Thursday, January 26, 2017

Mid-winter foraging in Texas, what's in season? (Early spring plants for everywhere else)

I really love living in Texas. The fact that I can forage year-round, even in the dead of winter, makes me so happy. And I've been taking advantage whenever I can. In some ways, the stark landscape makes foraging easier, with no tree leaves to block the view.

I realized I hadn't done a "What's in Season?" post in quite a while, and I also thought that everyone might be curious about mid-winter foraging, especially if you live in the Southern US. So this is kind of a combo post. It's focused on what foraging you can find in Texas in mid-winter, but generally the same plants apply for early spring up in the Northeast and Midwest.

10 Edible plants & mushrooms in Texas mid-winter 

1. Purple deadnettle

Purple deadnettle, or Lamium purpureum, is a common, easy-to-identify, member of the mint family. Like all mints, it's an edible, flavorful, herb. But, it doesn't taste minty, not all mints do. Did you know that basil is a mint? Well it is, and so is oregano, sage, rosemary and more, including deadnettle. Deadnettle is named for its passing resemblance to nettles, the unrelated Urtica genus. Deadnettles LOOK like stinging nettles, with similar heart-shaped leaves, but they don't actually sting. They also have very different flowers, that look a bit like snapdragons and come in pink or purple.

Deadnettle can be eaten raw, though I prefer it cooked, as it has a bit of hair on the stems and leaves. It's very herby, and slightly bitter. Use it like baby kale!

2. Henbit, or henbit deadnettle

Closely related to purple deadnettle, henbit (sometimes called henbit deadnettle), is also in the mint family. The Latin name is Lamium amplexicaule. Henbit's flowers look very similar, with the same snapdragon shape and cheery pink/purple color, but henbit has very different leaves. It's leaves are deeply scalloped, and shaped more like half-circles or kidneys, rather than like hearts.

Henbit can be used similarly to deadnettle, though it's less leafy, so it cooks down a good bit more. On the plus side, henbit isn't hairy, so I like it better than deadnettle when eaten raw.

I plan on doing an identification post for henbit and deadnettle soon!

3. Winter oyster mushrooms

Winter oyster mushrooms, Pleurotus ostreatus, are a delightful find. Their large size, warm brown caps, thick white flesh, and robust texture make them immediately appetizing, and they taste as good as they look! 

Winter oysters can be found on living and dead wood, anytime from October/November through March/April. Unlike some of the plants on this list, oyster mushrooms can be found all over the US in winter, not just the south. In northern climates, look for them during thaws, especially if there's rain. Unfortunately, oyster mushrooms are the favorite food of beetles, who lay their eggs inside, which hatch into larva and eat the mushroom from within. You have to get to oyster mushrooms quick!

Check out my post to identify winter oyster mushrooms here!

4. Cleavers

Cleavers, Galium aparine, are a nutritious, flavorful, and medicinal herb. Right now, mid-winter in Texas, they are super young and tender right now, but they're also a little harder to identify than usual. They aren't developed enough to stick to your clothes yet, but you can still feel the sensation if you run your hand along them. It feels a little bit prickly. Even young like this, I still recommend boiling cleavers completely, to kill the prickle.

Learn how to identify cleavers here!

5. Velvet foot mushrooms

Velvet foot or velvet shank mushrooms, Flammulina velutipes, are one of the best winter foraged foods in the US. Like winter oyster mushrooms, they can be found across the country, even in the middle of January and February. Unlike oysters, you don't have to wait for a thaw, even when the ground is covered in snow, these hardy shrooms will fruit.

They have a mucus layer (don't worry, it washes off) which helps protect them from freezing. Even if they do freeze, as soon as the temperature rises (or you bring them inside) they will defrost and be 100% as good as new. Velvet foot at also very resistant to insects.

Velvet foot identification post coming soon!

6. Curly dock

Curly dock, Rumex crispus, did disappear on us briefly when the snows came, but as soon as they passed by, curly dock sprang back up, as lush, healthy and delicious as before. Curly dock is a robust leafy green, perfect for any use you would use kale or adult spinach, yet it's much more nutritious than both (yes! healthier than kale!), and much more tender then kale as well.

Curly dock does have oxalic acid, and should be avoided by those with kidney or liver problems, and should not be eaten more than 3-4 times per week. Curly dock identification coming soon!

7. Wood ear mushrooms

In addition to being edible, wood ear mushrooms (Auricularia auricula) are one of the most medicinal mushrooms you can find. They're hypoglycemic,  anticoagulant, antioxidant, lower cholesterol, inflammatory,  and help your body fight tumors.

They have a neutral flavor, and a gelatinous, gummy texture which might not be to everyone's taste. Fortunately, the longer you boil them, the softer and more tender they become.  Wood eat identification post coming soon!

8. Field garlic & Crow garlic

You probably ate, or at least played with field garlic as a kid. We called them "garlic straws" because of their strong garlic taste and smell, and hollow, tube-like leaves. Wild garlic is a term generally used to describe two closely related plants: Allium oleraceum (field garlic) and Allium vineale (crow garlic).

They are nearly identical till they flower, and both are equally tasty and useful. They aren't flowering or fruiting yet (I'll mention those parts in their season) but now you can harvest the bulbs and stems. The bulbs are small, but are much easier to peel than commercial garlic. The hollow stems and stem-like leaves can be used like chives. 

Field garlic ID coming soon!

9. Shepherd's purse

I honestly didn't expect to find shepherd's purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris, in Texas. I guess I always thought of it as belonging to northern climates. Up north, it's an early spring plant, but here in Texas, it seems like mid-winter is optimal for it. I bet if I had come across it in December, or early January, it would have been ideal, this is juuuust at the edge of being good eating. One more week and it would be too mature.

Shepherd's purse has leaves at the bottom of the plant, in a basal rosette. These leaves are great for salads, before the plant has flowered. After that, they can become a little pungent (a bit bitter and spicy) and stringy. Then they are better cooked.

The top area, which you see in my hand, are seed pods and flowers. The triangular or heart-shaped seed pods make this an easy ID. They can be used as a peppery herb, though some plants have much less flavor than others. Apparently the root is also edible, but I've not tried it.

10. Chickweed

You could say I saved the best for last. Chickweed, Stellaria media, is only available for a fleeting time up north (early spring), but in Texas I've been finding it throughout most of the winter. And that's a lucky thing because chickweed has a universally appealing, fresh taste (like baby spinach), and a ton of nutrition. It's one of the few wild greens I heartily recommend raw in salads, all by itself. Some other greens are bitter or sour or tough, but not chickweed. Texas is blessed to have it for so long a growing season.

Check out my ID post on chickweed here!

Bonus #11: Spruce, pine and fir.

(Ok maybe not in Texas)

So spruce, pine and fir needles are ready to harvest. . .just not in Texas. I haven't seen them here.

The conifers I see in Texas are cypress, which include the junipers, and they generally have poisonous needles.

Anyway, for the rest of the country, nearly all your conifers have edible needles. They have a pretty tough texture, so chop them finely, and use them sparingly: like a seasoning.

Perhaps their most famous use is steeped in a tea. There, conifer needles leach out all their good stuff: lots of vitamin C and resinous flavor. The tea is also good for breaking up mucus and congestion.

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