For some, Spring means releasing home-raised butterflies, watching young deer sport their budding antlers, or experiencing the symphony of riverside hatches and frog songs. For others still, it means opportunity for natural forage and taking advantage of the bounty of the land. The hunt for colorful wild berries makes for an excellent wilderness treasure hunt with rewards as delicious as they are nutritious. Many berries make a sweet little trail snack, others are often picked for use in preserves, pies, and wines. However, an honest trail mix up can prove deadly to the uninitiated in berry identification. Today we will look at a few North American berry varieties and taking a moment to review some recommendations for safe berry foraging and consumption.
Oregon grapes were first pointed out to me on a bountiful trail toward a favorite fishing hole by my Eagle Scout hiking companion. Through mouthfuls of wild raspberries, I was eager to try this new trail snack, expecting a smaller, sweeter variety of grape. However, I spat it out almost as quickly as it reached my mouth. This tart, wild fruit contrasted heavily with the lingering sweetness of the raspberry, and to my surprise tasted almost bitter by comparison. However, Oregon grapes (although not truly a grape at all, but rather a type of barberry bush) have many positive qualities and uses. While sharp-tasting, these juniper berry lookalikes are edible and do best in recipes with sugar, such as pies, jams, or wines. The root and bark of this plant is also used to make medicines that are effective in treating stomach ulcers, infection, and psoriasis.
While it could be argued that the backbone of tourism in many mountain towns is the scenery itself, make no mistake it finds its support behind the scenes by the huckleberry plant. Because huckleberry thrives in acidic and inhospitable soils well above sea level, attempts at the domestic growth of huckleberries tend to either fail completely or offer yields and flavors that pale in comparison to their wild counterparts. Found throughout North America along both coasts, huckleberry foraging is a unique pastime in subalpine regions during the short peak season of the late summer months. Huckleberries are prized by hopeful berry pickers for their mouthwatering flavor, versatile recipe options, elusive nature, and medicinal properties. As one of the richest natural sources of anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants absorbed through fresh huckleberries begin to work for the good of various organs within an hour of consumption. Huckleberries have been shown to reduce inflammation, protect cells from free radicals, aid brain function, and promote cardiovascular health. Although they look similar to blueberries, huckleberries tend to be smaller in size with a more intense sweet flavor and can be substituted into virtually any recipe calling for berries. Wild huckleberry jams, chocolates, milkshakes, cheesecakes, and even vinaigrettes are a staple in berry-rich regions such as the Flathead Valley near Glacier National Park.
While long valued by those in homeopathic circles as an effective cold and flu remedy, elderberry is often overlooked by many casual berry hunters, as the raw berries are often too tart for trailside consumption. However, once dried in the sun these berries lose their bitterness and store quite well. These widespread, easily grown berries are boiled down to make syrups, preserves, pie fillings, and even wine. Early in the season, many choose to forage for Elderflowers when the blooms are just beginning to open for use in apothecary teas and fried treats, such as fritters or beignets. It is important to note that despite the positive qualities of the ripe berry, unripe elderberries, as well as their leaves and stems, are not fit for human consumption, and only the black/purple varieties should be pursued. There are a wide variety of plants in the Elderberry family and it is best to familiarize yourself with local varieties before seeking them out.
Always be cautious when berry foraging and ensure you are familiar with local varieties before consumption. Many commonly encountered berries, such as Yew, Virginia Creeper, and American Bittersweet are toxic and should not be ingested.
When trying to determine a berry’s edibility, survivalist and former Green Beret Mykel Hawke, leaves us with this helpful rhyme:
White and yellow, kill a fellow.
Purple and blue, good for you.
Red could be good, could be dead.
It should also be noted to always avoid any berries from plants with milky saps or an almond-like scent, as this is a characteristic of cyanide compounds.
Never eat any berries you cannot positively identify, and remember that animals feeding on a certain plant is not a reliable indicator for safe human consumption. Pick wisely and remember that even armed with Hawke’s handy mnemonic and lists of qualities to avoid, a handful of berries is simply not worth risking your life.
Through responsible berry foraging and educated consumption, you too can take advantage of the fruits of God’s great grocery store.
This website is for information purposes only. The information contained in this post is not meant to diagnose, treat, cure, mitigate, prevent, or provide medical advice. Consult with a health care provider if you are experiencing any symptoms. When foraging for plants, do so ethically and be accompanied by an expert. Always confirm plant identification before using or consuming any herbs or berries.