During raspberry season, my mother and I would make our way around the edges, with me picking and eating the ones I could reach and she picking all the higher ones to feed her jelly-making habit. According to my mother, on the day after the last berry had been harvested, I'd crawl doggedly around the entire route, standing up at each bush to check for berries, and when I had inspected the last barren bush, I plopped down on my well-diapered behind and cried as if my little heart would break. As she said, how do you explain to a one-year-old that next year there will be another crop to enjoy?
With the perspective of half a century of years behind me, I now understand and embrace that concept of seasonality and have expanded my foraging habits to other kinds of wild fruits and edibles. There is something eminently satisfying to going for a walk and snacking on, or even bringing home, tasty free food! Fruits are still my favorite and are an easy entry into the joys of foraging for wild (and abandoned domesticated) edibles. Look for these seven varieties next time you go for a hike through the woods:
Easy to recognize, wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana) look just like small versions of those from the garden or supermarket and smell far stronger (you'll smell them before you see them). They have an intense strawberry flavor and are perfect for eating fresh or making into strawberry preserves—if you ever have a few cups of them to spare (I actually did one year, when I came upon a meadow absolutely studded with them).
Strawberries do have one look-alike, the "false" strawberry (Potentilla indica), a similar plant that bears solitary yellow five-petalled flowers followed by red berries that stand up rather than dangle. They are edible but tasteless and tend to grow in shadier areas.
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Just behind the strawberries in terms of seasonality are the mulberries (Morus spp. and hybrids), small trees that bear ¾-inch long dark purple, or red, or whitish fruits that look somewhat like blackberries. The native eastern North American red mulberry (Morus rubra) has happily hybridized with the Asian white mulberry (M. alba) and black mulberry (M. nigra) and naturalized widely. I have dozens of trees on my farm, and the fruit ranges in color from yellowish-white or yellowish-white with an unattractive purplish blush, to dark red, to almost black-purple.
Taste varies significantly from tree to tree. Some berries are bland and starchy; others are delicious with a good balance of acid, sweet, and fruit flavor. Once you find a tree producing tasty fruit, you'll remember to visit it every year. Mulberry trees are easiest to spot when their branches are heavy with ripe fruit. Berries are ripe when the stem separates from the branch with a light touch. Enjoy them stems and all. To collect lots of them, spread a clean tarp or sheet under part of the tree and give the branches a good shake, or tap high branches with a stick or broom. The ripe fruits will come tumbling down. If you plan to cook with them or make jams or jellies, add some lemon juice to perk up the flavor.
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Black Raspberries (Black Caps)
Another North American native, Eastern black raspberries (Rubus occidentalis)—the same kind that have been domesticated for our gardens—and the very similar Western black raspberry (R. leucodermis) are common in the Mid-Atlantic region. The plants send up leafy 3- to 5-foot tall canes each year that bear clusters of inconspicuous upward-facing flowers, followed by red raspberries that eventually turn black. Yellow (albino) raspberries are occasionally found on them, as well. Berries are ripe when they slip easily off their cores (which stay attached to the plant), giving them their common name of black cap. Look for raspberries on the edges of hedgerows and clearings.
No matter where you live, you probably have some wild raspberries in your neck of the woods, from the wild version of the familiar red raspberry (the native variety R. strigosus or the cultivated European variety R. ideaus), to the purple-flowered woodland raspberry (R. oderatus), to the diminutive arctic raspberry (R. acticus) which is just 6 inches tall and grows at high altitudes and in the far North. All are edible, and most are tasty.
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Overlapping the end of the black raspberry season, I get to enjoy Japanese raspberries or wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius), an Asian raspberry that has naturalized widely in the Mid-Atlantic region and as far north as southern New England. The fruits are scarlet to ruby red and translucent, glowing like jewels. Like black raspberries, they send up leafy arching canes one year that bear fruit the next. These canes are 4- to 6-feet tall and covered with fuzzy-looking red thorns and hairs, so they stand out in a winter landscape and make it easy to spot them for later foraging trips. Look for wineberries in shady areas in open woods and hedgerows. Pick and use them as you would any raspberry…even to make wine!
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The native blueberry-like fruits known as juneberry, shadblow, serviceberry, or Saskatoon berries (Amelanchier spp. and hybrids) grow wild in every U.S. state except Hawaii, so chances are, you have a juneberry shrub or bush somewhere near you. Juneberries are commonly planted in landscapes for their very early white flowers and easy care, and I've found them everywhere from rest stops to corporate campuses. Ranging from shrubs to small trees, they bear blue fruit that contains seeds that are a bit larger than blueberry seeds but are soft, almond-flavored and easy to eat. Use them in recipes any way you would use blueberries.
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Cherries are the first of the stone fruits (fruits with a single large seed in the center, such as peaches and plums) to ripen. I've noticed naturalized trees of the commercial sweet cherry (Prunus avium) in my area, bearing both dark red and yellow cherries, and the fruit is delicious. Unfortunately, most of the it is too far out of my reach. Growing a little more within arm's reach, and ripening a bit later, is the native Eastern black cherry (P. serotina), which bears multiple small cherries in long clusters. They are a bit astringent to eat fresh, but their strong cherry flavor is good for flavoring jelly, ice cream, and in black forest chocolate cake! There are many other varieties of wild cherries as well, and all are edible.
As summer unfolds, keep an eye out for more wild fruits during your foraging trips: blueberries, plums, blackberries, early wild apples, and grapes. Free food is everywhere you look!