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- Tree Barks
The barks that provide nourishment include pine, sweet (black) birch, spruce, hemlock (the evergreen, not the poisonous plant), and slippery elm. The edible portion is the inner bark, the soft, living layer between the protective outer bark and the hard wooden core. The inner bark is paper-thin, so a large surface area is required to provide a meal. Slippery elm bark peels away easily from the wood, and then the outer bark must be peeled from the inner bark. In the case of other trees, it may be easier to scrape off the outer bark first, then the inner bark. If possible, use a thick branch as your bark source to avoid injuring the main trunk. If it is necessary to use the trunk in an emergency, be sure not to girdle (cut all the way around) the tree, which would kill it.
After peeling, the inner bark is dried, a process that usually takes only a few hours, especially if it is hung in front of a fire. The bark may then be ground into flour and mixed with bread flour or made into ash cakes, which Tom Brown describes as “flattened, pancaked dough laid on the white, hot wood ash of campfires, turned frequently to cook evenly”. The inner bark may also be simply boiled and eaten for an experience in bad-tasting survival food; sweet birch comes closest to tasting good.
Roots that are frozen in the earth can be thawed by fire, according to Tom Brown. He describes a winter expedition in which his Apache teacher located dried flowerstalks of burdock, dug into the snow nearby to find the frozen root of a younger burdock, and built a fire on top of the root. In half an hour the ground had thawed enough to extract the root for cooking. Other candidates for this treatment might include common evening primrose (slightly spicy), dandelion and yellow dock (both bitter but nourishing). Burdock tastes the best of these. The second-year flower stalks are tall and branching, with the sticky, prickly burrs that attach so easily to fur and clothing, but the roots attached to these stalks are dead by winter. Harvest some first-year roots (look for big, slightly furry leaves without flower stalks) in the fall so you can acquaint yourself with the appearance of the root crown.
- Tree Sap
Sap is a palatable source of vitamins and minerals and can provide pure water in an emergency, although its faint sweetness limits its use as drinking water, at least in the case of maple. Sugar maple trees can be tapped in February and early March, when the temperature goes below freezing at night and above 40 degrees in the daytime. Untreated sap is highly nourishing, vital, and cleansing to the body, but must be kept cold to prevent spoilage.
Wintercress is a mustard family member, related to watercress, but as wild food expert Steve Brill says, “Watercress grows in the water, and wintercress grows in the winter.” The summer phase of this plant, with small yellow flowers on a knee-high leafy stalk, is inedibly bitter, although the flowers and seeds make a spicy condiment. The low-growing basal rosettes of late fall, winter, and early spring, are tasty in a pungent, mustardy fashion, with an unexpectedly sweet undertone. The longish stems are lined with tiny, irregular leaflets, ending with a large, spade-shaped terminal leaflet. Add the leaves to salads and soups for a spicy touch and a supply of Vitamin A and anti-oxidants. Look for them in moist meadows and near streams and ponds.
- Onion grass or Field garlic
Both names refer to a familiar plant of lawns and disturbed areas. Its leaves superficially resemble blades of grass but are easily distinguished by their tall, often drooping appearance, dull green patina, cylindrical shape (they are actually hollow), and finally, their oniony smell and taste. They look a bit like several other lily family plants that happen to be toxic; however none of them have the onion smell, so always test for the odor before harvesting. Use the leaves and bulbs for flavoring as you would scallions. Like garlic, onion grass contains Vitamin C and anti-microbial properties, for preventing and treating colds; it should be eaten raw for this effect. Raw or cooked, it helps regulate blood pressure and cholesterol and provide B vitamins and many trace minerals. Children are generally experts at identifying this plant and are excited to discover a practical use for their knowledge, such as making a vinegar extract of onion grass to use in cooking or put on salads.
- Garlic mustard
This common weed grows in open woods and at the edges of gardens, woods, and buildings. The roughly heart-shaped leaves grow on individual stalks 1-4" high and are often visible above shallow snow. In late spring, garlic mustard puts up a slender, thigh-high flower stalk. In winter, the dried stalk often survives, with inch-long narrow, tan pods sticking out from the sides.
Chickweed is a creeping plant that grows in low mats in lawns, gardens, and other open spaces. Although common, it’s a difficult plant to meet, since it’s small and lacks immediately distinctive features, except for the tiny white flowers that are present in spring. The five double-pronged petals form a ten-pointed star about 1/4" across. The tiny, pointed, opposite leaves meet in pairs at the stem, with one sharp vein down the middle of each leaf.
Common chickweed, the species used medicinally, flourishes in cool weather but dies out in the dry heat of summer. It is delicious raw or lightly steamed, most succulent and sweet in the fall, and will persist under the snow in winter. Its larger cousin, star chickweed, grows readily in the summer but has a sharp, less pleasant flavor. Mouse-ear chickweed is fuzzy and tough and must be cooked before eating.
Chickweed supplies an outstanding array of nutrients, including Vitamins C, B6, and B12, beta carotene, magnesium, iron, calcium, trace minerals, and more. It is soothing and healing to the digestive and urinary tracts, cools and detoxifies the blood, and can be used externally for skin problems and infections, including pinkeye, which can be treated with compresses of the fresh herb.
The chopped needles of the various pine species, especially white pine, make a delicious, fragrant tea that is high in vitamin C and can prevent and treat colds. Hemlock (the tree, not the poisonous plant) and other evergreen needles can also be used to make tea.
The easiest way to find food is by harvesting edible wild plants. Because bad choices can be fatal, your best bet is to focus on the four classes of plants that are readily available and easily identified. Most bladed grasses are edible and you can swallow the juices and spit out the fiber if you're willing to dig down beneath a layer of snow to find them. Cattails are located where the ground is wet or marshy and can be identified by their long stalks and sausage-shaped seed heads. The shoots, roots and seed heads are all edible and some parts are also medicinal. Pine trees have high levels of vitamin C and you can boil their needles to produce more of it than is found in a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. Seeds from mature pine cones are also highly nutritious and they are favored by survivalists. A real storehouse of nutrition can be found in the mighty oak with its protein-rich acorns. Some are good raw but all are ready to eat after boiling in several changes of water to eliminate the bitter-tasting tannic acid.
You can expand your plant diet with ants, worms, grubs and other easily caught insects. Ants and worms burrow down below the frost line during winter so it might be more productive to check for insects inside dead logs and behind the bark of old trees. Cook anything you find to eliminate parasites.