Foraging for Nature’s Freebies

—by Meredith Sommers, HPC Member

You are out on a bicycle trail. You’re feeling a bit hungry, and then you notice: all around you are bushes glistening with dark purple berries. You hop off your bike and pick a few. Should you or shouldn’t you? Are they edible, you wonder? How do they taste? Will I die if I try them?

You remember being encouraged to try wild berries from Euell Gibbons’ books on native foods (did he succumb to ingesting a poisonous lookalike?). You recall a lesson from scouting eons ago about testing a small piece by putting it under your tongue, and if your mouth doesn’t become numb or have an adverse reaction after a couple of minutes, it’s probably okay, so swallow it. Then try another, and save a few for further identification from a guidebook, or for the coroner.

Kidding aside, foraging for wild food is one of the delights of summer and fall in Minnesota. These gifts are there for the picking. A few years ago, during a September in which there was abundant rainfall, my husband and I went hiking and mushroom hunting in Pillsbury state forest, near Pillager. We were unprepared for the bounty we would discover. Blackberries, blueberries, rose hips, grapes, and plums presented themselves to us, and to the birds and deer who also are nourished by them. First we filled our tummies, then our hats. Then we took off our outer shirts, knotted the sleeves and filled them. This was in addition to the basket of oyster and honey mushrooms we had collected. The next day was spent preserving the fruit. The blueberries were washed and frozen, the blackberries, grapes, and plums became jam, and the rose hips were turned into lovely syrup.

Foraging for wild food is one of the best ways to eat locally. You provide the transportation via bicycle or foot. In addition to your exercise, you get free food fresh from the plant, and free from pesticides and herbicides, unless it is on manicured, weed-free land. Air-born pollution can be washed off. All you need is a pail for collecting, and some knowledge for the hunt.

For first timers, there are classes in foraging. Finding an experienced forager to take me on a foray is my preferred way to learn. Some of the regional parks offer hikes that include plant identification. There are guidebooks with photos and descriptions, and the all-important inclusion of “poisonous look-alikes.” If I am not certain of an identification, and there is a poisonous look-alike, I avoid even testing it, unless I can show it to a knowledgeable person for identification.

Pointers for Fruit Foragers:

  • Blue and black berries are safe 90% of the time. This includes chokecherries, pin cherries, juneberries, elderberries, and grapes. One exception that grows in abundance in this area is the berries of the deadly nightshade plant.
  • Bumpy berries, called aggregate berries, are almost always safe. These include strawberries, mulberries, raspberries, and blackberries.
  • White and yellow berries are poisonous 90% of the time.
  • Red fruit clusters of the sumac plant are delicious for beverage and syrup. Avoid white-fruited sumac, however.
  • Red berries that are safe and delicious are highbush cranberry and rose hips.
  • Wild plums, apples, and crabapples are waiting for you and the birds. Go for it!

For further information

  • Wild Food! Web site with photos, identifying information, recipes, and more.
  • Edible Wild Plants: A North American Field Guide; Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. NY, 1990; 280 pp. Organized by season with color photos, recipes, maps, and poisonous look-alikes.
  • For Soul and Kitchen: Wild Food Cookbook by Alma Christensen, Lady of the Woods; General Publishing and Binding, Inc., Iowa Falls, IA, 1993; 192 pp. A directory to all types of local wild foods, plus a chart indicating when, where, and how to forage, and 250 recipes. Not intended to be a field guide