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How Winter Plant ID Primes Us To Be Better Herbalists and Foragers

When the interest arises to connect with nature, many people want to learn how to identify local wild plants. When I say that winter plant identification primes us, I am referring to an internal state that strengthens our knowledge of the natural world. Gentle awareness, noticing, patience and an appreciation for the winter season are what come with spending time outdoors taking note of the wild plants all around you. It is an underrated practice. There is so much life hidden in a dormant plant that makes the growing season more special for herbalists and foragers like you and I.

Gently gathering Eastern Hemlock needles for tea.

I am writing this article in hopes that I can inspire you to walk into your local forest and find these wild plants. Some are evergreen while others leave behind a seed pod, a fruiting body, or a sleepy shell. Take some time to dust aside the snow, leaves, and debris to find remnants of familiar botanical allies. Spend a moment soaking up the feelings of joy, excitement, and wonder that accompany the practice.

Partridge Berries in winter. Still edible and quite delicious!

There is great mystery in this practice.

The excitement and gratification that come along with recognizing wild herbs in the winter prepares us for a fruitful growing season by deepening our knowledge of the natural world. When we strengthen that practice we become conscious herbalists, foragers and environmental stewards. Whether you are drawn to learning about plants from a scientific or spiritual point of view, I believe that the great mystery of it all is the driving force. An example of a wild edible that can be found in winter are Partridge Berries. Searching amongst the coniferous pine, eastern hemlock, and spruce you will often find communities of these berries. Partridge Berries are known to not only be a delicious trail snack but also supportive to ailments of the kidneys and bladder.

Why do I want to know these plants?

Asking yourself the question "Why do I want to know these plants?" can really help to solidify and make important your reason for wanting to connect with them. We are not just taking for the sake of our own benefit, but practicing reciprocity as well. We become better herbalists and foragers when we hold this in our conscience.

Milkweed Pods among Purple Loosestrife in late Fall.

We may be delighted by the sight of a milkweed plant in spring. The delicious shoots make a wonderful addition to our diet. When we have a mindful moment with that Milkweed before deciding to forage it, thanking the plant for all it does for the monarchs, the land, and the pollinators we are practicing reciprocity. We can deepen this by spending moments outdoors in winter, observing Milkweed it in its dormant state, and magnifying our understanding of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth of the plants. With this intention we can recognize the new life that is held within the seed pods, looking forward to the hope and abundance of spring.

Appreciating the Cycle

Snowy Goldenrod in Mid-Winter.

To fully understand a plant, we must give ample attention to the cycle of its life. In winter we can do this by bringing attention and gratitude to their snowy stems and floral remnants. We can imagine all the energy that is stored under the surface of that plant and the new life that will come in spring.

Goldenrod can be recognized by its anatomical structures. The stem reaches about 3 feet high followed by panicle racemes that branch upwards towards the sky. The remaining flower parts are feathery. Goldenrod is a native wild medicine useful for supporting the respiratory, urinary, and musculoskeletal systems. It is an active pollinator, giving nectar to species of insects a plenty. When we find it in winter, we can remember the life it gives, and the support it holds for our local ecosystem.

Usnea Lichen attached to a tree.

Location and Discernment

Now that we discussed some benefits of wild plant identification in winter, it's important that we talk about where to look and how to discern an edible/medicinal plant from all else. Some of you may have experience in the field and know where to look. Go outside to those spaces and see if you can recognize their dormant features. Let got of the pressure to definitively know and be perfect. It is okay to just observe, journal, photograph or take notes. The practice of comparison, observation, and documentation is one that becomes stronger when we take time with the dormant parts.

Paying deliberate attention to the surrounding environment on a micro to macro scale is key. For example, note the the types of trees where you are. Are they evergreen? deciduous?, coniferous? Relating that environment to the plant you are observing will be your guide when spring comes. For example, identifying Usnea Lichen can be a diverse experience, as it is found attached to trees like in the photo above or scattered amongst the forest floor. In general, Usnea Lichen thrives in diverse forests with plentiful moisture and an abundance of spruce or pine.

Wintergreen in the woods.

The Sensorial Experience

Sensory experience with the plants is what strengthens the ability to properly recognize them out in the woods. Wintergreen can be recognized not only by its location, but also by its scent, leaf growth pattern, and coloration. Unfortunately, it is always tough for me to find fruiting Wintergreen, so I rely on my sense of smell. The Wintergreen leaf when scratched on the surface has a distinct scent. One more comparable to the scent that is found in commercial chewing gum. To me, that is its most identifiable feature. The senses connect us deeper to the plant and our ability to discern it from other surrounding look-a-likes.

Understanding Resilience

Queen Anne's Lace, standing tall in a wintery meadow.

There is something about the resilience of wild plants that we can relate to our own ability in overcoming obstacles. The resilience of wild weeds that poke through cracks in the pavement, take over abandoned buildings, and thrive in forests and meadows provide us with an unconscious optimism. Taking a moment to reflect on a wild plant's ability to come back in the warmer months can ease the stress we feel in our own lives, that feeling of "this moment is forever." When we relate the cycle of a plant's life as synonymous to own we become stronger humans on the inside and out.

In Synopsis...

Deepening your herbal and foraging practice requires time spent in all seasons. Taking time to appreciate what our bodies deem to be an uncomfortable experience deepens our recognition of the cycle, discernment, and understanding why we want to study wild plants. The practice of sitting with plants in winter and noting our observations leads to a priming effect that increases our confidence in identification come spring. This confidence is therefore transferable to us living closer to the land, building reciprocal relationships with plants, and becoming self-reliant foragers and herbalists.

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