigan shoreline in northern Michigan. As I made my down the beach, I said hello to the overwintering uva-ursi who will soon have pink flowers again in May.

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I saluted the stately milkweed, whose pods looked like a well-crafted sculpture against the white snow. I even bent down to collect a few handfuls of juniper berries for spice and tea in my kitchen.

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I hiked along the front dunes, stopping at the clustering stands of Poplars to gather their aromatic and resinous buds to make a Balm of Gilead warming muscle salve.  Stopping at each tree (stands of P. grandidentata; though stands of P. tremuloides, P. balsamifera, and P. deltoides are also common on the foredunes of this area), I tasted the buds for that signature resinous-camphor-like flavor on my tongue so I would know which buds to gather. My dog stopped along with me — patient and musing as to why her human companion was tasting trees again. I tasted to be sure they were the most strong buds. Not surprisingly, the flavor varied from tree to tree.**

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The large-toothed aspens delighted me with super resinous buds – way more warming, resinous and spicy than the quaking aspens (P. tremuloides) back downstate in my own woods and in the nearby back dunes, from which I’ll gather bark later in the spring for bitters blends. The buds will vary from species to species and from locale to locale. Use your senses to determine strength and how you might want to use them.

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The buds will be extracted into a coconut oil base to be made into a muscle salve. If I have enough, I will also extract the buds into a tincture of high-proof alcohol to make a topical liniment for tight and sore muscles. The poplar buds can be formulated also with goldenrod, St. John’s Wort, and yarrow for a well-rounded muscle salve or liniment.

Balm of Gilead Infused Oil Recipe : Add 1 cup fresh Poplar buds (taste for resinous and aromatic flavor) to a mason jar, cover completely with olive or coconut oil. Let steep for 6 weeks and then strain. For faster extraction, simmer mason jar in a double boiler with water or in a crock pot. Finished oil can be used alone as a massage oil or used as a base for a nice salve.

**A note on sustainability: Poplars drop their branches during heavy windstorms, making it most sustainable foraging to gather barks and buds from fallen branches. Buds can be gathered from live trees, but do gather only a handful from tree to tree, and be sure to give thanks for the harvest the trees offer.