“Go to the winter woods: Listen there, look,
watch, and the ‘dead months’ will give you
a subtler secret than any you have yet found in the forest”
The new year is here and winter is showing itself in full force. The temperatures have plummeted and the snow flakes have been falling fast, the world outside looks like the inside of a child’s snow-globe, pristine and picturesque in its winter cloak. This is the time of year when curling up to a hot cup of tea and a good book seems like the most logical way to pass the time. But as much as I love books, I have found that they can only hold my attention so long before I get antsy and need to shake the winter doldrums. For that there is no better remedy than a walk in the cold, ambling and stumbling through the snows amid the fields and forests that lie in wait for spring. At first it may seem as if there is little to see outside in winter besides gray skies and snow, but if you slow down and look closer you will discover that the herbs and flowers that existed so boldly in the warmer months are waiting to show themselves, out amongst the cold winds and falling snows,.
Winter is a wonderful season to identify plants, a time when the above ground world is asleep and the green energy of life is now deep underground in a dormant slumber. Winter identification gives you the chance to know a plant in yet another phase of its life cycle. It is a useful way to locate wild edibles for spring harvesting, and a necessary skill for root harvesting in autumn when the plants have changed their forms.
Some plants such as milkweed are easy to identify after they have gone to seed but others like sweet cicely are not quite so easy to figure out. Luckily there is a book available to help you with the tricky ones. Lauren Browns “Weeds in Winter” is a must for winter plant excursions, its detailed drawings provide an excellent visual reference. It also contains a wonderful key to help identify many of the winter plants are found in Pennsylvania.
Snow covered fields are full of many wonderful medicinal and edible plants, which makes them a perfect place to start any snowy hike. In the late months of summer and autumn, the fields and meadows of Pennsylvania are a bouquet of color and variety, but by October they have lost their luster, becoming an expanse of dull grays and brown.
Milkweed, the once choice food of the monarch butterfly has become a shell of its once grand self, only the cotton like seeds remain, clinging to the husk of autumns pod, waiting for a cold breeze to spread them on the wind. Goldenrod, gray with age is now the stately elder of the field. Its seed tops sway in the breeze remembering the August days when its golden crown stretched across the meadow as far as the eye could see. Wit the arrival of cold days the white umbels of Yarrow have turned a darkened gray and its once fragrant leaves, full of wound healing medicine are now clinging to the stem, shriveled and odorless.
Nearly every field and meadow contains the skeletal remains of Queen Annes Lace, its birds nest-like top catches snowflakes as they fall. The Queens seeds have been pillaged by migrating birds, to be spread far and wide across the land. Mints still holding their faint aromas call back to the days of summer past, their square stems and
opposite leaves provide instant family identification even in winter. Asters of every size shape and variety can be found in fields all winter, though identifying exactly which particular species your looking at can be hard, as many of them have very similar characteristics.
Traveling From the meadow to the fields edge, you will inevitably find you have picked up a hitch hiker or two. The seed containing burrs of Burdock love to latch on like Velcro to any passing human or animal. They make a tangled mess of gloves and scarves, and are especially hard to get out of hair and fur. The taproots of young Burdock plants remain deep underground all winter, each one waiting for their second and final year of life when they grow from a hand full of basal leaves into five foot tall giants.
Mullein, a plant who truly loves edges and disturbed spaces often stands stark against the crisp blue sky of winter. An unlit torch made of tiny flowers, waiting for the spark and flame of summer to ignite its yellow brilliance. If you are lucky you may still find the
glowing sun colored head of a Dandelion poking through the snow. They’ve been known to blossom and bloom every month of the year. The early spring leaves of Dandelion are a great addition to any salad, and the bitter roots help aid in detoxification and digestion. All along the field edge you will find the thorny stems of many different berry bushes. Pennsylvania is home to many members of the Rubus genus, Blackberry, red raspberry, wine berry and my favorite black raspberry are all very common and very delicious. Come back in the spring and you are sure to find enough berries for a pie or jam.
Next, step beneath the trees into the quiet woods where in a few months time the early spring wildflowers will soon begin to show themselves. All around the forest floor lies the remains of the once growing world. Bare stalks, fallen leaves and dried up flower heads mark the spots where herbs and flowers once thrived beneath the forest canopy.
Rose bushes can be found throughout the forests of Pennsylvania in every season. After blooming their flowers morph into the burning red fruit of rose hips. Rose hips are a winter treat full of vitamin C, waiting to be added to your next pot of tea. Fallen hickory
and walnuts, though more abundant in the autumn can still be found in winter. Sometimes it takes cracking a few open with a rock to find one that has not been nibbled on by forest creatures.
As you walk the forest paths you will likely come upon Hawthorn, a thorny tree once planted as a living hedgerow that has spread far and wide. The vibrant red berries of hawthorn make great food for the migrating birds of autumn. But by the time the cold sets in all that remains is a few shriveled dull red remnants. Garlic Mustard in its many forms can be
found year round though in winter it is most often a small patch of rounded green leaves that exude a pungent garlic smell when crushed. The young leaves can be added to salads or stir fry or eaten as a trail snack as you walk. Onion Grass appears when the cold weather sets in, a green rounded grass amongst sticking out amongst the white snow. The bulbs beneath the ground can be dug up and eaten, while the tops can be cut up like chives. These are just a taste of the many plants that can be found from field to forest to your own backyard all winter long.
So when the snowflakes start to fall and the gray days of winter take hold, get outside, take to the woods, go find a field, get out of the house and explore the season. You will discover there is far more out there to see than you ever imagined.
***I stole the Line…”You’ll feel better if you leave the house” from a song by Worriers….Check them out… http://worriersmusic.com/ *****
“Weeds in Winter” by Lauren Brown can be found for sale HERE on ABE.com or at your local library.