Focus on the forest for the holidays

Four ways to add holiday cheer this season using wild edible foods.

Wintergreen | Photo by Michelle Jarvie
Wintergreen | Photo by Michelle Jarvie

The months of November and December often conjure up visions of warm fire places, family gatherings, and holiday meals. While we almost all have our traditional go-to holiday recipes, you might want to consider going outside this year to spice up your meal. It may look like there is not much out there still alive when winter is on its way, but there are several wild edibles you can forage for this time of year. Here are three tasty ways you can add foraged food to your holiday meals:

Fresh cranberries- Cranberries and cranberry sauce is a staple at meals this time of year because late fall is the time when cranberries are harvested. While many people enjoy the gelled, canned version, consider trying fresh berries. Since they are less-processed, they taste better and contain more available nutrients. So, where can you find them? Cranberries grow in acidic soils that hold water, often referred to as “cranberry bogs.” They may be somewhat difficult to truly find in the wild, but there are many farms across Michigan and the upper Midwest that grow them in natural conditions. These cranberry farms[SR1]  sometimes offer tours and you-pick options. You can also find fresh cranberries in the fresh fruit and vegetable section of most grocery stores.

Quick and Easy Cranberry Relish

 3 cups fresh cranberries

1 red apple peeled and chopped

The zest and juice of one orange

¼ teaspoon of cinnamon

A touch of honey or maple syrup to taste

Pulse all in a food processor or chop by hand.

For more cranberry info and recipes, check out this article.

Spruce needles- Most coniferous trees in Michigan have edible needles. The needles of white spruce (Picea glauca) have a nice lemony taste when first eaten and they are high in vitamin C. They can also be steeped to make a tasty tea; or used as a substitute for  rosemary due to their similarities in taste and texture.

Recipe Idea: Add some crunched up spruce needles to your stuffing or turkey this year for a taste of the wild!

Wintergreen- Gaultheria procumbens, commonly known as wintergreen, teaberry, boxberry, is the actual plant used to provide the original flavoring for wintergreen gum. Some candy companies still use it , but there are other culinary uses. Wintergreen is a low-growing plant often found near pine trees or in other dry, sandy woods, in almost every county of Michigan. Both its leaves and red berries have culinary uses- leaves can be steeped to make a mint tea, and berries can be used in mint jelly, sauces, and pies, or as ice cream topping. The entire plant contains a chemical called methyl salicylate, which can be harmful in large doses, but cooking releases this chemical, making it safer to consume than the raw plant parts. If eating berries raw, up to 1 oz should be tolerable for most adults. Raw leaves can be chewed like gum to freshen breath but never should be swallowed. It is best to use the berries in a cooked manner to avoid stomach upset.

Michigan forests offer so many benefits to us, especially during the Holidays.  Consider holiday meals with forest edibles; decorate with fresh greens over artificial, and make some time to stroll in a forest. Your mental and physical self will thank you!

Michigan State University Extension recommends the following guidelines whenever collecting and eating wild edible foods:

  • Only harvest in State Parks, National Forests, or private property with landowner’s permission.
  • Avoid overharvesting. Leave some behind for others to enjoy, and for sustaining the population into the future.
  • Harvest in a way that does the least damage to the remaining plant and ecosystem.
  • When trying new wild foods always start with a small amount as some people may have allergies or adverse reactions to foods.
  • Always save a small amount of the new food you tried. In case of an adverse reaction, it may be helpful to medical care workers.
  • Be absolutely positive about the identification of a plant you plan to eat. If you aren’t sure, don’t eat it.
  • Always wash and properly prepare wild foods according to recommended guidelines. Some plants must be cooked before eating, while others can be consumed raw.
  • Never rely on common names to identify a plant. There are often several plants that share the same common name. For example, pigweed, which can be identified as at least 3 different plants depending on who you ask. Always use scientific names for identification.

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