As winter settles in to stay a while before warm temperatures return, the vegetables we are overwintering in our gardens fall out one by one, either eaten or killed by colder temperatures. Appalachian folk called late winter and spring the starving time, when food stores were running low, new crops weren’t yet ready to harvest and people had cravings for something new and fresh. Today the grocery store has fresh food shipped in from distant continents year round, but if you are trying to live frugally, the prices of these fruits and vegetables in the off season can be steep. And home canning significantly reduces the nutritional qualities of foods. So what’s a frugal gardener to do?
There are many sources of fresh nutrients in winter if you live somewhere with a mild climate like the Southeastern US. Let’s just look at one nutrient: vitamin C. It’s one of the more difficult ones to store, and one that is more likely to be in deficiency when people subsist on stored food for an extended period.
- Citrus is in season in the winter. Although the vitamin C content of citrus is overly hyped in an era where fruits are bred to be sweet instead of tart, it’s still a good, tasty source. If you live in Zone 8b or warmer, you can grow your own or likely have a local source nearby. There is about 50mg of vitamin C in a lemon sized fruit.
- Cabbage stores well in the garden until the temperatures start dropping below 20F, and then they need to be harvested. Stored at about 32F (like in a refrigerator), heads of cabbage will remain fresh for months. Fermented cabbage (sauerkraut, kimchee, and other lacto-fermented dishes) will keep for many weeks. So you can play a good cabbage harvest out for a long time into the cold months. There is about 25mg of vitamin C in 1 Cup of shredded fresh cabbage, and that nutritional content is not lost during fermentation.
- Rose hips, from wild or domestic roses, can be harvested in late fall and early winter, dried and stored very simply. It makes a tart tea. Don’t boil the water if you want to retain the full vitamin C content. There is approximately 1700mg of vitamin C per 100 grams of dried fruit.
- Sumac berries can be harvested in fall when the sprays of berries are a deep, rich red. They dry and store easily, and are also quite tasty. You can eat them whole, but the seeds are not what you are looking for: you want the fleshy coating. This coating makes a wonderful tart drink similar to lemonade. You can also buy bags of the berries (a different species) in spice stores and Middle Eastern markets. Many cultures use it for cooking much as we’d use lemon or vinegar. Those with cashew and related allergies should use this plant with caution. I was not able to find a good estimate of the vitamin C content, unfortunately.
- Pine needles, particularly the young growing tips, can be infused into tea. Some people love the taste, others hate it. Pine needles also contain shikimic acid, which is a potent chemical that prevents viruses from replicating. How potent? It’s the base material for the anti-flu drug Tamiflu. The quantity in pine needles is unlikely to help much with a full blown viral infection, but it might help fight one off in the early stages. Pine needle tea contains ~75mg of Vitamin C per fluid ounce depending on the strength of the tea and the individual plant characteristics.
- Nettles show up in early spring, invading gardens as a weed. Picked young, they haven’t developed their sting yet and can be lightly sauteed for a nutritional powerhouse of greens. I found a test that showed nettles had 83mg of vitamin C, but it didn’t state in what amount of vegetable. I would guess that figure is for about 1 Cup fresh.
- Chickweed is another weed with a superb nutritional profile, and contains 375mg of vitamin C per 100 grams of plant. You can eat everything above the ground, raw or cooked. It isn’t bitter like many wild greens and tastes quite good to me. Chickweed is also reputed to be effective for weight loss. You want the common star chickweed, not the fuzzy mouse-eared chickweed. Both are equally nutritious, but the fuzzy leaves are not conducive to a good eating experience.
- Violets, the common garden variety weed with blue or purple blooms of any species — but not the African Violets which are unrelated and toxic — have very edible leaves and blooms. Surviving all through the winter, the leaves are good tasting, not bitter, and contain 50mg of vitamin C in a cup of fresh leaves. Given what a tenacious weed this plant is, it makes me happy to know it has other redeeming characteristics.
Needless to say, before foraging in the wild be 100% of your identification. You really don’t want the white berries of poison sumac, for example. But fresh, healthy food is available ever when it’s as cold outside as it is right now.