Foraging for wild foods on a cold, snowy day in Nebraska is an interesting and enjoyable outdoor activity. After all, foraging does not have to be a fair-weather activity.
When foraging, remember to check regulations, have landowner permission and positively identify the plant. If there are any doubts about a particular plant, do not eat it.
Equipment needed for collecting includes insulated hip waders or waterproof boots, insulated rubber gloves, kitchen shears, a small hand rake, gallon plastic bags and a 5-gallon bucket.
What follows is a list of wild winter edibles that you can find in the Cornhusker State.
Cattails: The cattail is a highly versatile wild edible and survival food. The young coblike tips of the wetland plant are edible, as is the white bottom of the stalk, spurs off the main roots and spaghetti like rootlets off the main roots. Cattail roots contain a white starch that is 150 calories per cup, and the shoots also are quite edible, bringing in about 50 calories per cup and a touch of Vitamin K. The pollen is also edible, as are the sprouts that grow on the roots.
Watercress: A peppery member of the mustard family, watercress is a plant that likes cold water. Often found in winter streams, it can be a flavoring and/or a green to put into soups. Wild watercress actually tastes sweeter in the wintertime. Even during the snowiest days of winter, watercress can be found growing in tight, bright green bunches near water, particularly at springs or in spring-fed streams in Nebraska. This delicate vegetable is quite tasty raw, whether added to salads or used as a garnish on sandwiches.
Rose hips: These provide welcome bursts of color in Nebraska’s wintry countryside, especially in the Sandhills. They are full of sweet pulp that can be eaten raw or boiled down for syrup, jam or tea. Rose hips have a sort of herbal flavor that is suggestive of roses without tasting floral.
Pine needles: The tea extracted from pine needles is tasty, easy to make and high in Vitamin C. The obvious trees in winter to look to for food are the conifers. Pine, spruce, fir, tamarack and hemlock all have high levels of Vitamin C. The juniper is a conifer, and many have berries throughout the winter. Most pine and spruce trees contain beta carotene. Be certain that you do not harvest the needles from ponderosa pine, yew or Norfolk Island pine, all of which are poisonous.
Acorns: These nuts are packed with fats and nutrition. Along with black walnuts, pecans, hickories, hazelnuts, beechnuts and pine nuts, acorns can be gathered from the ground. Separate out all of the shell fragments and place the nut meat in a pot of warm water. Soak them for several hours, then pour off the water. This removes the irritating, bitter, astringent-tasting tannin they contain.
Clover: You can spot clover by its distinctive trefoil leaflets. Those clover leaflets are edible and pleasant to eat with a faint, bean-like flavor. They can be tossed into a salad or added to soups, stews and other dishes, such as lasagna. The preferable part of this wild edible is the flower.
For more information on these winter edibles, read my blog, “In the Wild,” at OutdoorNebraska.org.