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Winter Wild Edibles

Foraging for wild foods on a cold, snowy day in Nebraska’s wintry landscape is an interesting and enjoyable outdoor activity. After all, foraging doesn’t have to be a fair-weather activity, right?

But, let’s get this straight: Foraging for wild plant foods in winter is not easy. It’s tough, it’s rough, it’s cold, it’s hard work. Frigid temperatures, snow cover and low-light add to the difficulty. Winter foraging can sometimes be about slim-pickings, too. However, if you have basic knowledge of specific plants, bundle up and put forth the effort to find and correctly harvest them, you’ll enjoy a variety of nutritious, natural foods, from greens to nuts to roots, even during the snowiest, coldest parts of winter in Nebraska.

Your blogger inspects an area of scotch pine needles on the ground that are in a deer bed. Photo by Steve Wagner of Gretna, NE.

Here are five reliable wild winter edibles that you can find in the Cornhusker State.

Remember, when harvesting wild foods of any kind: Check regulations, have landowner permission, positively identify the plant or part thereof by using a good, reputable field guide or going with a master naturalist, learn about any poisonous lookalikes in your area, do not collect near roads, parking lots or other potentially polluted places, and eat only small amounts of wild foods that are new to you, and harvest in a sustainable manner never taking more than you can eat or over 5% of a plant population. If there are any doubts about a particular plant, don’t eat it.

Among the equipment needed for collecting wild edible plants in winter: Insulated hip waders or waterproof boots, heavy duty-insulated rubber gloves, kitchen shears or pocket knife, small hand rake, one-gallon plastic bags and a 5-gallon plastic bucket.

(1) Cattails (roots and shoots).

Cattails grow along a backwater slough of the Platte River in southeastern Nebraska. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska game and Parks Commission.
Cattails grow along a backwater slough of the Platte River in southeastern Nebraska. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Known as the “supermarket of the swamp,” the cattail is a highly versatile wild edible and survival food. The young cob-like 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. They have vitamins A, B, and C, potassium and phosphorus. Cattail roots contain a white starch that is 150 calories per cup, and the shoots are also quite edible, bringing in about 50 calories per cup and a touch of  Vitamin K. The pollen is edible, too, as are the sprouts that grow on the roots. The cattail plant is topped with a seed head that looks very much like a corn dog in size and shape. Keep in mind that it is not the fuzzy characteristic flower heads that you want to eat, but rather, the rhizomes and lower stalks. The fibrous part of the root must be removed though, as it may cause severe stomach upset. Cattail rhizomes are starchy and sweet, with an immensely mild flavor and scent, and they’re packed with vitamin C, potassium and phosphorous. To prepare, gather your winter cattail roots/shoots and pull off the tough/fibrous outer leaves and material until you reach the tender white inner core of the cattail heart. Wash the heart thoroughly and cut into roughly 4-inch pieces. Put a healthy amount of high-heat cooking oil in the bottom of your skillet. Cook for about 3 minutes. In the cooking process, add minced garlic, minced ginger and a few splashes of sesame seed oil. Then, cover and let cook for about one minute. They taste somewhat similar to potatoes. Serve. Enjoy!

(2) Water Cress.

Watercress photographed in January in a seep spring along Nebraska’s Upper Snake River. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

While stream side seeking cattails, keep an eye out for watercress, a plant that likes cold water. It’s a peppery member of the mustard family. Often found in winter streams, it can be a flavoring and/or a green to put into soups. More palatable than supermarket watercress, 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. Consume it quickly after picking it, and always be sure to only pick it from bodies of water that aren’t compromised by runoff pollutants.

(3) Rose Hips.

Rose hips brighten a snowy landscape on a farm in east-central Nebraska. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Rose hips provide welcome bursts of color in Nebraska’s wintry countryside, especially in the Sandhills area. They’re also full of sweet pulp that can be eaten raw or boiled down for syrup, jam or tea. Rose hips have sort of an herbal flavor that’s suggestive of roses without tasting floral. Just boil 12-15 of them for 3-5 minutes, smash them open with a spoon and let them steep for 20 minutes. Strain and serve. The tangy, sweet, red-colored fruits of wild rose bushes come in at 162 calories per cup. They’re an extremely good source of Vitamin E, Vitamin K, calcium, and magnesium, as well as a powerful source of dietary fiber, Vitamin A and manganese. They are also a Vitamin C powerhouse containing 7 times your daily dose. To avoid getting the wrong fruit or berry, look for compound leaves and thorns on the rose bushes. The red rose hips should also be branching upward, not dangling fruits.

(4) Pine Needles.

The frosty needles of a scotch pine tree on a northeastern Nebraska farm. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.
The tea extracted from pine needles is tasty, easy to make and very high in vitamin C, making it a great remedy for the common cold. 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. Also remember that the juniper is a conifer and many have berries throughout the winter. Most pine and spruce trees (there are many sub-species) contain beta carotene. The juniper contains vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, C, calcium, chromium, cobalt, iron, magnesium, manganese and phosphorus. It also contains vitamin A and beta-carotene. While most varieties of pine are safe, always be absolutely certain that you don’t harvest the needles from Ponderosa Pine, yew or Norfolk Island Pine, all of which are poisonous.

(5) Acorns.

The acorns of a bur oak from the bluffs above the Platte River in southeastern Nebraska. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Acorns have been called the ultimate survival food. They 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 in warm water for several hours, then pour off the water. This removes the irritating, bitter, astringent-tasting tannin they contain. One of the easiest ways to cook acorns is to roast them. Place the damp nut chunks on a baking sheet and sprinkle with fine salt or sea salt. Toast them for about 15-20 minutes at 375 degrees in a preheated oven, or roll them around in a dry frying pan over a camp fire. You will be able to tell when they are done when their color changes a bit, and the nut pieces smell like roasted nuts! Eat them out of your hand like peanuts.

(6) Clover.

A clover field in winter on an southeastern Nebraska farm. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Clover, a legume, is a widespread plant that retains its green color throughout the winter. You can spot clover by their distinctive trefoil leaflets. Those clover leaflets are edible and pleasant to eat as they have kind of 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. Red clover is the tastiest of all clovers but be sure to go easy on the intake! You can eat clovers raw but they taste better boiled. Even though these are safe to eat, if you go overboard you may experience bloating and gas. For this reason, clovers should not be consumed by women who are pregnant or by nursing mothers. This incredible plant is a source of many nutrients including vitamins A, B1, B2, B3 and C. It also contains calcium, chromium, cobalt, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, potassium, selenium, silicon, sodium, and zinc. Clovers are also a good source of protein, fat, as well as crude and dietary fiber.

A brown trout, landed by an angler in northern Nebraska’s Long Pine Creek, is shown here with watercress below it. Photo by Daryl Bauer/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Get more information on a couple other winter wild edibles in Nebraska by clicking here.

“We walk on trails and look at scenery without knowing anything about the flora and fauna surrounding us, let alone how to utilize it in a way that would allow one to live in the forest for any length of time.” — Sam Larson, Wilderness Skills Instructor.

About greg wagner

A native of Gretna, NE, a graduate of Gretna High School and Bellevue University, Greg Wagner currently serves as the Public Information Officer and Manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Service Center in Omaha. On a weekly basis, Wagner can be heard on a number of radio stations, seen on local television in Omaha, and on social media sites, creatively conveying natural resource conservation messages as well as promoting outdoor activities and destinations in Nebraska. Wagner, whose career at Game and Parks began in 1979, walks, talks, lives, breathes and blogs about Nebraska’s outdoors. He grew up in rural Gretna, building forts in the woods, hunting, fishing, collecting leaves, and generally thriving on constant outdoor activity. One of the primary goals of his blog is to get people, especially young ones, to have fun and spend time outside!

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