Everybody likes berries, or tart jams made from berries. While it is possible to buy berries, foraging is another great option. Since not all berries are edible, it is essential to find ways of identifying edible berries to forage them safely in the wild.
Markets are a great place to start familiarizing yourself with berries. Identification is not a problem when the berries are purchased. People who are not sure can identify them from labels or by asking the shop-keeper. Though markets are flooded with cultivated varieties, the offering in terms of different berries are limited.
Common berries usually available on the market are:
Farmers markets are good places to find berries not offered by supermarkets.
- Look out for white, golden, and black raspberries, which each have a slightly different flavor than their red counterparts.
- Depending on where you live, you may also encounter interesting options like lingon berries, dewberries, cloudberries, and cape gooseberries.
- New hybrids like logan berry, tayberry, boysenberry, olallieberry and marion berry are also common in farmers markets.
Guide to Identify a Few Edible Berries
It is possible to forage many edible wild berries. Some common ones are easy to spot, as they look like the cultivated ones but are smaller. For the other berries, a guide is handy.
Salmonberry (Rubus spectalis)
A compound fruit, similar in shape to a raspberry, the salmonberry is an edible option that grows in the coastal forests of the USA, from Alaska down to California. These berries are yellow to orange in color when ripe and red when unripe, and the pulp is yellow in color and neutral to mildly sweet in taste.
You'll find them growing on bushy brambles with thorns and compound leaves. They prefer sun, though they can tolerate some shade. The bush usually grows in open, sunny forests or in areas that have recently been cleared due to fire or logging or near creeks. The bushes bloom with large cupped reddish-purple flowers that are regularly visited by hummingbirds. Fruits appear from early May to late July.
Wild Grape (Vitis)
Smaller and not quite as sweet as the grapes you'll find in your supermarket, wild grapes grow in bunches or clusters attached to leafy vines. You'll encounter different varieties of wild grapes throughout the northern hemisphere, often near riverbanks, in orchards, and in the woods. Most feature blackish-purple berries that can be used for making jam, jelly, wine, and other products.
Wild grapes grow on tall vines, generally clinging to fences, buildings, trees, and other supports. The vines have large, veined green leaves and clusters of small green flowers in the spring. The fruit is attractive to birds, as well as humans and other animals. It appears throughout the late summer and early fall months, depending on the variety.
It's important to note that a rare species, called moonseed, looks similar to wild grape but is actually poisonous. A moonseed berry has a single, crescent moon-shaped seed inside, as opposed to the many oval-shaped seeds of a grape.
Red Currants (Ribes rubrum)
Currants are small, translucent, round red fruits, found hanging in bunches in the Northeasyern USA. They grow in areas with cool summers and like moist, rich soils. The red juicy pulp of the fruit tastes sour even when ripe, and it has many seeds. It's excellent for making jams and jellies.
You may find wild red currants in open sunny places that are disturbed, like floodplains, meadows, and fields or in partial shade. A deciduous bush that grows up to about six feet high with thorn-less stems, red currant has simple large leaves with up to five broad lobes that can be two inches long. The bush produces small greenish yellow flowers in the spring. There are early, medium, and late varieties, so the fruiting season extends from late June to late August.
Sea Berry (Hippophae rhamnoides)
Also known as sea buckthorn, sea berry is a native of Europe and is also found in some parts of southern Canada. The species is fond of sandy shores, hence the reference to "sea" in the name. The berries grow in clumps and are yellow-orange and very thin-skinned. They are rich in vitamin C and useful in cooking.
The bush of the sea berry can be as short as a foot and a half or grow to be ten feet tall, and it's covered in thick, blade-shaped green leaves. This is a very thorny bush, which can make harvesting the berries challenging. Flowers are small and golden in color, and they appear in May and June. The fruit is ripe in the late summer and early fall months.
Autumn Olive Berry (Elaeagnus umbellata)
An invasive species in much of North America, autumn olive bushes actually produce a nutritious and useful berry. You'll also find this species in Asia and Europe. The round, pink and red berries grow close to the branches of this shrub, and they are nutritious and useful in cooking. They are very rich in several vitamins, including C and E.
The shrub can grow up to 20 feet tall and is covered with green shield-shaped leaves with silvery scales. In early spring, the bushes bloom with fragrant light yellow flowers. The fruit appears in late summer and stays on the bush throughout the fall and winter months.
While harvesting berries from this plant helps keep it from spreading to other sites, keep in mind that you should never intentionally plant this invasive species.
Before you eat any berry, it's essential that you determine whether it is an edible species. If you are not completely familiar with the berry, take the time to make sure you know what it is. Keep these tips in mind:
- Carry your phone or tablet and look the berry up to make sure it is edible.
- Examine the berry carefully. The exterior color is not the only consideration. Check the interior color and consistency of the pulp.
- Take a look at the seeds. Are they the appropriate shape, size, color, and number?
- Once a berry plant has been successfully identified, make a note of the place to revisit it again.
Worth the Effort
Since many of the commercial berries that are available on the marketed are also collected from the wild, foraging can increase choices and cut costs. Another option is to grow them in the garden. Select varieties suitable for the local conditions, based on climate, light, soil types, moisture requirements, and gardening zones. Either way, with a little effort it is possible to reap benefits for many years.