With their sweet taste and good nutrition, edible wild berries are a choice survival food for foragers and wild animals alike. The following list contains my favorite fruits and berries, which are widely available, packed with nutrients, and relatively easy to identify.
Some of the earliest tree fruits around, mulberry (Morus species) is a common tree throughout the United States. Often growing in old farming areas and along fence rows (thanks to the seeds in bird droppings), you’ll find a native red mulberry (Morus rubra) species and several Asian species as you roam. Mulberries have large leaves that are generally heart-shaped, with teeth on the edges of their alternate simple leaves. The fruits strongly resemble blackberries, though these dangle from tree twigs rather than sticking out or up from the branches of thorn-covered berry canes. One cup of mulberries contains 60 calories, nearly your full day’s allowance vitamin C, and plenty of iron. These fruits can be eaten raw, cooked, or dried. They also make good flavored wine. Don’t collect any under-ripe fruits, as these are toxic enough to cause vomiting, diarrhea, and hallucinations. From dead branches or from the live inner bark (during late spring and early summer), you can strip out ribbons of fiber, which can be twisted into a solid string.
Another early summer treat, wild strawberry (Fragaria species) is often found in wooded areas, fields, and open ground. This perennial plant is the original version of the strawberries we cultivate today, and it has the same physical features. Real wild strawberries have tan seeds imbedded in dents on the skin of the berry. Don’t be disappointed in the flavor if you pick the Indian strawberry (Duchesnea indica) by mistake, which has red seeds (not tan ones). The Indian strawberry is edible yet flavorless, while the real wild strawberry is amazing. Over 20 species grow around the Northern Hemisphere, but the woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca) is the most common in the eastern U.S. Despite the low calories (only 45 calories per cup), wild strawberries provide a full day’s allowance of vitamin C and great taste.
Cherries are part of a huge and important genus found throughout the Northern Hemisphere. The genus Prunus contains over 400 species of trees and shrubs belonging to the rose family (Rosaceae), including cherries, almonds, peaches, plums, and apricots. When it comes to cherries, the black cherry (Prunus serotina) is one of our most common species in the eastern part of America. Cherry trees bear alternate simple leaves with small teeth. The broken twigs have a pungent smell, sour, and vile – yet almond-scented too. The actual black cherries themselves are small and reddish-black in color. There are 77 calories in one cup of pitted black cherries (get rid of the pits, as they contain toxins). This fruit also provides vitamin A, vitamin C, potassium, copper, and manganese. Enjoy these delicious cherries raw or cooked. Just stay away from the rest of the tree, especially any green leaves that are wilting (these contain high levels of cyanide).
This group of plants is just one genus (Rubus), but it contains some very diverse plant species. Blackberries and raspberries are the best-known members of the genus, but thimbleberries, salmonberries, and dewberries are part of the group as well.
Raspberry Native species can be found in America, Asia, and Europe, and numerous species have been naturalized around the world. These perennial woody plants have thorns on the stalks, and often have fuzzy hairs on the stalks as well. Raspberry plants have alternate branching and typically reach 4 to 9 feet in length. The pinnately compound leaves have three or five leaflets each, and these are often whitish underneath. The berries may be red, purple, black, or even golden color, and when picked – the core of the berry stays on the branch. This creates a hollow spot inside the berry and is the reason some species are called thimbleberries (hollow like a thimble for sewing). The ripe berries can be eaten fresh, cooked, or dried. They contain 53 calories in a 3.5-ounce serving, along with some vitamin C and manganese.
Blackberry Also found throughout the range of raspberries, the blackberry has a solid core to its fruit and is typically purple/black in color. You’ll find them growing in forest and field, with ripe fruit around mid-summer. These woody perennials are usually thorn-covered, hairless, and often bearing grooved stalks that grow to lengths of 6 to 8 feet. Blackberry has alternate branching with pinnately compound leaves. The ripe berries are great raw or cooked into baked goods. Blackberry leaves can also be dried and used as tea leaves. Three and a half ounces of blackberries contain 43 calories, with strong amounts of vitamin C and some vitamin K.
The American persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) is a native species east of the Mississippi river and is related to larger Asian persimmons (commonly seen in grocery stores). This deciduous tree grows alternate simple leaves and small orange fruits. Often found in old fields and forest edges, this tree provides an important wild food for both animals and humans in late fall. In many areas, the fruits ripen around or after the first frost. Before that, they are horribly astringent and bitter. After they ripen, these fruits become gooey and super sweet, tasting like honey and citrus. One cup of persimmon fruit contains 127 calories and a full day’s supply of vitamin C. Generally, the more wrinkled and soft the fruit appears, the sweeter they will be. Incidentally, the leaves can also be dried and used as a mild herbal tea.
Blueberries (Vaccinium species) are members of the heath family (Ericaceae) and found across the continent. These perennial woody shrubs may be tiny (under 1 foot tall) or huge (over 12 feet tall). The simple alternate leaves have an oval shape, and you’ll usually see a variety of leaf sizes on every twig, ranging from ½ to 3 inches long. Once the tiny bell-shaped flowers give way to fruit, the familiar-looking bluish-colored berry is easy to spot. These berries have a greenish interior and lots of small tan seeds inside. Blueberries also have a 5 pointed “crown” on the bottom of each berry. These small fruits are delicious fresh, cooked, or dried. A 3.5 ounce serving of fresh blueberries will supply 53 calories and a good amount of vitamin C, vitamin K, and manganese.
Wild grapes (Vitis species) are another global wild edible growing on deciduous woody vines with curly tendrils that help the plant climb. Like cultivated grapes, these plants have alternate simple leaves with toothed margins. Roughly two dozen species of wild grape are common east of the Mississippi. Some ripen as early as August, while others won’t be ready to harvest until the end of October or November. Inside each grape, you should find some juicy pulp and two to four teardrop-shaped seeds (though sometimes the odd grape will just grow one seed per fruit). Grape seeds can be eaten, as well as the fruit pulp and skin. One cup of wild grapes will contain roughly 100 calories, along with a respectable amount of vitamin C, vitamin K, copper, and potassium. Just make sure you don’t collect the dangerous look-a-like of grape. Read the paragraph on Canada moonseed in this issue’s article, Frequently Confused Foraging Species to find out more about this poisonous grape imposter.
Large and strange, the paw paw (Asimina triloba) is an unexpected fruit to find in the lower 48 states. It’s the northernmost member of a tropical family (the custard apple family, Annonaceae). It grows in damp shady areas and bears fruit on small to medium-sized trees in late summer. These strange trees are found in the southern, eastern and mid-western U.S., as well as southern Ontario. Paw paw grows large alternate simple leaves, and the fruit looks like a fat green banana, up to 6 or 7 inches long and several inches wide. Although the big brown seeds inside are not edible, the creamy pulp is edible to humans. One cup of paw paw pulp contains 80 calories, with a large dose of vitamin C and potassium. Wait for them to ripen completely, and enjoy them raw or cooked.