Adventures in Winter Foraging

Or, for the Love of Conifers

This is the first Ontario winter I have endured in twelve years and it's been fairly mild by all counts, but still full of endless snowstorms and shovelling snow and snowblowing snow with the snowblower... and more snow related activities. There has been a very big difference foraging in an Ontario winter versus my former home in the Pacific Northwest. In the temperate rainforest there are a good variety of botanicals to harvest all through winter, as the deep cold usually only lasts a week or two, but in Ontario you can't see anything green to harvest because it's all covered in snow and ice until April... sometimes May.

above: eastern hemlock forest (tsuga canadensis)

red pine & red oak forest on Round Lake, Ontario

There is an exception: conifers. Conifers have been our saving grace this winter to keep goods wild harvested from the forest in the online shop. There is always resin or needles to harvest for making beautiful medicinal salves and aromatic incense. The trouble has been getting through the snow to be able to harvest from the beautiful local conifers of balsam fir, red spruce, black spruce, red pine, white pine, yellow cedar, white cedar, common juniper, and eastern hemlock.

black spruce resin

All winter it has been a weekly cycle of waiting for the weather to warm and some of the snow and ice to melt so it's easier to walk freely in the woods on a sunny day. There were times we went foraging anyway, hiking awkwardly and precariously through a foot and a half of snow with an inch of ice on top, or trying not to fall into melting marshes of slippery ice. We discovered we weren't the only ones foraging for conifers in winter and had some competition in the form of deer and porcupine, but luckily they are mostly going after the tree barks for food.

conifer ointments and elixirs

The rewards were plentiful and wonderful: pounds and pounds of the sweetest spruce tree pitch you have ever smelled, gorgeous liquid balsam fir resin for chest rubs and salves, fragrant evergreen boughs dried in my kitchen for incense making, spruce tips infused in whiskey and added to herbal tea blends... it has been such delicious, aromatic fun to be a herbalist and forager in winter!

balsam fir syrup & red pine pitch ointment

Winter has seen changes in the business. We lost both shippers we hired over the colder months and decided not to hire anyone else, but take on the work ourselves again to make sure it all goes smoothly. So the Fern & Fungi team is whittled down once more to just me and Alex. We combined the online apothecary with our local wild edibles and medicinals business to make life easier and also updated the website to reflect the slight change in focus. What we sell online is now what we will bring to local farmers' markets, craft fairs, and festivals in the valley. The focus on wild edibles will become much heavier as Alex and I have professional culinary backgrounds. Food is life. 

harvesting sap from sugar maples (acer saccharum)

Speaking of food... maple syrup is on our list of things to learn how to harvest and process. My farmer father conveniently has been a maple syrup harvester for the past decade. He has a sugar shack in the back forest of his acreage and has been inviting the family up to visit, help, and see how it's done. The weather has been very unpredictable so my father has been out in his shack day and night to get as much syrup as he can despite the temperature fluctuations. He's been in the woods so long, the last time I saw him he looked more like a green man or forest spirit than human. This is likely the last week for maple syrup. The sugar maples have started to form buds and very soon it will be too warm at night and the sweetness of the sap will go away.

inside the sugar shack: boiling down tree sap into maple syrup

Alex talks and thinks only of mushrooms to the point that I think I can see mushrooms growing from his beard and from behind his ears. There's another month to wait until morel season here on the cold Canadian shield, and longer until hedgehogs, lobsters, chanterelles, and other lovelies make an appearance. We waited out winter instead and harvested botanicals that were in season: willow and alder barks for pain relieving ointments, chaga mushrooms for tea and elixirs, evergreen boughs, and always more spruce and pine resins. We have lofty hopes and dreams of foraging for lots of wild mushrooms this year to sell dried and fresh. Alex is also getting all his supplies together to start growing edible mushrooms for the farmers' markets and will likely end up doing a mix of mushrooms grown indoors and some grown on logs outdoors on my property and a couple local farms.

While he's been getting all his supplies, spores, and logs ready for the good weather we've been experimenting with medicinal mushrooms he harvested last fall. We made another big batch of the chocolate chaga elixir and smaller batches of simple turkey tail and birch polypore tinctures of which we will save the mushroom matter after straining and make multiple low heat decoctions and then combine the alcohol and water extractions to concentrate as much of their medicinal properties as possible.

trichaptum, fomitopsis pinicola, and ganoderma applanatum

The theme of April has been water. Everything is melting and dripping. All I hear outside is water. The creek running high and fast outside my door, water dripping from my roof, water rivulets running down the streets, water seeping into my root cellar and basement only to be removed by the sump pumps, gushing water noisily into my yard and out into the creek. Some people's lawns in this small town are now ponds you could comfortably kayak in. Everyone's basement leaks, "don't worry about it", they tell you. There has been so much snow that now we have an excess of water, purifying and washing clean the staleness of winter. 

Alex looks up at an impressive old growth white pine (pinus strobus)

And it is exciting. To see the bare ground, to see water instead of snow, to get stuck in the mud and fall in and laugh. Soon green things will start to pop up, bud, unfurl, unfold... I cannot wait. I am waiting impatiently for poplar buds to be ready, for fiddleheads and wild asparagus to grow, to collect pine and cattail pollen, to bury my nose in plum blossoms and elderflowers, and so many more wonderful things for food and medicine. Can you feel the excitement for spring building too? I so look forward to the sudden green burst of life that will come with May for it is when I can turn my castles in the sky into realities of gardening and foraging. See you out there in the sunshine!

~ Sarah


  • dabney rose

    Thanks for the lovely winter journal…you almost have me convinced the extra long cold/ice/snow is worth the gifts of resins, etc. : )

  • dre

    So timely, as Spruce Pitch and Cedar Balsam just arrived in the mail (woot!) to join Pine Pitch in what has quickly become my favorite of favorites—conifer ointments. All the glorious. Am in love.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published