Botanical drawing of Allium vinaele, a wild edible found in the southern Appalachians

Winter Wild Edible Plants of the Southern Appalachians

Compared to most of temperate North America, the Southern Appalachians offer a veritable feast of wild edible plants in the winter. Here's a few common species to get you started!

As you can imagine, winter is a difficult time to forage for wild edible food most anywhere. Yet compared to most of temperate North America, the Southern Appalachians offer a veritable feast – especially in pesticide-free lawns, meadows and pastures! To get you started on your wintery wildcrafting walks, we’ve put together a list of a few common species that can become your trusty guides. 

When it comes to proper identification, one trick is learning the patterns of basal leaves. Find yourself asking – what are basal leaves? Fret not, dear friends! You can learn identification basics and beyond at our Winter Botany and Wild Foraged Tea class with Marc Williams coming February 24 to Asheville NC. Marc is an ethnobotanist with something to share with beginners and experts alike, and will introduce you in greater depth to winter edible plants of the region. Missed this class? Join us this July 16 – 21 2024 at our Annual Firefly Gathering, where plant identification is offered by many of our skilled instructors. 

Winter Wild Edible Plants

1. Eastern Teaberry

Gaultheria procumbens

Aptly known by many as Winter Green, the minty-fresh extract from this plant is used to flavor tea, candy, medicine and chewing gum. Plus, the berries are edible!

You may have seen these small red-like fruits while walking through the forest and wondered – is this the famous Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)? No, but it is another edible, wintergreen-tasting cousin!

Fruit (Leaves also used medicinally). Great for trail nibbles!

Sunny patches in acidic pine and hardwood forests.

Miniature evergreen shrub with 3-4 alternate slightly dentate oval leaves  at the top of each stem with clusters of solitary apple-red fruits about 0.75 cm in diameter.

Young Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia) can look like Eastern Teaberry, but those leaves have completely smooth edges and are poisonous. The evergreen Patridgeberry (Mitchella repens) is often mistaken for Eastern Teaberry, but Patridgeberry has small opposite leaves along prostrate stems, while Eastern Teaberry’s leaves are at the end of upright shrubby stems.

2. Toothwort

Cardamine diphylla

You’ve surely seen these 3-leafed plants growing abundantly in the forest in the late winter. Their larger, toothy leaves may have made you wonder – are these edible? Happily, the answer is yes! This wild winter edible plant has a very pungent mustard flavor that’s great to add to salads or stir-fries.

Leaves. Leaves. Strong mustard flavor, best chopped up and added on top of a salad.

Young Open Forests, in moist edge habitats

3 leaflets per stem, dark green with pale mottling – reminiscent of Rattlesnake Plantain. Growing in clusters together amongst dead leaves.

Hepatica spp. looks similar with the mottled coloring, but Hepatica leaves have three lobes while in Toothwort, the leaflets are minutely separated.

3. Bittercress

Cardamine pensylvanica

A miniature version of Creasy Greens (Barbarea vulgaris), this bittercress abounds throughout the winter in most parts of our region. It’s very small, usually less than 10 cm tall in the cold season. Once the woodfrogs start croaking, the tiny flowers of these little plants can be seen.

Basal leaves and flowers. Best as a nibble or in combination with other greens as a salad topping.

Lawns, meadows, pastureland, garden beds

Less than 10 cm tall, four petaled white-purplish flowers, and a basal rosette of pinnatiform / cress-like leaves.

Bittercress is unlikely to be mistaken for inedible lookalikes.

4. Wild Garlic

Allium vineale

Wild Garlic is the easiest winter wild edible to identify, reliably present in most human-affected landscapes, and a feature in any dish! If you like ramps, you’re sure to like Wild Garlic.

Leaves and bulb, delicious chopped up raw as a condiment, or added to stir-frys.

Lawns, meadows, pastureland, garden beds

Leaves are slender hollow tubes, usually growing in tufts that look like pine needles sticking up out of the ground, up to 1 ft tall. Smell is strongly garlicky.

The extremely strong garlic smell of Wild Garlic makes it difficult to mistake for other plants.

5. Chickweed

Stellaria media

Chickweed is a favorite of the staple wild winter edible plants. Their leaves taste like delicious lettuce, and they go great in salads, rice congees, and just as nibbles.

Leaves and flowers, best uncooked in a salad or spring roll or on top of rice.

Open forests, meadows, pastureland, garden beds

Prostrate crawling plant that grows over leaves, soil, or dead grass. Opposite round hairless leaves along branching stems, tiny 5 petaled white flowers at end of stems

There are a lot of tiny plants growing in meadows and garden beds during this time, but most have heart-shaped or oblong leaves  The related mouse-eared chickweed (Cerastium fontanum), is also a creeping, opposite-leaved, woolly-leaved plant, but it isn’t quite as tasty but is considered edible. There are some creeping mints that are also opposite-leaved, but they typically have square stems and toothed leaves, and while those probably are safe to eat, they don’t quite have the same flavor and texture as the beloved Chickweed.

6. Violets

Viola spp.

If you’re near a spring or water source, you’ll often find these sweet little plants growing in the rich moist soil. They’re sweet not because of taste, but because of their delicate heart-shaped leaves!

Leaves, delicious fresh in a salad, or added to a stir fry.

In rich moist areas, e.g. along creeks, near springs, usually in the forest.

There are over a dozen species of Viola in our area, but the edible ones share the same features: heart-shaped leaves, with smooth to toothed margins, usually growing in tufts together. The flowers are distinctive, but probably won’t be out for a while yet in the winter months.

There are A LOT of plants that look like Violets during the winter. Senecio spp. Is the most likely to be confused with violets, but the purple undersides of their leaves is a dead giveaway.

7. Oyster Mushrooms

Pleurotus spp.

Mushrooms can be hard to identify, but oyster mushrooms are a great wild edible to begin with due to their clear identification traits and growth patterns. See our lookalike notes for more information, and enjoy these juicy wild mushrooms any way you like – a simple pan fry with butter and garlic is a taste of heaven.

The mushroom & stalk. Pan fry with oil or butter, they often stick to the pan, so when they do, it can be helpful to put a lid over it and let them steam cook the rest of the way on low heat.

Fallen hardwood logs in moist places

Grows in pale white clusters along the sides of hardwood logs. Very soft and fleshy, with prominent gills, and a thick white stalk that is off-center or attached at the side. Double check that there’s a white spore print (remove the stalk and place the mushroom gill-side down on a piece of white or colored paper).

Stick to white mushrooms growing on logs and you are pretty safe! There are some very poisonous white, gilled mushrooms that grow on the ground. But on wood the worst that you can do is get one of the leathery or woody pored shelf fungi. A similar species is the Late Fall Oyster (Panellus serotinus), with a smaller, slimy or tacky, variably-colored cap, also edible, but it is less foolproof. Mushroom identification is less intuitive than plant identification, so just like you’d check your Wild Carrot to make sure it’s not the deadly Poison Hemlock, do the same with gilled mushrooms. MushroomObserver.org and iNaturalist.org are good sites for verifying mushroom IDs since professionals and highly skilled amateurs are regularly checking new observations.

Notes on Tubers & Roots

In winter, we need calories, and the place to get it is from roots and tubers. But during the winter, it’s extremely hard to differentiate edible tubers from their poisonous look-alikes. Daylily tubers look a lot like poisonous Daffodil tubers, and that’s a toxic mistake. So is mistaking Solomon’s Seal for False Solomon’s Seal. So the best thing to do is to find and mark those patches of wild edible tubers the fall before, double-checking to verify that no toxic look-alikes are nearby.

Notes on Roadkill

Roadkill is one person’s bad day, another person’s joy. But regardless of your preference, winter is the best time for roadkill here in the Southern Appalachians since the air and road surface act like a refrigerator.  If you’re interested in learning how to work with hides from roadkill, check out our upcoming workshop, Fur-On Hide Tanning with Nico Piedrahita & Callan Burton-Shore.

Nastassja Winter Painting

About the Author

 Nastassja Noell is Firefly Gathering’s Registration Director. As a toddler, she was considered odd for her obsession with mushrooms – as she grew taller, her appreciation for mushrooms expanded. She’s the author of “Radical Lichenology,” a chapter on lichens in the awesome mushroom tome Radical Mycology by Peter McCoy (available at Firestorm Books in Asheville).  You can find more about her and her work on her website beinglichen.org, Instagram: @beinglichen.

WRITTEN BY

Firefly Gathering

Share This Post

Facebook
Twitter
Pinterest
Email

MORE FROM OUR BLOG

Elevate Your Self Care: How to Tend to YOU at Firefly Gathering

As we settle in at the Wild Human preserve on the pristine Toe River in Green Mountain, NC, we encourage you to explore some of these self care practices during your time in the river or at a quiet place near your campsite or off in the forest.

Meal Prepping for Firefly Gathering: Simple, Sustainable and Delicious

There are so many ways to nurture yourself at Firefly. While meal planning for camping can be intimidating at first, we’re here to share a few easy options and tips to energize you for your next class, night of dancing, or hike through the Wild Human Preserve. (Photo Credit: Parker Michels-Boyce)

Stay Connected

Subscribe to our Newsletter for updates on all things Firefly, such as Perennial Workshops, Book Nook, and Annual Gathering News.

Stay Connected

Subscribe to our newsletter for updates on all things Firefly, including Perennial Workshops, Firefly's Book Nook, and Annual Gathering News.

Lily Harlin

Bookkeeper

Lily is an artist, creator, and dreamer. Since a very young age, she has been immersed in the natural world and draws heavy inspiration from the wild. Though her medium changes frequently, Lily’s art and expression always incorporate an element of the organic and unpredictable. She got her associate in fine arts in 2023, and now volunteers at her school as a ceramic studio monitor. She hopes to open a studio of her own one day to have a place to teach and inspire others. In addition to doing commission work, Lily has been creating many graphics for The Firefly Gathering since 2019. Lily grew up in the Earthskills community from the time she was eight years old, so having the opportunity to grow and give back in so many ways has been incredibly fulfilling. No matter where she ends up, this group of people and ideas will always hold a special place in her heart.