Wild berries are an elusive fruit. They appear for a short period during summer and fall, and then seem to disappear just as quickly. Their period of perfect ripeness moves quickly to a state of over-ripeness, giving foragers just a few summer weeks to take their harvest. In addition to the short overall window for harvest, you’ll also be locked in constant competition with bugs and birds for the ripest, choicest specimens.
When I go berry picking I find myself eating lots of them as I gather, though I suppose washing them before one eats them is a more ideal option. Once harvested, you have a delightful candy to turn into pies, jams, jellies, wines, pancakes, breads, fruit leathers, and more.
As a general rule, berries tend to go bad very quickly. I’m not sure what tricks they pull on the store-bought varieties to prevent massive waste, but fresh wild berries are vastly richer nutritionally and in flavor, making store-bought berries feel like cheap, bland imitations – like a menu item from Olive Garden compared the same dish at an old school New York Italian restaurant.
The point is, once you start enjoying wild berries, you may become too spoiled to ever mess with commercial varieties again! You also have to use them quickly, as you don’t have much time before they degrade and mold.
Before we dive in, bear with me for a couple of notes on berry foraging safety. The “poison berry” is an iconic concept in American culture, and indeed, some berries out there are highly toxic. For this list, I selected only from what I think are easy-to-identify varieties. Thankfully, there are many delicious types that are hard to mix up with anything poisonous!
However, I have heard people repeat a myth that “if you see birds or deer eat it, then it’s edible for humans as well.” This sounds reasonably intuitive on the surface, but is actually completely false! Birds can eat some types of berries that are highly toxic to humans with no problems, so don’t fall for this dangerous survival “tip.”
With that out of the way, here are ten of my personal favorites.
- 1 1. Raspberry (Rubus strigosus, etc.)
- 2 2. Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
- 3 3. Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa, etc.)
- 4 4. Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)
- 5 5. Mulberry (Morus nigra)
- 6 6. Blackberry (Rubus ursinus, etc.)
- 7 7. Rose Hips (Rosa rubiginosa, etc.)
- 8 8. Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis, nigra, etc.)
- 9 9. American Persimmons (Diospyros virginiana)
- 10 10. Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)
- 11 Poisonous Impostor: Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)
- 12 Final Thoughts
1. Raspberry (Rubus strigosus, etc.)
During the summertime, raspberry bushes grow absolutely everywhere in the town where I grew up. Roadsides burst forth every summer with the sharp-prickled bushes, peppering the edges of streets and yards with little red dots that, upon further inspection, are tart and sweet berries that burst forth in the thousands.
The ripest raspberries are a deep red color, and as sweet as candy. Less than perfectly-ripe specimens are more sour but still enjoyable. Look for gangly raspberry bushes along disturbed lots and roadsides, in dry soil. Raspberry leaves are opposite, and grow in groups of three on the tips of the stems.
There’s also such a thing as a black raspberry, which can be hard to distinguished from a blackberry at first sight. However, for a simple test, see if the berry is hollow, or if it’s formed around a central white core. All types of raspberries are basically hollow, whereas blackberries have the white core. To see which you have, just break a berry open.
2. Blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum)
A favorite of New Englanders, blueberries grow on a thin-branched shrub with glossy leaves and bell shaped, usually white to light pink flowers that bloom in groups of five to ten. The plants prefer acidic soil.
Blueberry leaves are sometimes red, especially during autumn. They are small and oval to lance-shaped. If you aren’t sure if you have a blueberry or a similar-looking (but also edible) huckleberry, check for the distinctive five-pointed star shape on the underside of each berry.
The berries that fall off the plant readily are the ripe ones. Unripe berries may be green or red. Once they turn blue, it’s still a few days before they’re at full ripeness.
3. Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa, etc.)
These delightful little pea-sized berries are great for juicing.
Some are turned off by chokeberries because they try a few and find them dry and tasteless, but find the right plant, and pick them at peak ripeness, and the berries will be a uniquely-flavored treat that blends very well with other berries in addition to being ideal for juicing.
Chokeberry is a shrub, and berries can be black, red, or purple, depending on subtype. Berries grow on the ends of long stalks. They enjoy moist, sandy soils, often growing near swamps. The plant produces a white flower with five petals. Leaves are oval-shaped, with very finely toothed edges.
4. Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)
Not to be confused with chokeberry, listed above, chokecherry looks very much like a wild cherry—but many foragers some find chokecherry to be even more delicious. Chokecherry is a small tree that blooms hanging clusters of small, white-petaled flowers with yellow centers.
Leaves are very finely toothed, alternating, and somewhat oval-shaped. The plant tends to appear in clusters and enjoys damp areas, so a good place to look for it is along streams and creeks.
The unripe berries are red, but ripen into a deep purple to almost black color. Like the flowers, the berries hang in clumps. Harvest in late summer into autumn, when they have turned dark and sweet. Cooking them seems to sweeten them further.
5. Mulberry (Morus nigra)
Much to the chagrin of many homeowners and urban public works departments, mulberry trees shed their ripened blue-purple berries in droves, leaving piles of berries that get crushed by passers-by on sidewalks and driveways, stick to your shoes, and track purplish juice into homes and businesses. Of course, foragers are delighted at this yearly ritual, as it means we can scoop up the bounty for ourselves before it’s cleaned up.
The berries look somewhat like blackberries and have a strong, almost soapy flavor (sounds odd but I really enjoy it), and I’ve heard they make an excellent wine, though all I’ve ever done with them is munch them down like jujubes.
You’ll know when I’ve been rustling around in a mulberry tree when you see me in the summertime with my hands covered in purple juice, like a child fresh off a finger painting session.
There is an invasive Asian mulberry tree that has found its way into the United States, sporting a white berry rather than a dark purple one. Both are edible and look similar other than berry color.
Mulberry trees are medium-sized, rarely getting much taller than fifty feet. The leaves can vary quite a bit, but are alternate and have toothed or scalloped edges, usually with a distinctive point. The bark on the trunk usually has deep fissures or crevices.
6. Blackberry (Rubus ursinus, etc.)
Also known as bramblefruit, blackberries look very similar to black raspberries. To complicate things a bit, blackberries can also be yellow or red rather than black when ripe, but are distinguished from raspberries in other ways.
For example, blackberries have a more elongated shape than raspberries do. Also ,as mentioned in the raspberry section, blackberries have a core, whereas raspberry stems go into the berry itself, which is more or less hollow in the center.
Blackberry leaves are known to have been used by native tribes to treat indigestion. The fruit is sweet and delicious. Just watch out for those prickly bushes!
7. Rose Hips (Rosa rubiginosa, etc.)
Rose hips are the red berries of the rose plant, which is quite common in the United States. They make a great tea or syrup, and despite there being an array of rose varieties, the berries are easy to identify if you know what a rose bush looks like.
Characterized by arching, spiny stems, rose bushes bloom classic-looking flowers in shades of red, pink, and white. Rose hips appear during summer and fall, depending on region and variety, and were foraged widely during WWII, as the government rewarded foragers for helping ease some of the shortages of food caused by the war.
Before using them, remove the stems and the tips of the blossoms. Then remove the seeds by cutting each berry in half, as the seeds are slightly irritating and not good to eat. The easiest way to start using rose hips is by tossing them into a tea, but you can also use them to make everything from a rejuvenating rose hip spray to delicious rose hip wine from these little suckers.
8. Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis, nigra, etc.)
Elderberries are prized for their immune-boosting properties. Studies found that some forms of elderberry, such as concentrated elderberry syrup, can be as effective as Tamiflu in battling the dreaded influenza virus. This is a unique addition to the list, because elderberry plants are mostly toxic. Even the berries are toxic until they have fully ripened. Either way, cooking the berries assures these compounds are destroyed.
This makes elderberry slightly more complicated to forage than other berries, but it has so much potential value as a survival tool for fighting and preventing illness, I would have been remiss not to include it. For those who are certain on their identification, elderberry is also a popular fruit for jams and preserves. Plants grow tall, up to 14 feet or so, and prefer areas with lots of sunlight and relatively damp soil.
Round clumps of small, slightly waxy and purple berries hang between thin branches with oval to lance-shaped, oppositely-arranged and serrated leaves. The tiny flowers bloom in white clusters, with a similar appearance to wild carrot and poison hemlock, before unripe berries appear.
Stems and other parts of the plant are definitely toxic, so be careful not to let chunks get into your syrup, wine, or other elderberry-based creation. Some trace bits won’t harm you, but remove as much as you can. All that said, elderberry really is no harder to identify than any other plant, and the same care should be taken regardless. It just includes some special considerations.
9. American Persimmons (Diospyros virginiana)
Persimmons fruit grows on trees up to sixty feet or taller, and are characterized by the craggy, chunky, scale-like gray bark on their trunks. Leaves are glossy, large (up to eight inches or so) and teardrop shaped. The fruits look like something between a plum and a tomato, depending on the type and region. Fruits ripen in late fall, and unripe fruits are astringent and sour.
Ripe ones, however, give a blast of sweetness with every delightful bite. The choicest fruits will be very soft and may be somewhat wrinkled. They should either already on the ground, or fall off the tree very easily. Discard the seeds and enjoy the delicious pulp.
The skin is edible as well, and probably a good source of fiber, though some uses will require that you discard it. I have read that the pulp also freezes extremely well!
10. Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana)
Most berries on this list grow on shrubs or trees, but wild strawberry is a creeper. It is good at keeping quiet and hidden, spreading close to the ground as fruits emerge to dangle from the low-lying vines. This makes wild strawberry patches easy to miss. But once you’ve tasted the sweet burst of flavor from a wild strawberry, your eyes will be fixed on the ground, looking for them everywhere you go.
Wild strawberries look similar to commercial ones, but are smaller. They have white, five-petaled flowers. Strawberry leaves are toothed, and appear in threes.
The only real lookalike is the pesky false strawberry, which is very similar-looking and also edible, but completely tasteless and dry. False strawberries have yellow flowers, and seeds rub off easily.
They also tend to point up instead of dangling at the vine tips. As a side note, the leaves of both wild strawberry and the impostor variety make a great ingredient for medicinal teas or salves.
Poisonous Impostor: Pokeweed (Phytolacca americana)
While the similarities are quite superficial once you know the plants reasonably well, make sure not to confuse any of the edible berried with pokeweed. Pokeweed berries are deep purple to black when ripe, and hang in long clumps on reddish stalks.
This is opposed to growing round clumps, as is the case with elderberry. All parts of the pokeweed plant are poisonous. Reportedly, you can get skin irritation merely by handling the roots, which have the highest concentration of toxins.
The very young leaves and shoots of pokeweed are actually a popular wild edible, as boiling them in several changes of water removes the harmful chemicals and leaves you with a delicious, spinach-like green. Called “poke sallet,” it is a favorite of many a southern granny, but many foragers avoid it due to the processing required to remove the toxins, and the risk of poisoning from improper cooking.
Pokeweed has long, lance-like leaves, and a smooth stalk that often has reddish streaks in it. Once you learn to identify it at various growth stages you’ll start to notice it everywhere, and will never mistake it for any other plant.
Wild berries are a great way to keep yourself and your family fortified with vitamins, and can be dried to preserve them all year long.
With many berry-bearing plants offering medicinal benefits as well, berries are a stellar way to round out your foraging and survival knowledge with something sweet and delicious that is sure to be a delight to eat. As much as I love wild bitter greens and similar foraged goodies, berries are always an extra-special wholesome and delicious treat.
Author Bio: Eric is a nature-loving writer, experience junkie, and former Boy Scout who never forgot that time-honored Scout Motto: Be prepared. Aside from camping and survival, he loves writing about travel, history, and anything he finds strange and unique!
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