Five of the best: hardy winter edibles

The dreary and barren midwinter landscape can leave you longing for the bountiful days of summer — but nature offers a spectrum of hardy edibles to put a glint back into your eye and some pep back in your pot


Velvet shank (Flammulina velutipes) mushrooms growing on a tree

Velvet shank (Flammulina velutipes)

Other common names: velvet foot, velvet stem, winter mushrooms, enoki, enokitake

The velvet shank (Flammulina velutipes) is a mushroom that both looks enticing and delivers on its promise. The genus name Flammulina is a reference to it’s flame-like colouring, and they do stand out like little sparks against the dark woodland. The sight of its sticky, orange-caramel cap glistening like a glacé fruit can certainly brighten up a dull day. This is a well-regarded edible whose taste is frequently described as mealy and slightly sweet. Factor in its firm, if slippery, texture and it makes a great addition to a gamey winter stew.


Don’t be too confused by the striking difference in appearance between wild velvet shanks and their cultivated relative Enoki (Flammulina filiformis), which is popular in Japanese cuisine and can be spotted in British supermarkets. The stringy, white Enoki are grown in darkness and a carbon dioxide-rich environment, which encourages their extended stems and pale colour. It was once classified as a variant - Flammulina velutipes var filiformis, but is now recognised as a species in its own right


As well as colouration, the wild species has a shorter, thicker, velvety stem, which is often discarded rather than eaten as it can be tough.


The velvet shank can be found on a variety of deciduous species, most commonly ash, oak, elm and willow. This saprotroph is usually be found on dead and dying wood from September to March.


A wood blewit (Lepista nuda)

Wood Blewit (Lepista nuda)

Other common names: blue cap, blue hat, blue leg, blewit. With its lilac fading to buff cap, lilac gills and fruity-floral scent, the wood blewit seems almost incongruous with the muddy palate of the colder seasons. Nevertheless, its growing season typically lasts through the winter into January, with the mushroom usually appearing around the first frosts. This saprotrophic fungus is fairly unfussy about its habitat, so it is common and widely distributed and can also appear during the summer months. It can be found under most tree types, where it likes to grow in leaf and needle litter. Because of this, it can also often be found on older compost heaps in gardens. If you find some growing at your home, they will usually reappear for several years as long as their substrate is topped up. Because of their floral notes, which are retained when cooked, they are another good — and timely — match for game and are considered a gourmet find.


Miner's lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata)

Miner’s Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata)

Other common names: Winter purslane, Indian purslane, spring beauty. Miner’s lettuce is a herbaceous annual that is native to the mountainous and coastal regions of western North America. It was during the push west in the California gold rush that Claytonia perfoliata earned its common name, as it was a staple source of vitamin C for miners, who ate it to ward off scurvy. It was first brought to Kew Gardens in 1794 by the naturalist Archibald Menzies and became established in Western Europe sometime after.

The plant’s young leaves, shaped like a cobra’s head, start to grow from a basal rosette in early spring and endure through to autumn. It is at its most distinctive when its small, white flowers emerge from February onwards, riding in clusters from the leaves. All of the plant except the root is edible and it is best served fresh in salads. Although it can be wilted like spinach, it does become slimy. Historically, indigenous peoples of the Pacific Coast of North America used miner's lettuce medicinally (Slow Food Foundation, nd). The juice from is reported to have been used by the Mahuna as an appetite restorer (Moerman, 1998). It has also been applied as a poultice, with the crushed leaves and stems used to soothe burns and minor skin irritations (Tilford, 1997). Miner’s lettuce can typically be found on disturbed ground, waste ground, on sandy and dry soils and in partial shade.


Crow garlic (Allium vineale) growing in grassland

Crow Garlic (Allium vineale)

Other common names: wild onion, field garlic, stag's garlic, onion grass, false garlic


Although an edible and, like all alliums, attractive to pollinators, crow garlic is a plant which meets with mixed receptions. It is a native species in Europe but is still sometimes considered a nuisance in gardens, where it can reach heights of up to 4ft (RHS.org, nd). In Australia and North America, where it is an introduced species, it is classified as a noxious weed. It grows in grassland and pasture and is said to be unpopular with dairy farmers, as its consumption can create a garlicky off-flavour in milk (Cornell University, 1984).


For foragers, however, it is a useful hardy winter edible that is best collected in late winter and early spring, before its tubular leaves leaves become too tough and dry. The bulbs can be picked, and used like spring onion - but remember permission is always needed from the landowner before any plants can be uprooted.


Its appearance is very similar to chives (Allium schoenoprasum), although it has a more oniony flavour. Its leaves are more grey-green than the chive and rather than small, pale purple flowers in tight clusters, it produces deep red bulbils with only occasional, small, pale-purple flowers.


When looking for Crow Garlic in pasture, it is often easiest to spot within a few days of mowing as the leaves grow much faster than most grasses. Another sure sign you are on to an allium is the onion-like smell when crushed.


Burdock (Arctium minus) in flower

Burdock (Arctium lappa, Arctium minus)

Other common names: gobo root, beggar's buttons, bardana Burdock is a common sight in British hedgerows, where it flowers into slightly exotic, purple, thistle-like burs in summer. These burs inspired its common name, with the English word “bur” originated from the French “bourre”, meaning woolly, while the “dock” comes from the resemblance between the leaves of burdock and dock leaves. As for its scientific name, in Greek Arctium means “bear” — perhaps a reference to its size and bristles, although “bur” and “bear” are soundalikes. There are two kinds of burdock found the in the UK: greater burdock (Arctium lappa), which grows to 3m (10ft), and lesser or common burdock, Arctium minus, which grows to 1.8m (5ft11). Greater burdock is native to temperate regions across Eurasia, while lesser burdock is more specifically a native of Europe. Burdock root is widely eaten across Japan (as “gobo”), Korea and Taiwan but was once commonly used in Europe during the Middle Ages as a vegetable. In the UK, burdock has a long history of use in the medieval herbal drink dandelion and burdock, made from the dried roots of both plants, which is still produced and sold commercially - albeit being a synthetic flavour in many brands. Burdock is a biennial whose root becomes too woody to eat in plants over a year old. Roots of young plants are best harvested in autumn and winter while at their maximum nutritional value. Burdock is high in vitamin C and also a source of protein, calcium and potassium, as well as containing polyunsaturated compounds and phenolic acids with antibiotic, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties (Zhang et al, 2021). When harvesting, you should look for a plant that doesn’t have dried burs from previous flowering. The root is usually boiled but once softened can also be roasted or fried and has an earthy, nutty flavour.

And don't forget to ask permission from the landowner when uprooting any plant.


References

Miner’s Lettuce - Arca del Gusto. (nd). Retrieved January 22, 2022, from Slow Food Foundation Moerman, D. E. (2016). Native American ethnobotany. Portland, Or: Timber Press.

Cornell University. Sensory Evaluation Of Milk and Dairy Products Flavor and Odor Defects In Milk (and Other Dairy Products. (1984). Tilford, G. L. (1997). Edible and medicinal plants of the West. Missoula Mt: Mountain Press Pub. Wild garlic and crow garlic (nd). from www.rhs.org.uk Zhang, X., Herrera-Balandrano, D. D., Huang, W., Chai, Z., Beta, T., Wang, J., Feng, J., & Li, Y. (2021). Comparison of Nutritional and Nutraceutical Properties of Burdock Roots Cultivated in Fengxian and Peixian of China. Foods (Basel, Switzerland), 10(9), 2095 Always make sure you are 100% sure of your identification before consuming any plant or mushroom