If you are new to foraging, you are thinking that there is nothing you can forage in the winter. Especially if you live in areas that are cold and snowy. I live in southern Ontario, Canada; a temperate zone with winter temperatures that get to around -5C. I live in a snow squall region, which means blizzards that come fairly suddenly and almost horizontally off of the Great Lakes. Cold? Yes. Freezing cold? Not as bad as northern Saskatchewan, where I used to live!
So can you forage in winter? Not very much, but there are some things you can do. One of them is tree identification. Some of those trees have edible parts. Others may guide you in the spring to mushrooms or other plant species that are edible. When winter weather is agreeable, throw on appropriate clothing and a walking stick or two, and head out to the woods.
Today, I’ll just talk about trees in general. I live in the north end of the Carolinian forests. We have a wide mixture of hardwood trees (deciduous, meaning they shed their leaves in the fall) and some coniferous (mostly needle-shaped leaves that shed only when new ones grow behind them).
Species of hardwoods range from sugar maple, beech, birch, elm, oak, ash, hickory, walnut, ironwood, tulip tree, and hazelnut. Many elm were wiped out in the 1940’s due to Dutch Elm disease. In our area, many ash trees are subjected to an insidious killer called the Ash Borer. Sugar maple and many other hardwoods are dying from environmental factors, including climate change. Many environmentalists are trying to increase the boundaries of the Carolinian forests by planting all of these species further north. The warmer temperatures should be favourable to them and allow them to thrive.
You will hear pro and con arguments regarding invasive or non-native species such as ginkgo, Japanese maple, Norway maple, and bamboo. Canada was a nation that had rules around the cutting of trees, such as planting four for every one tree harvested. This was, of course, after settlers and industrialists took all the largest trees in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia. And after the 1990’s, when the economy couldn’t sustain a bunch of aging foresters in natural resources jobs, nurseries were sold to private firms and requirements were relaxed. But in between those times, there were a few good years.
Now, we may have to plant whatever will grow. Ideally, it will be fast-growing native poplars and aspens, known as pioneer species or starter species because they can grow on bare lands. They prepare the soil for other species by establishing roots that churn up the soil, have leaves that fall and decompose nicely into minerals that other trees need, and provide summer shade for less sun-tolerant trees.
As other non-tolerant trees start to establish in the undergrowth, poplars and aspens (cousins in the family tree) begin to wean out and saplings start to take over the canopy. Over the next 50 to 100 years, these hardy deciduous trees — sugar maple, oak, beech, ash, and various nut trees — will dominate.
It is a long process, but as wise people have said, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.” Chinese Proverb
Because trees take such a long time to grow, is it a good idea to plant the usual trees in the usual places? What will our climate look like in 20, 30, 50 or 100 years? Who knows. I hope homo sapiens are still around then. If not, Mother Nature will, eventually, repair the damage that wiped us out. But if we CAN plan for the future, we should start planting trees that stretch the boundaries of their natural range. Ten miles. Twenty. Fifty or more. Higher elevations. Hotter, drier soils. Because every tree holds soil, creates habitat for microorganisms right up to the largest birds and warm-blooded creatures. They cool the earth and water. They filter water, go through photosynthesis and recycle oxygen and carbon dioxide, and provide shade for our houses. They are the materials we use every day.
So for today, I will leave you with one more quote:
It takes a noble man [woman/person] to plant a seed for a tree that will someday give shade to people he [she/they] may never meet. – D. Elton Trueblood