Listen to the story:
I recently asked my mother if anyone in our family knew how to forage, and she answered with a memory of my great-grandma Floyd.
Great-grandma Floyd had long silver-grey hair, which she tightly braided and pinned on the top of her head like a crown. Standing at five feet, two inches, she didn’t look like a stubborn lady who wouldn’t take no for an answer. But she was.
She’d often visit my grandpa’s farmyard in Brandon, Manitoba and roam around the property for hours. But she wasn’t just looking at the rolling, hay bale-covered hills — she was busy picking the wild mushrooms that grew on the property. One day as she brought them into the tiny square house, she was greeted by my grandpa’s sarcastic tone.
“What are you doing with those things?” he said.
It was breakfast time, so great-grandma was obviously going to fry them up for breakfast. My grandpa thought she was going to die from eating them one day.
My mom paused her story and asked me, “Why do you want to know if anyone has foraged in our family?”
“I am learning how to winter forage,” I replied.
She shook her head. “Oh no, Payton, please tell me you aren’t foraging yourself.”
Why Winter Foraging?
Before I got started, I had some misconceptions about foraging. I pictured folks out in the forest popping random things into their mouths. But foraging isn’t like that at all.
Foraging is an art and science that takes time to learn — foragers read books, talk to experts, and apply their knowledge carefully. They double or even triple check their harvests before eating them.
Foraging has been around since time immemorial and has roots in a variety of cultures. Foraging has been — and continues to be — practiced by Indigenous communities across Turtle Island. New foragers, like me, need to keep that in mind and treat this land and those who’ve foraged on it for generations with respect.
I wanted to start foraging as a way to get closer to nature, the place I have always felt most at home. So why not start now, during winter, probably the most challenging season to forage in?
Finding Treasures Under the Snow
Local expert Barret Miller, manager of group services at FortWhyte Alive, graciously agreed to teach me a few things he knows about winter foraging.
As I drove to meet Barret, my mind was racing. Should I be trusting a complete stranger? What if I eat something poisonous? Am I ACTUALLY going outside to forage?
I passed the FortWhyte Alive sign and drove down the winding road into the property, passing by a herd of bison, people snowshoeing, and a giant frozen pond.
Why hadn’t I been here before?
I approached the parking lot, gathered my snow gear, and walked into the building where Barret greeted me.
He gave me a tour of the head office and then guided me down one of the trails. It’s wild to think these lands were once used for clay mining and a cement factory. Through the years, the forest has reclaimed the property — trees and wildlife are the main features once again.
The landscape looked unforgeable to me, but it turns out there are treasures to be found under the snow.
With the help of Barret, the first treasure we found was highbush cranberries.
The smooth grey bark was camouflaged into the trees, but a cluster of red berries hung down, waiting to be eaten.
Barret offered me one, I popped it into my mouth, and an explosion of sour, tangy flavour erupted. The inside was full of seeds, and the outside was shockingly sour. Barret explained that when a nip of frost hits them, they become sweet.
The only warning Barret gave me about the highbush cranberries was, “When you cook these, they either smell like good cheese or bad socks.”
So, if I am ever planning a turkey dinner and want to serve highbush cranberry sauce, I need to make sure to clear the air before my guests arrive.
We put the leftovers on top of the snow, and Barret explained we should only take what “we want and less,” and leave the rest for animals who need it to survive the winter.
Our next plan was to try and forage licorice root. I realized as I walked down the path with Barret that he only knew where all these things were because he foraged them in the summer months and took note of the locations.
I was a little late for scouting if I wanted to find any of these things by myself. But I pushed that thought to the back of my mind and focused on trying to understand everything Barret had to say about licorice root.
In the winter, the stems have football-shaped burs on them, and in the summer months they have almost fern-looking foliage, Barret explained. The flowers in summer months either smell like the “candy aisle in Bulk Barn” or “old-time cough medicine.”
Barret grabbed his yellow-handled shovel and started gently digging around the plant. He reached down every few shovels-full to feel the base of the root to see which direction it was growing. He was trying to avoid chopping the root with the shovel’s sharp edge.
As he pulled it up, I could see that the slightly yellow root was covered in mud. He put it up to my nose and, even through the dirt, I could smell licorice.
I looked at Barret and asked him, “Do we eat it just like that?”
His eyes crinkled at the corners as he responded, “No, we should probably take it in and clean it first, and I will make you some tea.”
We both started laughing at my naivety.
As we made our way back, I spotted a deer in the distance. It had sensed me before I spotted it. I made eye contact with it as Barret told me another thing about licorice root.
“It usually follows deer or human trails because its burs attach onto fur or clothes. We brushed the burrs off, and that’s how the plant spreads its seeds.”
The deer ran off into the forest.
In that moment, I felt like I had a better understanding of what animals go through during the winter. I know the foraging we just did is nothing like what deer have to do for food, but doing this made me think about, not only myself, but the wildlife around me too.
As we travelled back to the kitchen to cook up the licorice root, I couldn’t help but feel closer to wildlife and the land we share with them.
It’s Tea Time
After finding highbush cranberries and licorice root, Barret showed me rosehips, cattails, and wild mint, but we both thought it best to focus on the two.
We went inside the warm kitchen at FortWhyte Alive and took off our winter clothes. Barret started working on washing the licorice root and cutting it into little pieces to create more aromatics.
He plopped the root into a tea filter as the click of the kettle went off. He steeped the tea in three cups and motioned for one of the volunteers to join us.
“It’s a really earthy flavour,” said Barret.
A couple of seconds went by.
Both the volunteer and I gave the biggest “woah” ever as the licorice hit our taste buds. At first, I thought the tea was going to taste like black licorice (which isn’t really my thing), but it surprised me with its minty flavour. Barret explained that’s because it doesn’t have the molasses or the brown sugar that’s in black licorice.
As we finished up our tea, I knew I couldn’t have asked for a better way to end my first foraging session: sharing a cup of tea with someone who was a stranger a few hours ago, but now felt like a friend.
On My Lonesome
A few weeks passed as I lived off the high of my first forage. But that high faded when I realized it was the start of January, and if I waited any longer, I would only have a couple more months before summer rolled around. If I wanted to learn how to forage in winter, I needed to get moving. This time would be different. I wouldn’t have Barret. It’s one thing to rely on someone else to find all the things you forage. It’s a completely different beast to rely on yourself.
But there wasn’t going to be a better time than now.
I packed up my camera equipment, borrowed my partner’s oversized overalls to stay warm, and headed out the door to try and find rosehips.
If things go wrong, at least I’ll have a good story to tell my friends.
I hadn’t really thought about where I was going ahead of time. (We can call this mistake number one.)
I did know there are specific areas where you can or can’t go foraging. Depending on what you are foraging, it’s usually OK to do so on Crown Land. Which is land owned by the provincial or federal government in Canada. Another option is to get permission to forage on private property.
My partner’s mom has a 160-acre property with nothing but forest and a log cabin on it in South Junction, a small community in southeast Manitoba. She had given me blanket permission to forage on it. She warned me before I got there that I would have to hike in because no one had plowed it since the last snowfall.
No problem! I’m somewhat in shape.
But as I stepped out looking towards her property and saw snow drifts up to my kneecaps, I knew I would be in for a world of hurt. I hadn’t been smart enough to pack snowshoes (mistake number two). But I started my journey anyway, huffing and puffing for three miles into the bush to find diddley squat. Nothing.
At one point I tripped and fell into the snow and wondered what I was even looking for. I was beyond exhausted and still had to trek back through the woods.
To make a long story short, I spent way too long looking for rosehips when I didn’t do enough research on where to find them.
I got home and felt defeated. I wanted to give up. Unfortunately, that meant that I would have to tell people I gave up, and my ego wouldn’t let me.
I decided to sleep on it.
I had successfully avoided thinking about foraging for a few days and then when I was checking my email and saw a response from Les Stroud’s (Survivorman) assistant.
I completely forgot I had emailed him when I started researching winter foraging. My dad and I used to watch him while I was growing up, and we took everything he said as the gospel truth.
I knew he started a new TV series about foraging called Wild Harvest and thought he could offer valuable insight into foraging.
Renewing the Passion
Up until the Zoom call connected, I thought I was being catfished. No way would this world-renowned expert have the time to help me start foraging.
But he did, and during the interview, Les explained he is still taking courses to further his knowledge on foraging. His admission made me feel a little less lousy about not being successful on my first try.
A person who has been doing this for as long as I have been alive still takes courses to learn more. That means I can keep trying.
He also showed me an app called “Picture This,” where you take a picture of a plant and the app tells you exactly what it is and how to use it.
Les joked about when he first started using the app he thought, “Jeez, if this app actually works, and it can tell me what plants are, I might as well quit,” he said.
He said the app doesn’t mean having experience and skill isn’t necessary, but foragers can use it as another tool to make sure they know what they’re eating.
The hour-long interview renewed my passion for foraging that my failed solo attempt dampened.
With my new-found desire to try foraging again and one failed solo trip in the not-too-distant past, I decided to make a plan this time. I was going to forage for three things: cattails, rosehips, and evergreen needles. I enlisted the help of some friends in my area who would either let me forage on their property or give me contact information for other people with private properties who might be open to it.
I had an idea about what I wanted to make with the foraged food. With the rosehips, I’d make some kind of mocktail; with the evergreen tips, a salad dressing; and with the cattails, I simply wanted to try them on the side for some added fibre.
After planning my meal, I went to the grocery store and picked up the ingredients I couldn’t forage.
I decided to bring my partner for added support — and to help carry things through the snow.
Once again, I threw on my partner’s oversized overalls, and was off to try winter foraging again.
The rosehips and evergreen needles were the easiest to find. Rosehips are the fruit of a rose flower plant, and if you live in the country, you have definitely come across them. Harvesting them is easy — just like the highbush cranberries, you pull them right off, making sure to leave some for the animals too.
I hope I don’t need to explain how to find evergreens in Manitoba. Just look for a big green Christmas tree in winter, and it’s probably an evergreen.
The cattails were a little more fun and challenging, though.
With cattails, you must be careful where you forage them because they are bottom feeders. This means you need to make sure the ground they live in isn’t polluted.
Lucky for us, cattails are pretty much everywhere on Crown Land in the Sandilands (southeast Manitoba) where we were foraging.
I grabbed the spade and started trekking to a pond which had tons of cattails around it. I found one I could easily dig up.
In a couple of minutes, my arm was elbow deep in swampy mud water as I tried to wrangle the root out of the ground. It was messy, sweaty work.
Yikes. I hope this is worth it.
I got two big roots from the ground and called it a day.
The Foraging Feast Begins
My partner and I decided to set up a fire to cook everything on his mom’s property.
I started by cutting up the evergreens and steeping them in a container of olive oil for their aromatics.
Then, I salted and peppered the Mahi Mahi I got at the grocery store and threw it onto the hot, cast iron pan. While that was sizzling, I put my rosehips into a container of maple syrup.
I wanted to try and infuse the rosehips into the maple syrup to create a rosehip syrup for the mocktail. So, I threw that onto the fire to bring it to a boil.
I wasn’t completely sure what to do with the cattails, but I peeled the skin from the root to reveal a white inner coating. I cut it up into little pieces to add to the salad.
After everything was done cooking, I laid out the salad, sprinkled with the evergreen oil, and topped it off with balsamic vinegar, tomatoes, and cattails. Then I placed the Mahi Mahi on top.
For the drink, I put snow in the glasses, sifted the rosehips out of the rosehip syrup, and topped it with lime juice.
I needed a good drink after all the hard work, so I put it to my lips. The taste was almost indescribable: sweet but not too sour and with a hint of maple syrup. It was delicious.
The texture of the cattail was fibrous and not all that pleasant, but I couldn’t help think, “Wow. This tastes exactly like a potato.” Not what I was expecting from a bottom-feeding plant, but the high percentage of starch gives it the flavouring and texture familiar to root vegetables.
I couldn’t really taste the needles in the salad dressing, but the recipe did suggest to infuse the needles for up to six weeks to get the best results. I think I’ll try it that way next time.
I sat back staring at the fire we set up outside and felt some satisfaction.
I started this journey thinking winter would be the hardest season to forage in, and it was. But the constraints of the season helped me narrow my focus to learning how to forage only a few things to start.
It also helped me become closer to my roots. Despite never having met my great-grandmother, foraging allowed me to feel closer to her. I would have never known my great-grandma used to forage for mushrooms in my grandpa’s backyard if I hadn’t embarked on this journey.
Having spent all this time outdoors has also made me care more about the area I live in — the next time a new development goes up or a forest burns down, I’ll think of all the hidden treasures that will be lost.
As I stared at the fire satisfied with my hard work, I slowly warmed up my toes and remembered what Les said about enjoying a foraged meal: there’s nothing quite like it.
I suddenly noticed my shoe. The heat of the fire had melted the glue and the sole had blown up like a balloon. It completely detached and split in two pieces.
I thought that was a perfect way to call it a day.