Green goodness in the Winter

My favorite Watercress-picking spot surprised me this past summer. All of the Watercress disappeared. 3 years ago, I could barely see the stream because the Cress was so darn thick! The summer after that, I noticed it wasn’t as thick, but it was still plenty abundant. It was absolutely shocking this past summer to see nary a trace of it whatsoever……especially knowing that Watercress is considered invasive in Wisconsin. I don’t have a theory as to why it disappeared……the stream looks clear and clean, and no other plant is taking its place. I guess it just decided to move on.

A member of the mustard family, Watercress has the interesting latin name Nasturtium officinale. Interesting because the familiar flower we call Nasturtium has the same peppery taste as Watercress…..but they are not related!

One of the things I love about Watercress is that it can be harvested year ’round here in the Frozen North. It grows in spring-fed streams which stay open even in deep winter. In the summer, it gets big and lush, rising like green leafy clouds out of the stream, but in winter, it hunkers down and stays close to the water’s surface. There’s not as much to harvest in winter, but it is vibrant and green and growing…….things we crave in these cold months. Also, as an invasive plant, it is legal to harvest in public parks and such.

It tastes peppery and delicious. Some people will say that the leaves get bitter when it flowers in the summer, but I disagree. I eat this plant year-round, including the flowers and immature seed pods.

There is a tiny bit of caution around eating Watercress…..if it’s growing in water that contains manure – a stream in a pasture, for instance – there’s a chance that bacteria and parasites will be present and possibly cause you to regret eating Watercress. In his book “Incredible Wild Edibles”, Sam Thayer goes into great detail about these critters, if you are interested in learning more. Those bacteria and parasites are rare around these parts, and are absent in the winter. Cooking your cress rather than eating it raw will make it safe to eat in any season.

Beautiful winter-harvested Watercress.

I don’t worry about it, and I always just rinse and soak my Watercress, pick out the nicest looking leaves and put it in a salad. Recently, however, I did get a Big Surprise in my harvest. After rinsing and soaking my winter-harvested Cress from a new-to-me location, I transferred the clump of Cress out of the soak water into another bowl, and started picking off luscious green leaves. And then……..I saw something squiggle. Hmmmm. Leaves don’t squiggle. I looked into the bowl containing the soak water. Squiggles. Lots of them. Urp! I may have freaked out a little. And then my curiosity got the best of me.

Leaving the bowl of squiggling Watercress alone for the moment, I concentrated on looking at the tiny wiggling grey-ish critters in the soak water. (Here is a link to a short video I took of them) They were the size of the white part on my clipped-short fingernails. They looked an awful lot like teeny-tiny shrimp. Right here I’m going to Shout Out to the Wisconsin Master Naturalist Volunteer Program, which I completed in 2018. Because of that training, I knew that in order to identify these tiny hitchhikers, I would search for Aquatic Invertebrates.

After looking at several sources, I landed on an amphipod called a ‘scud’…..or…wait for it….freshwater shrimp. One source says they are edible. I would like to tell you that I scooped them out and threw them onto my salad. I did not. In fact, the watercress that I finally picked through and set in the refrigerator is still waiting for me to be brave enough to eat it. Squiggles and all.

Surprise, just like in Crackerjacks.

Garlic Mustard

They are pretty, but………..

Garlic Mustard is considered invasive in Wisconsin, as are many other plants. It also happens to be delicious to eat.

Right now as I write this, it is flowering, and it really is pretty. But…….you can easily see how it crowds out all the other plants that like to grow near hardwoods: trout lily, spring beauty, ramps, etc.

Conventional methods of controlling invasive plants include poisoning them with weed killer. The trouble with that, of course, is that other plants and critters we WANT will also be poisoned, and that poison will stay in the soil for longer than we want to admit.

Pulling and eating Garlic Mustard is a great way to give it some boundaries and force it to share the space with other spring pretties in the forest.

Usually when we forage, we want to harvest carefully so the plant can continue to grow, but that’s not a concern with Garlic Mustard so we’ll pull the whole plant up, roots and all. The roots are shallow, so it isn’t hard to pull at all, even when it is tall and flowering. I don’t want to eradicate ALL the Garlic Mustard….the whole plant is edible and delicious, after all. It is so tenacious, though, we don’t have to worry about it not coming back.

If you are pulling flowering plants, be sure to either use the flowers in your food prep, or put them in the garbage. Those flower heads will continue to mature and set seed after harvesting, so if you compost them, you’ll be spreading the plant around, opposite of what we want to do!

Once you get your bag full of Garlic Mustard plants, here are some delicious ways to prepare them.

Roots: They taste like horseradish! Put them in a blender, mix with a little vinegar and salt and use like horeradish sauce.

Leaves: Use in your salads, chop up and add to pasta, make delicious pesto.

Flowers: A pretty garnish for salads, soups or dips.

Baby Garlic Mustard. Yum.

Foraging on Public Lands

A friend recently asked me to write a blog about the rules around foraging in public places.  What a great idea! Since most of my foraging happens in Polk County, WI, that’s where my focus will be for this post. 

When I think about “Public Land”, I think of 4 categories: Federal, State, County, and Municipal.  Each category has slightly different rules about foraging, so let’s break it down.

Federal Land:

In Polk County, we have the National Park Service area along the St Croix River, and various tracts of US Fish and Wildlife areas south of Highway 8.  Perhaps there are other Federal Lands too, these are the ones I’m aware of.

Here is a link that outlines specific rules about activities on National Park Service land along the River, including foraging: “Visitors are allowed to harvest and eat berries and mushrooms in the Park, but collecting freshwater mussels, mussel shells or wildflowers is prohibited.”

US Fish and Wildlife Service areas allow berry and mushroom collection for personal use.   This link has a list of these areas in Polk County.

State Land:

In a State park, Forest, Natural Area or Trail in Wisconsin we can pick edible fruits, edible nuts, wild mushrooms, wild asparagus and watercress for personal consumption.  I will add that we can pick edible invasive plants as well – things like garlic mustard, feral parsnip, and hybrid cattail.
This link has a list of state lands in Polk County.

County Land:

Polk County Parks, Trails and Forests have pretty much the same foraging rules as State Lands, above. There are presently no policies written down, but the kind county forester that I spoke with said that respectful harvesting of wild edibles for personal consumption would be considered legal.

This link has a list of Polk County parks and trails.  You’ll notice some of these are also in the State Land list – that’s because some parks and trails are jointly owned/managed by DNR and the county. 


I debated about calling up all of the Polk County villages and cities to see what they had to say………but I got lazy and didn’t, lol!  My advice here is to call your local village/city office and ask if it’s alright to pick mushrooms and wild edible plants from the parks in town, and then also ask if herbicides/pesticides are used in any of the parks as well.  I imagine each village or city will have different rules. 

So there you have it. Go forth and forage, my friends.


My Favorite Foraging Blogs and Websites

In no particular order, here are the websites I love to go to for information and inspiration. You can click on the titles to go see each one for yourself. Enjoy!

Bee on a flower
A fellow forager at her favorite site.

Foraging and Feasting
What I like most about this website and blog are the beautiful botanical drawings.

This is the work of Jim McDonald, a Michigan Herbalist. I love the humor and human-ness he brings to his excellent writing about all things herb-y.

Learning Herbs
Rosalee de la Forêt writes prolifically about Food as Medicine, and publishes great recipes.

Eat the Weeds
Green Dean lives in Florida, and surprisingly a LOT of the plants he writes about are here in Wisconsin, too.

Learn Your Land
Adam Haritan lives in Western Pennsylvania, another area that has many plants that are also found in Wisconsin.  He produces great videos with tons of super good information about wild edibles and mushrooms.  I had a great opportunity to meet him this summer when he was traveling in Wisconsin, and I can say that he is every bit as animated and kind in person as he is in his videos.

Forager’s Harvest
Sam Thayer is a Wisconsin native who is an avid Forager and Teacher.  He and his wife Melissa have a store in Bruce, Wisconsin, right on Highway 8.  They hold classes there and other places as well. 

Forager Chef
Alan Bergo is a Minneapolis based chef who specializes in using wild foods in his menu.  I had to fun opportunity to take a class with him this fall, he is thoroughly entertaining and knowledgeable. 

Edible Wild Food
Karen Stephenson lives in Canada and writes a great blog with tons of plant information and recipes.

Grow Forage Cook Ferment
Colleen Codekas lives in Southern Oregon and has a beautiful website packed with loads of rich information about living close to the land. 

A Forager in the Winter

2017-11-30 14.58.42Things I like to do in the Winter:

Make soup with Wild Foods I’ve preserved.

Play with plant fibers I’ve harvested to make jewelry cordage and other creative stuff.

Read novels with themes around botany, foraging or herbalism.

Plan next years’ Wild Food and Folk Medicine classes.

Go snowshoeing and enjoy the quiet woods.

Watch birds at my backyard feeder, which will contain some foraged seeds (yellow dock, plantain and amaranth) along with the ones I purchase at the store.

Forage!  Even in a Wisconsin Winter, I can go pick some fresh pine needles for tea, or dig in the snow around those pine trees to find Wintergreen leaves and berries.  I can harvest some Chaga mushrooms from Birch trees.  I may be able to pick up some Black Walnuts that the squirrels left behind.  I love the seasons in Wisconsin, and even though winter seems to take up most of the year, I love knowing that there are tasty treasures to hunt for in this frozen tundra.