As we progress through November, it is easy to think that the harvest season is over. There are many plants, however, that are still ready to harvest and make a great addition to your fall larder. Acorns and wintergreen are mostly found in deciduous forests such as those found on the East Coast of North America; however, you can find different varieties of the same plants in many places. For instance, the greatest acorn producing oak tree on the east coast is the white oak, whereas the scrub oak is prevalent in the Rocky Mountain region. Your local library will most likely have a book on your local flora that can help you find these plants in your region.
Acorns come from oak trees, of which there are many varieties. Oaks serve as important food producers for hibernating animals. Most famously, squirrels can be found harvesting acorns in great quantities during the fall months, “squirreling” away their stores for the upcoming winter. The bases of oak tree trunks shelter a number of animals such as burrowing foxes, rabbits, and moles. A forest with large oak trees is most likely an old forest, and it’s a sign of forest health.
Where to Find
Oak is perhaps one of the most pervasive types of trees in the world, having adapted to many different environments. Some of the easiest to find varieties of oak are the white oak, the red oak, and the scrub oak. All oaks have a similar shaped leaf, which is key in their identification. Look for long, lobed leaves that are a rusty brown color in fall. Acorns are most easily identified by their little caps that make them look like they’re wearing hats. Go for a walk in the forest and look at the ground, keeping an eye out for round nuts with a pointed bottom and a little cap.
After you have collected your acorns, you will have to shell them, which can be done with a hammer or a knife. Remove the bendy outer shell to reveal the white inner flesh. Once you have shelled the acorns, they have to be soaked or boiled to remove the tannins. This is the most difficult part of the process because it involves changing the water at least five times in order to be sure the remove enough of the tannins to make the acorns taste nice. You can either let your acorns soak in cold water and replace the water every three days or so, or you can boil them and change the water once it is so dark you cannot see through it. Once the tannins have been leached from the acorns, set them out to dry in the sun or the oven. Once they are dry, you can use a food processor to grind them into a flour which can be used in much the same way as regular whole wheat flour. I think the best way to use the acorn flour is in a pancake mix!
Yellow Dock (Rumex crispus)
Yellow dock is most often thought of as a noxious weed. While it may not make an excellent addition to your yard or garden, it is still serving the ecosystem as a dynamic accumulator with a deep taproot. The taproot also holds more soil in place and so can help prevent erosion.
Where to Find
Yellow dock is one of the first plants to arrive on the scene in areas that have been damaged or disturbed. It grows easily in sandy soils and enjoys the side of the road, construction sites, and flood sites as much as it likes the lush soils of your yard. Look for long leaves with curled edges growing mostly at the base of a tall stem. Yellow dock is most easily identified in the autumn due to its signature dark auburn seeds growing in a long clump at the top of the stem.
Yellow dock root is used regularly in commercially processed teas aimed at body detoxification. If you harvest the root of yellow dock, be sure to thoroughly clean it, cut it into strips and dry it out. Use a small amount of the root in a tea along with sweet tasting herbs to balance out its bitter taste. The dried yellow dock seeds are easy to collect and can be ground into a meal and used as a nutritional addition to flour or as a coffee substitute.
Wintergreen is ground cover that keeps low to the forest floor. Its blooms face downward and so serve as a nectary for those pollinators that live closest to the ground including ants and beetles, who in turn contribute to the vitality of a forest. The gentle roots of wintergreen interact with the mycelia of the forest soil and so they work together to transport nutrients across the system.
Where to Find
Populating forest floors, wintergreen is most easily found popping out of a layer of fallen leaves, showing off its glossy green leaves and red berries. It is a short plant, growing only about five inches tall. It will have anywhere between two to six leaves, rounded at the bottom and pointed at the top. It is an evergreen plant and so has a rich dark green color that sometimes blushes red in the fall and winter. Look for round, bright red berries hanging below the leaves, close to the forest floor.
Wintergreen is best known for its strong cooling quality and it is a popular flavor for chewing gum. You can chew the leaves straight from the plant for a quick breath freshening. You can also use some of the leaves to brew a bitter yet minty tea. Wintergreen leaves are mostly used for their oils, which are extracted and used topically to relieve many types of pain be it headaches or muscle soreness. Wild collected leaves can be mashed into a paste and gently heated with a carrier oil such as coconut oil and then used as a pain-relieving massage oil.
The late fall can be a difficult adjustment if you live in a cold region. The darker, colder mornings can seem a bit stifling, but that’s even more reason to get yourself outside and foraging. Connecting with the natural world at this time of retreat can help you ease into the change, and these plants can help you do it.