This is a great time of year to support the immune system. Whether you are at home or traveling, you will likely have access to some of the following plants.
Rose hips (Rosa spp.):
Whether growing in your garden or in the wild, almost all pollinated rose flowers will produce an edible fruit which ranges from red to orange in color. Rose hips will commonly remain on the plant through winter, and continue to sweeten in the cold weather. While not a fruit for the fruit bowl, these little vitamin C packages make a great tea or trailside nibble. Their flavor can range from cranberry to raspberry to pumpkin.
Though small, the hips of the multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora), a widespread invasive, are especially easy to find. They are sweetest when deep red and soft. The entire fruit can be eaten, including seeds. While the seeds tend to be a bit dry and bitter, they are full of healthy omega fatty acids, vitamin A, and antioxidants including lycopene.
White pine (Pinus strobus):
One of our most common evergreens, White Pine, is a powerhouse of vitamin C, reputedly containing several times that of citrus fruit. Tea from the needles is delicious, comforting, and a perfect flavor for the season (though more mellow and less "piney" than you would think!)
Besides the whitish wax on the long graceful needles which gives this tree its namesake, white pine can be distinguished by its needle bundles. It typically has groupings of five needles attached together to the stem (remember the number of letters in w-h-i-t-e), though occasionally you will see bundles of three or four.
To make the brew, add a handful of chopped needles into a pot of just-boiled water and let steep for about 20 minutes or longer. Vitamin C is heat-sensitive, so don't boil the needles if you want the health benefits of the tea. A dollop of honey really complements the flavor of this warming woodland tisane.
Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa):
It's always fun to surprise friends and family with new foods and flavors they may have never tried before, or maybe didn't even know existed! Prickly pear cactus is one of these interesting foods, and it is also great for your health!
Many people are surprised to discover that this plant is a perennial which is native to our area. It can be found in the wild in dry, open areas such as mountain faces and roadsides, and is quickly becoming a staple home garden resident.
Prickly pear's beautiful magenta fruit, which is ripe this time of year, tastes of pear-lemon, and is eaten raw or made into pink lemonade, jelly, juice, or margaritas. Take care to remove all of the fine spines with rubber gloves and a knife, as they are quite irritating when embedded in the skin.
The cactus leaves, called nopales, are also edible once de-spined. They can be sliced thin and sautéed for a delicious dish that is a bit like a cross between green beans and okra. They can also be grilled (and conveniently are also a traditional medicine used for burned skin). Having a high fiber content, prickly pear cactus is great for keeping your digestion regular, and its vitamin C content may keep your immune system fortified.