Eating wild berries while out on a walk or hike is a summer delight. These juicy treats quench thirst on hot days, can be baked into decadent pies, and are packed with healthy vitamins and antioxidants. If you want to dive into foraging, there is no better place to start than with berries. They are much easier to identify and find than mushrooms and other plants. This is a beginner’s guide to identifying wild berries, so it will cover some of the easiest berries to identify.
Color and Shape Are Critical to ID Edible Wild Berries
Here are three easy guidelines that help a berry picker determine if a wild berry is safe or not.
- Always avoid yellow, white, and green berries.
- Red berries are sometimes safe, especially if they are not in clusters
- Black and purple berries are usually safe.
- Aggregated berries (think blackberry and raspberry-like) are generally safe
With botany, all rules have many exceptions, so these four rules won’t work for every situation. They are good to keep in mind, though, as you learn how to harvest fruits from the wild.
Grocery Store Berries Resemble Wild Berries
To some extent, all of our foods were once ‘wild’. Thousands of years ago, corn was about the size of a kid’s finger and wheat was nothing more than a wild grass. Through intensive breeding and horticulture, humans have turned these unlikely plants into foods. Agricultural berries, however, have gone through less cultivation. They look very similar to their wild counterparts. This makes identifying them in the wild pretty simple!
The strawberry genus, Fragaria, grows around the world. Most wild strawberry fruits are much smaller than what we are used to. Our modern strawberry is the result of a basic hybridization of two wild strawberry species.
The eastern U.S. strawberry was hardy to cold climates but was very small. The Chilean strawberry was large but didn’t do well in cold. When horticulturists mixed these genes together about 200 years ago, they gave rise to the modern strawberry.
Strawberries grow along the ground on small plants that have leaves in sets of threes. They ripen earlier in the summer than most berries. You can generally find strawberries in most habitats as long as they aren’t too wet or too dry.
If you see something that looks like a teeny tiny strawberry in the woods or in a meadow, you can be sure it is. Sometimes they are as small as a pinky fingernail and hide underneath the plants’ leaves. Don’t be fooled by their size. If they are red, they are ripe to eat!
Blueberries are a native treasure to North America. The wilderness of Canada, Alaska, and the northern U.S. are the best places to pick wild blueberries in the world. Blueberries in the wild look nearly identical as they do in the store, just a bit smaller and with a waxy layer. They grow on shrubs that generally don’t grow more than four feet tall.
Wild blueberries thrive in wet, acidic soils, such as bogs and alpine tundra. They ripen in mid to late summer. In Alaska, where blueberries are everywhere, people use this blueberry comb to harvest gallons of wild berries.
Fortunately for the berry hunter, all berries in the blueberry genus Vaccinium are non-toxic. This genus includes some of the tastiest wild berries, such as huckleberries, cranberries, and cranberries.
Blackberries and Raspberries
These two berries occupy the same genus, Rubus. As the most commonly gathered berry in the U.S., wild blackberries are easy to identify. They grow on long canes that have sharp spikes. These canes usually grow together into an impenetrable bush of blackberries. Much to the pickers’ annoyance, the juiciest berries always seem to be tucked back in the spiky fortress of canes, or up too high to pick.
Blackberries are the easiest berry to harvest in bulk since the berry itself is large and the plant is usually quite productive. They commonly grow on the edge of fields or roads. The blackberry we are used to eating is a non-native plant from Asia. Some states, such as California and Washington, have native blackberries that grow in moist areas near streams. These blackberry canes have no spikes, and the fruit is even more delicious!
The raspberry plant likes similar habitats to the blackberry and looks very similar. Raspberry thickets are usually less overgrown than blackberry patches. Wild raspberries, like strawberries, can also be much smaller than their grocery store cousins. In some places, the native raspberry plants are also tiny and low to the ground.
Get a Wild Berry Guide and Gather Smart
The plant kingdom is so diverse that it is important to have locally relevant information. Look around at your bookstore for a plant guide or berry guide. Most have pictures and descriptions of the most common berry types in your area. These books are great to take on hikes during the berry season.
Some areas spray plants like blackberries with herbicide throughout the fruiting season to prevent growth. As mentioned above, Himalayan blackberries are invasive plants, so some agencies try to prevent their growth. If you plan to gather near a road, it is safest to find out whether the plants have been sprayed or not. The chemicals some agencies spray to manage roadside ‘weeds’ are much more toxic than the chemicals farmers use for their crops.
Before going out, it is crucial to know how to safely gather wild foods. Keep reading, but more importantly, get out there! Do you have plans to collect any berries this summer? Any native plants you’re excited to harvest in the near future?