Even though we - like most Americans - live in a wild berry-rich environment, most people have no idea so many of them are edible.
But here's the thing: Wild foods are generally more nutritious than what you buy in the store. (Years of selective breeding - which has nothing to do with GMOs, by the way - have given us standard garden and grocery store varieties that might look pretty and hold up well to handling, but are less nutritious than they once were.) And who can argue with the idea that free food is good food? Not me! And while I don't advocate harvesting all the wild berries you find - animals need some, too, and left-behind berries lead to more berry bushes or briars - it's a shame more people don't take advantage of the free food around them. (When we lived in the suburbs, a lot of local people needed food - especially healthy food - and we had tons of wild berries and public fruit trees around that very few people took advantage of. So sad!)
How to Learn Which Berries Are Safe
Most people are smart enough to know that if you can't positively identify a wild plant, you should never eat from it. But very few bother to learn which plants are safe to eat. Maybe they aren't sure how to go about it. Here are some ways I've learned these things:
* Talk to old timers. They grew up in an era when harvesting from the wild was more common and they can often teach you which berries they grew up eating.
* Get some great guide books. To be truly useful, they should focus on foraging in your region and have plenty of color photos to help you identify plants. I recommend using the Internet in conjunction with such books. For example, if you think you've identified a certain type of berry using you foraging guide book, hop online and search for more information. I like to do an image search to make sure the plant I think I have corresponds with the images; then I'll read a bit more about the plant online.
* Consult your local extension office. Many extension offices will help you identify local, edible berries - and they may even supply recipes for eating and preserving them, too. To find your local extension office, click here.
The next hurdle is teaching people to open their eyes to the food growing all around them. It's truly a matter of practice.
If you live in a city or the suburbs, try scouting for berries at parks, on the edges of parking lots, rest stops, around athletic fields...in short, anyplace nature has been allowed to take over. State parks are often an excellent place to begin your wild berry quest, too. (It's perfectly legal to pick berries at state parks, as long as it's for your own personal use.) I recommend finding a ranger at the park, and telling him or her your mission. Often the ranger can give you tips for where to find good patches of berries.
In rural areas, seek out the edges of forests, or openings within the forest, which offer enough sun for berries to grow and thrive.
Do be careful not to wander onto private land. If you pick berries on someone else's property, that's called stealing. On the other hand, it's fine to knock on someone's door and ask if you may pick berries on their land. The kind thing to do is to offer to give some of the berries you pick to the landowner.
Also, you'll want to avoid picking berries near the roadside or railroads (where they may be contaminated with vehicle pollution) or anywhere that might have been sprayed with an herbicide (like along roadsides).
Good Beginner Berries
|Bunchberries. Courtesy of Jason Hollinger.
For the novice wild berry forager, it's usually best to stick to berries that resemble garden variety types. This includes:
* Salmonberries (which look a lot like raspberries, but may be salmon-colored)
Later you can move on to learning about some of the less known berries, including:
and many others.
Added Resource: A list of common poisonous berries. Remember, there may be others in your area! Never eat any berry you cannot positively identify.
|Black elderberries. Courtesy of R. A. Nonenmacher and Wikimedia Commons.|
* Title image (wild currants) courtesy of Emilie Barbier.