Foraging Fun: Wintergreen

Foraging for the healthful abundance of natural foods that God & nature have provided for us has been an idea that’s fascinated me in recent years.  I have many books that I’ve read till the covers have worn thin.  I have a gazillion websites that I watch about it.

I’m reminded that one of the purposes of this simple living approach to life is to have more time for the things that we choose to do.  So, I think it’s high time that I stop reading about it, and get to it!

First, lets start with some basic rules for foraging:

  1. Always, always, always make sure you have a positive identification of a plant before trying to eat it.  Use a couple of different field identification guides to make sure you’ve properly identified the plant.  This is very important.  Some wild edibles have very poisonous “look alikes” that are not to be trifled with.  (I tend to stick to only plants that are easy to identify without any scary look alikes.)
  2. Be respectful and only harvest in areas that are legally allowed.  If it’s private property, ask permission first. Most property owners consider these plants weeds and are more than happy to have you harvest them.  Plus it gives them something funny to talk about with their friends!
  3. Avoid areas that have been treated with herbicides, chemicals, or that are right on a roadside.  You don’t want to consume plants that have been contaminated.
  4. Be respectful of nature.  Don’t destroy the patch or area around it to get what you want.  Don’t take more than you can realistically use.  Don’t take more than  20% of the patch (this allows nature to keep the patch going for future use).  And don’t take more than 1 leaf from any one plant (to let the plant continue to live and grow).

We’re in northern Minnesota for the summer, so for now, the wild edibles will be what I can find up here.  And they’ll be ones that I can easily identify.  I’ll share my experiences with them, and the recipes (if they turn out well).  Some of these edibles will be things that you’ll find in other part of North America also.

Wintergreen is a good place to start, primarily because it’s what I found on my hike the other day.

IMG_1721

Wintergreen, with a few other wild plants growing in close proximity.

Wintergreen has thick, shiny, leathery leaves that are slightly toothed.  The leaves are 1 to 2 inches long, and are clustered together at the top of a short but woody stem.  Younger leaves are yellowish-green.  Older leaves are dark green.  The entire plant is perhaps 6″ tall.  (The western states have a different variety of wintergreen called western wintergreen that grows as a tall shrub.)  Here’s a map showing the general area that creeping wintergreen grows in:  USDA Wintergreen Habitat Map

The red ripened berries hang under the leaves, and have a cross on the bottom.  Berries ripen in the fall, but winterover and are often still on the plants in the spring.

Wintergreen goes by many different names including checkerberry or tea leaf.  It’s an evergreen shrub that spreads by a complex root system (the plants in one area tend to be from the same root system).  Wintergreen loves poor and acidic soil.  It prefers clearings.  It is a cousin to blueberries and cranberries which also prefer the same soil and climate.

Please note that there are other plants that produce red berries that can grow in the same areas, so make sure you have a positive identification before eating them.  The best way to know for sure, is this:  pick a berry or leaf and crush it.  If it smells like wintergreen, it is.  If it doesn’t, toss it aside.

Wintergreen berries are very high in vitamin C.  Wintergreen is reported as being helpful for those suffering from arthritis.  Wintergreen was used by the American Indians for pain and fever.

For a refreshing trail nibble, nibble on a few.  Chewing on the berries or leaves will freshen your breath.  Supposedly it will also bring relief to irritated gums and canker sores.  You can successfully freeze the berries and leaves.

Don’t dry or dehydrate the leaves or berries – it changes the oil, and leaves them tasting very bland.  Steeping them in hot water for tea doesn’t work well either.

Also, unless you’re a trained professional, it’s best not to try to extract oil from wintergreen.  The extracted oil is extremely powerful and lethal even in small doses.  Don’t ever use wintergreen oil internally.  Avoid altogether if pregnant.

What can you do with wintergreen (besides freshen your breath or nibble a couple of berries)?

  • Make a fermented wintergreen tea that’s tasty and restorative.  Simply fill a glass jar with freshly picked and washed wintergreen leaves.  Cover with filtered water.  Cover the jar with a paper towel or other breathable fabric, and secure with a rubber band (keeps bugs and dust and such out).  Let it sit on the counter for 3 days.  As long as you didn’t use chlorinated tap water, you should see bubbles forming from the fermentation.  You can now strain out the leaves, and drink the tea (cold or warm).  If warming it, just barely warm it (do not boil), or you’ll ruin it.  It’s a very refreshing drink for a hot summer day.  Drink it warmed, and it’ll warm you up from the inside!
  • Make an extract (similar to vanilla extract that you buy at the store for baking, but that’s wintergreen flavored).  Use it for making cookies or candies, or flavoring drinks.  how to make a wintergreen extract
  • I haven’t tried this one, but here’s a recipe from another blog that used wintergreen berries to flavor muffins.
  • And a recipe of my own creation:  Cranberry Wintergreen Breakfast Cake (Gluten-Free)

Please share if you have other favorite recipes or uses for Wintergreen!  Happy foraging!

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