By Julie Christensen
Robert McClosky’s classic children’s book, Blueberries for Sal, illustrates the simple pleasure of spending a day in the woods picking wild berries. Wild berries grow throughout the U.S. and, in most cases, are free for the taking. Pay attention to your surroundings and you may even find berries in urban areas, growing wild in parks and along trails. These delicious fruits are packed with phytochemicals and vitamin C. Wild berries are usually too tart to eat raw, but they’re delicious in sauces, wines and jams.
Before you go berry picking, you need to know a few tips:
- Never eat a berry you can’t positively identify. Some poisonous berries look remarkably similar to wild edible berries. Grab a field guide with good illustrations or photos. Look not only at the berries, but at the leaves and twigs.
- Know the area’s berry picking rules. In Washington, for example, you must stay in designated areas to pick huckleberries. There is also a limit on how many berries you can pick.
- Go berry picking with a friend and take a cell phone with you. Chances are, you’ll have a pleasant, uneventful experience, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. While you’re at it, pack a map, a compass, snacks and extra water. Don’t forget mosquito repellent and sunscreen.
- Pay attention to your surroundings. Watch out for quick drop-offs or holes in the ground. Keep your eyes open for bears hunting for berries too.
- Free up your hands. You’ll move more quickly if you aren’t carrying buckets. Thread a small bucket through a belt and wear it around your waist. Bring along larger buckets or a cooler to hold berries on the way home.
Wild Bramble Berries
Blackberry. If you’re lucky enough to live in the Pacific Northwest, you’ll find blackberries growing abundantly alongside roadsides almost everywhere. Himalayan blackberries produce large, mild fruit and are often considered a weed. Evergreen blackberries ripen late in the season and are very seedy.
Raspberry. Wild raspberries grow throughout much of the U.S. They’re typically smaller with a more intense flavor than cultivated varieties.
Salmonberry These mild fruits are light orange in color. They are best eaten fresh and their flavor ranges from mildly sweet to almost bland.
Thimbleberry. These red berries are related to blackberries. Like salmonberries, they have a mild, bland flavor. Eat them out of hand.
Wild Round Berries
Bog cranberry. This low-lying shrub grows in moist, sandy areas. It produces red, tart fruit in the fall.
Chokecherry. Not actually a berry at all, but a type of wild cherry, chokecherries are usually thought of as berries because of their small size. The shrubs or trees grow throughout the U.S. and produce spikes of white flowers in the spring, followed by red, purple or black fruit. The fruit is tart, but makes delicious pancake syrup. The leaves, twigs and seeds are toxic.
Elderberry. Elderberry shrubs grow in most parts of the U.S. Wild elderberries produce clusters of small, round fruit. The fruit is purple, black or red. Pick elderberries when they’re ripe and cook them in jams, wines and syrups. Do not eat them raw, as they have been known to cause indigestion.
Huckleberry. Huckleberries resemble blueberries and can be eaten fresh, frozen or processed into jams and syrups. Huckleberries grow throughout the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the country. Toxic pokeberry grows in the same areas and resembles huckleberry. Pokeberry lacks the characteristic X on the blossom end of the fruit and its fruit is glossier.
Oregon grape. This woodland shrub grows wild throughout the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Northwest. The purple fruits don’t taste good raw, but make excellent jam.
Serviceberry. Highly adaptable, serviceberries grow throughout most of the U.S. West and Midwest. These shrubby trees produce white flowers in the spring, followed by purple berries in the fall. The berries look and taste similar to blueberries.
To learn more about foraging for edible wild berries, visit the sites below:
- Common Elderberry from the USDA Plant Guide
- Foraging for Edible Wild Plants: A Field Guide to Wild Berries from Mother Earth News
- Alderleaf Wilderness College has a guide to identifying edible wild berries correctly.
- Wonderhowto.com has a good guide to both poisonous berries you should avoid, and edible berries you might find, with photos.
When she’s not writing about gardening, food and canning, Julie Christensen enjoys spending time in her gardens, which includes perennials, vegetables and fruit trees. She’s written hundreds of gardening articles for the Gardening Channel, Garden Guides and San Francisco Gate, as well as several e-books.