Seasonal anomalies make for delicious, nutritious winter treats

Catching a glimpse of a hummingbird zipping away from a salal bush, I had to investigate what had attracted it. Much to my surprise, the bush was fully flowering — in December.

I have noticed other unusual plant activity at a time when they should all be bedding down for the winter.

In my neighborhood, there is an Oregon grape in full bloom, its sulfur yellow flowers eye-catching against the predominant colors of fall. The alder and hazelnut trees have developed their spring catkins, and some are beginning to release pollen. The spring glow of the red twig dogwood and the weeping willows stands out against the fall palette. New leaf buds on the hazelnut, salmonberry and Indian plum are big enough to nibble. I have even seen new dandelion flowers, yarrow flowers and fresh baby nettle plants. In my neighbor’s yard, the crocus’ thick stems have pushed through the soil about an inch.

It is obvious, from a naturalist’s perspective, that the plants’ internal rhythms are out of sync.

The variety of unseasonal plants is a boon to foragers. Fresh Western bittercress, cleavers and chickweed, usually not sprouting until early spring, are in their prime succulence now and ready to be added to salads. Out-of-season fresh nettle is available to be steamed to eat or simmered into a vitamin and mineral-rich broth.

However, it is the abundance of wind-blown bounty that makes foraging really easy this time of year. Many of the ingredients for a delicious and nutritious Northwest forest tea can be simply collected from the forest floor.

Even if they prefer herbal tea, most people don’t consider making their own tea blend from wild plants in their neighborhood.

However, as everyone becomes more aware of the personal health and environmental benefits of eating locally and seasonally, it makes sense to consider collecting your own herbs for tea. My favorite Northwest blend that represents this late fall season is Doug fir branches, licorice fern root, madrona berries, alder catkins and usnea, or old man’s beard, lichen.

Douglas fir is one of the most ubiquitous conifers on Vashon. It is forming its tiny new buds now, and these are such a tasty treat by themselves that I refer to them as “forest candy.” The light green branch tips are an excellent source of vitamin C, and a tea brewed from them was the most common Northwest native drink.

The sap of the Doug fir is an expectorant as well as an anti-infectant. Small amounts of the fresh sap can be sucked on to encourage a productive cough, and it can also be applied as a salve directly to an open wound.

Licorice fern is one of two evergreen ferns that grows wild on Vashon, usually jutting out from the moss of an alder or maple. It can be carefully and sustainably collected by finding the terminal end of the root and gently breaking it off. The piece can be sucked on or steeped in hot water to make into a tea. Licorice fern root is a traditional medicinal for soothing sore or scratchy throats.

Madrona is unusual in that it is our only evergreen broadleaf tree. The entire plant is highly anti-fungal, and various parts of it have been used for centuries to treat fungal infections. You will notice that virtually no mold colonizes a downed madrona branch, an indication of the strength of its fungal inhibitors. The ripe berries of the madrona can be eaten raw or added to your seasonal forest tea.

Alder catkins are very high in protein and have a delightful floral flavor. The catkins can be nibbled raw or added to your forest tea mixture. The inner bark of alder is a well-known tonic for an irritated stomach lining and can also be used as an emergency food.

Usnea is one of the most well-researched forms of lichen. Many studies have proven its efficacy in treating both strep and staph bacterial infections. The common name old man’s beard refers to the draping way that the plant grows.

After you have collected all of your ingredients, add them to hot water and let the mixture steep in a thermos for several hours. For a stronger brew, let it steep overnight. For a wonderful seasonal aroma throughout your home, simmer Doug fir branches in water on your stovetop for a couple hours. The resulting brew is a potent tonic and a strong diuretic.

Staying healthy with the seasons is easier than you might think. Incorporating locally foraged seasonal plants into your diet will give a significant boost to your immune system.

The best way to get the vitamins and minerals that you need to stay healthy is not from a pill but from the foods that you choose to eat.

— Erin Kenny is a longtime Vashon resident and executive director of the nonprofit Cedarsong Nature School.

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