Edible wild fruits offer an unexpected bounty.
Wild grapes are picked from vines that grow up trees and fences.
Tending the home orchard and berry patch takes the guesswork out of the fruit harvest, which makes plenty of sense for producing the staples. But once the domestic delights are in hand, you might embark on a wild adventure to supplement that bounty with some of the most incredibly flavorful fruits available – edible wild fruits.
In every region of the country, a bountiful, uncultivated buffet awaits those who like to explore their wild side. The trick is to know what fruits you’re looking for, and to take the time to find where they grow and when they are likely to ripen. If you’re new to picking outside the garden, contact your local extension office for information about the fruits that grow wild in your area and for tips on which look-a-likes might be poisonous. Always seek permission from the landowner if you want to hunt wild fruit on any property besides your own; maybe you could even give them a share of the pickings.
The black raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) found growing along hedgerows and lanes from the East Coast to the Dakotas is one of my favorites. Raspberry patches are easy to find since they don’t grow in the shaded parts of the woods; they are more out in the open, along paths and lanes on farms. And it doesn’t take long to pick enough for dessert, even when you’re popping every other one into your mouth.
The greatest challenge to harvesting these wild fruits is avoiding the thorns that line the curved, whiplike stalks. You might carefully reach in to pluck a group of berries only to be caught by the prickles on the way out. The second issue is being aware of poison ivy that often grows in the same area. As the saying goes, “leaves of three, let it be.” Always watch for the telltale description, and pick carefully – or avoid the area altogether if you’re allergic to this toxic plant.
When picking wild cane fruit, it’s wise to wear long pants, sturdy shoes and a long-sleeved shirt. And don’t forget to bring several small buckets. You don’t want to put so many berries in a single container that the bottom layer gets crushed.
Once at home, wash the berries carefully. Use immediately or freeze by placing the berries in single rows on a cookie sheet. When they’re frozen, put them in bags to store in the freezer.
Another favorite fruit of mine is the wild grape (Vitis spp.) because it’s tangy, easy to identify and simple to pick. The vines are often more than 3 inches thick at the base, and they cling tenaciously to the treetops.
Look for the tangled mess of vines at the tops of trees, and follow them down to more reasonable heights to harvest – or find the vines growing on pasture or woodland fences. By the end of August, clusters of dark-purple berries hang on the smaller vines along the edge of the woods. You might have to look behind leaves to find the berries, which is fine because birds are your top competitors.
Other varieties of grapes are found throughout the United States with similar characteristics and fruit. The widespread riverbank grape (Vitis riparia) covers a larger area of the United States and Canada than the wild grape. Its characteristic cold hardiness contributed to the development of commercial cultivars such as ‘Frontenac’ – a favorite for northern climate grape growers.
The wild cousins may not have the refined flavor of the domestic version – many are very tart – but wild grapes are good choices for homemade jams and wines. Store them in the refrigerator to keep them fresh until you’re ready to use them.
I live in the cold, harsh climate of Montana, and even here there is no lack of wild fruit. The king of all of them is undoubtedly wild thinleaf huckleberries (Vaccinium membranaceum). Huckleberries only grow
in the wild, and around here it’s typically in the mountains at elevations over 3,000 feet. The berries hide below the thin leaves on a 2- to 4-foot-tall bush. The typically small berry (unless it’s an exceptional year) is a tart version of its blueberry cousin. They’ll make you pucker some years, while others they’ll be super sweet. It completely depends on the year’s growing conditions.
The huckleberry pickers in our area are a hardy breed. When you venture into the brush for this scrumptious little berry, you need to realize you’re competing with grizzlies and black bears for a favored food.
The best way to prevent a surprise encounter is to make plenty of noise, look before you crash into dense brush, and have a can of bear spray within quick reach. I can’t say I’ve ever heard of berry-picking casualties, but I’m sure there have been plenty of close calls.
Because of the danger and high demand for huckleberries, picking them in the late summer and early fall is big business for many. Huckleberries often sell for more than $40 per gallon. But for most of us, huckleberry picking is an annual ritual and a good reason to spend a weekend in the mountains.
The most important thing to know about harvesting huckleberries is to pick them by hand. Don’t use the scooplike pickers for blueberries or other domestic berries. It ruins the bush. Handpicking is a more sustainable practice, particularly since the bears depend on them as a food source. You don’t want to take food out of a grizzly’s mouth.
We use huckleberries in pretty much everything. Huckleberry milkshakes, ice cream, pie and other desserts are extremely popular, and huckleberry jam is a coveted prize.
The prolific chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) is another bear favorite, although it has such a widespread range that there are plenty of places where people can harvest without keeping an eye out for furry foragers. Chokecherries are large shrubs or small trees that grow along ditches, riparian areas and in disturbed areas. They’re found throughout nearly all of North America and have long been an important food source.
The shrubs produce an abundance of tiny, cherry-looking clusters of deep purple to almost black berries. The flavor of the berries straight off the bush is pretty strong, minimizing snacking. They are best picked when they’re thoroughly ripe. Don’t give in to the temptation to start harvesting when they’re red in midsummer, wait until they’ve darkened.
Chokecherries have a long and illustrious history of being a medicinal plant to Native Americans and early settlers, but now they’re used more for jams, syrups and wines. Several chokecherry festivals throughout the country celebrate this versatile fruit.
A delightful surprise on the prairies and woodlands is the wild plum (Prunus americana). This hardy shrub grows to 15 feet in height and is loaded with small, sweet fruit by the end of summer. It’s been a staple for indigenous people and settlers for ages, and it supplemented the diet (along with many other wild fruits, nuts and game) of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Even today, wild plums are a prize. They are only an inch in diameter and can be gold to ruby red. They’re exceptional for jams, jellies, dried snacks and desserts, as well as eating them by the handful. They’re ready once they easily fall from the tree. If you pick them too early, they’re tough and tart. But when they’re ready, it doesn’t take long to pick a bucketful in short order. They ripen mid to late summer.
Once harvested, they’ll last a few days outside of the refrigerator, or longer if kept chilled. Wash them gently so as not to bruise them. You can make jam, pulverize to dehydrate for fruit roll-ups, or use them in a number of delicious desserts.
While there is a wild blackberry native along the West Coast (Rubus ursinus), the most common one in my area is the Armenian blackberry (Rubus armeniacus). The species was promoted by Luther Burbank in 1885 as a “guaranteed grower,” an understatement at best. Armenian blackberries take over ditches and disturbed areas and may well envelop those who stand still for too long.
They’re not a berry for the faint of heart, either. Armenian blackberry bushes are well-armed with heavy thorns, but they produce such huge, luscious berries that it’s worth the effort. Just be sure to wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants to prevent looking like you just tangled with a bobcat instead of having spent time picking berries.
Despite their weedy nature, blackberries are a celebrated fruit of the West Coast. They’re excellent for pies, jams, wines and any berry dessert. Care for them as you do the black raspberries, being careful not to crush them.
Harvesting wild fruits is a sure way to create unique and delicious goodies, as well as plenty of memorable moments.
Amy Grisak is a garden writer who uses her Great Falls, Montana, home as a base when searching out the bountiful fruits found in the woods.
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