While winter isn’t the most exciting time to forage, there are some subtle preserved beauties out there to find. Some of my favorites are making tea with conifer leaves and turkey tails, jams from the mushier rose hips, and collecting frozen sap. What’s your favorite foraged finds during the cold season?
Range: West coast of North America from Alaska to California
Today I want to talk about one of my favorite native plants--the salmonberry! It’s in the same family as raspberries, and in fact both plants have similar compound berries. While salmonberries can be a similar reddish color, they can also be a bright orange when ripe! The plant gets its common name because the berries look similar to salmon roe.
We’re not quite to berry season yet, though. The salmonberry bushes are still displaying beautiful pink five-petaled flowers that have been super popular with the bumblebees and hummingbirds in my garden.
Give it a few weeks, though, and the berries will be ripening in the sun (hard to believe with all the cold weather we’ve been getting!) When picking salmonberries in quieter areas, I like to make a lot of noise as I move around. This is because the berries are not just popular with birds and other small wildlife, but black bears, too. I figure it’s better to let a bear know that I’m there sooner rather than later so that I don’t end up accidentally surprising one in the middle of lunch. Given that these are the first really sugar-rich food available to bears after their winter hibernation, I want to give them plenty of room to chow down and start putting on some fat.
This is also the reason I never take more than 25% of what I find when foraging. Many of the things I’m picking are also food for other animals, and they don’t have the option of driving to another area several miles away, or going to a grocery store, or growing a garden. Thankfully there are a lot of large stands of salmonberry bushes in the area, so I can easily pick my fill without putting too much pressure on one particular plant.
I’ve also discovered, to my delight, that salmonberry is incredibly easy to propagate with cuttings. I’m renovating the old garden in my yard, and one of the salmonberry bushes had overgrown a pathway, so I pruned it back a couple of months ago. I stuck the trimmings in pots of soil, and to my delight they rooted beautifully! You can dip the ends in rooting hormone if you want to give them a little extra boost, but it’s not absolutely necessary. Around here they’re not too fussy about soil, either; we’re basically on layers and layers of sand, and they like it just fine. They do like a little extra nitrogen, if you’re going to add fertilizer.
Foraging tips: These plants often grow in riparian areas along streams and rivers, or in wetlands, or in the understory of forests. They can grow over ten feet tall, and have double-serrated leaves similar to those of raspberries. The berries are generally ripe in late May and June, but may ripen later at higher elevations. Be gentle when foraging; don’t break off branches, and be careful of the thorns! Remember that many birds and other small animals make their homes here.
Salmonberries are best eaten raw, and a lot of them end up going home on my stomach instead of my basket! Their flavor isn’t as strong as some other Rubus species, but I find them quite tasty. You can also make them into a jam or jelly using the same processes as raspberries or blackberries. They will keep in the fridge a few days, but get soft and mushy quicker than store-bought berries bred for a longer shelf life. And you can freeze them by putting them on a baking sheet, uncovered, in the freezer, and then once frozen transfer them to a freezer bag.
One of the two trees at Home Farm is starting to ripen. The other ripens substantially later, which is a good thing. Yesterday evening my daughter and I found a couple of ripe ones and brought them home.
You just . . cut them in half, then scoop the pulp out with a spoon. These are very good (they do vary from tree to tree in the wild, not all are tasty).
Pawpaws are hard to germinate, because the seeds require a certain period of cold weather, plus they’re finicky about humidity. People keep them in slightly damp potting soil in their fridge in order to get the to germinate. Not a good solution for the adhd gardener with a poor memory!
but you can cheat! yes! (if you live in an area that meets their requirements)
Here’s how. Eat the fruit. Throw the seeds in a spot with good soil, near a creek, partial shade. Sitting outside all winter takes care of the requirement for cold and moist. Not all the seeds will germinate - but some will. Earlier this year I had to cut down over a dozen hopeful little pawpaw seedlings that were coming up directly under the parent trees. I hated to do it, but it did prove that they can germinate naturally, without sitting in a refrigerator.
They will also germinate if a bear eats the fruit and ‘deposits’ the seeds in the woods. Apparently.
TIPS FOR MUSHROOM FORAGING: I first learned how to forage when I was living on a cow farm for a summer. A few nights a week, one of the farmers and I would go out and he’d show me how to I.D. edible mushrooms and plants. I am not an expert mycologist by any means, but foraging mushrooms has become one of the great joys of my summers. Here’s a few tips that I’ve learned (or been taught) over the years. While everyone has different style, my go to is safety comes first. No mushroom is so tasty its worth dying over.
Get to know a few safe, and easy to I.D. species: this is key. It can be overwhelming first getting started seeing mushrooms and thinking, can I eat that? I recommend starting with just a few to really get to know and build your comfortability and confidence from there.
When in doubt, just leave it: If you can’t confidently I.D., I wouldn’t suggest eating it. If you’re interested in learning more, you can always take it home, spore print it, do some research, etc., but I would be weary of eating something you’re not totally sure about.
Think about look-a-likes, season, habitat, and bioregions: this is a big one. Asking yourself questions like “would this mushroom grow near this kind of tree, water source, this time of year?” Can give context clues to whether or not this is the mushroom you’re looking to find.
Learn how to use field guides: While the internet is a vastly helpful place, look to field guides to give the best context about different species and look-a-likes.
Always leave some behind: Like in any foraging practice, be respectful. Especially with mushrooms, by leaving some behind you may have a perennial spot to look for the next year.