Wild berries! Nothing's as likely to set a mouth to watering and a body to thinking about pies and jams and jellies and other suck excruciatingly delicious treats. And there's no better time than right now—mid-summer—for gathering nature's fruits from fields and forests, roadsides and city streets, meadows and open slopes. The berries you see here are only a small sampling of the myriad types and varieties that can be found in virtually any corner of North America, and you shouldn't have much trouble locating at least one tasty species within a few miles of your own back door. When you do, try your best to get as many of the bite size morsels past your mouth and into a collecting bucket as you can (a formidable test of will power, to be sure), and remember to return later to the same spot if you see any flowers of fruit yet to come. By carefully observing where and when each variety in your region ripens, you many well be able to "go a-berryin'" from late spring until the first few weeks of fall!
Blackberries are the forager's delight and the eternal bane of botanists, who thus far have only been able to pin down the number of individual species to "somewhere between 50 and 390". True blackberries are borne on thorny upright canes (as opposed to trailing vines) and can be found throughout most of the continent—including even Arctic regions—along roadsides and hedgerows and in abandoned meadows. Rich in vitamins A and C, the fruit—which is preceded by large white flowers in early spring—can usually be harvested from late June to early August and beyond. Pick the berries when they're dead-ripe sweet (one or two days after they've turned black)
The American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) thrives in peaty bogs and similarly semi-marshy areas from Nova Scotia to North Carolina and westward to Minnesota. The coast of Massachusetts and other relatively cool regions near large bodies of water are particularly prime territory for this small shrub, which is easily identified by its thick oval-shaped evergreen leaves and nodding pink or red flowers that blossom between June and August. The tart berries (best when cooked with honey, for sauces and jelly) turn ripe-red during September and October and cling to their branches throughout winter. They're especially good, however, when picked soon after autumn's first frost.
Blueberries (genus: Vaccinium ) are one of the world's most widespread fruits, and occur from the Tropics to northern Alaska. The two most abundant species in the U.S. are the low-bush blueberry (which rarely exceeds a foot in height, and ranges from New England west to Minnesota), and the high-bush variety (which can reach a height of up to six feet, and grows throughout the Atlantic coastal plain from Maine to Georgia and west to Lake Michigan). Both ripen between July and September, and thrive in areas of acid soil . . . particularly burned-over fields and old pastures. Other, less common types can be found from the mountains of the West Coast to the swamps of New Jersey.
The wild red raspberry (Rubus strigosus) is found in dry or rocky areas from Newfoundland to British Columbia, and south in the Alleghenies to North Carolina and in the Rockies to New Mexico, The tangy, widely favored fruit is borne on canes that grow from two to five feet tall and are covered with many weak, bristly spines. Look for the promising three- or five-petaled white flowers between May and July, and make a mental note to bring a bucket back with you several weeks later (mid-July to September) when the canes will be laden with plump, ripe-for-the-picking berries. You'll have to add commercial pectin to the fruit if you intend to put it up as jam or jelly.
Although roughly half a dozen species of wild strawberries (genus: Fragaria ) grow in this part of the world (ranging from the Arctic Circle to Florida and west to California), the fruit is found in greatest abundance in the Northeast and eastern Canada. Plants sort three coarsely toothed leaves, produce small five-petaled white flowers in the spring, and bear fruit (which is most often red, but sometimes white) between May and July. Look for this most-sought-after forager's prize in open woods and clearings, on exposed slopes, and along roadsides, streambeds, and railroads. Harvest 'em soon after sunrise, when they're still glistening with the early morning mist.
If you pop an especially dark "blueberry" in your mouth and promptly bite down on ten stone-hard seeds, you can be sure that what you really have is a huckleberry. This fruit's unfortunate preponderance of pits, however, is but a small obstacle—overcome by straining the pulp through a sieve—to folks who've come to savor its unique and somewhat spicy flavor. Most species of huckleberries (genus: Gaylussacia ) are, small shrubs that favor acid soil, grow from a foot to three feet tall, and range throughout most of the eastern, southern, and northwestern states. Look for the almost-blackskinned fruit from June to September in oak woods, logs, sandy or rocky areas, and clearings.
Gooseberries are relatively common in moist woods throughout Canada and across the northern border states of this country, sometimes occurring as far south as Colorado (in the West) and New Jersey (in the East). Mountainous regions from Massachusetts to North Carolina may also be the home of this tart round fruit. Gooseberries, which are ripe when reddish-purple, are most often picked while still green and flavored with honey or some other sweetener in pies, jellies, and sauces. The shrub-like plant (genus: Ribes) stands from two to four feet tall, displays greenish or purplish flowers in May and June, and produces bounty for the resourceful forager during July and August.
If you never ended a day as a child gloriously stuffed full of and stained head to toe with—red mulberries ( Morus rubra ), you might consider trying it now. Nobody ever has or ever will "go 'round the mulberry bush" because the plant is actually a tree, and can be found in fields and along roadsides (and even city streets) throughout the eastern U.S. to as far west as the Great Plains. The fruit ripens during July, when the elongated berries turn deep purple and can easily be shaken from their branches onto a blanket spread over the ground below. You can dehydrate mulberries for winter storage by stringing them up and drying them as you would green-bean "leather britches".
For practical purposes most foragers simply distinguish dewberries from blackberries (both of which belong to the genus Rubus) as "the ones that grow on trailing vines rather than on canes". The general consensus is that dewberries are the choicest of blackberry-like fruits . . . they're bigger, fatter, juicier, and tastier. Look for the telltale white flowers of this ground-hugging plant—which favors dry soil, and ranges throughout the eastern U.S. to as far west as Oklahoma—in the spring, and be prepared to harvest its bounty beginning in mid-June, or about two weeks earlier than the "ordinary" blackberries in your area are ready for picking.
All species of wild currants—which ripen during July and August—belong to the genus Ribes and grow on small shrubs that sport maple-leaf-shaped foliage and favor cold, wet woods. Most varieties of the fruit are smooth, but a few are covered with short "bristles", and nearly all exude a slightly disagreeable odor resembling that of skunk cabbage. Red currants range throughout southern Canada, along the Rockies to Colorado and the Alleghenies to North Carolina, and in parts of New Jersey, Indiana, and Minnesota. Black currants—which are relatively rare—can sometimes be found in moist forests from Nova Scotia to Virginia and west to Kentucky, Iowa, and Nebraska.
The sweet or common elder (Sambucus canadensis) is a four-to-twelve-foot-high shrub that grows along roadsides and in open fields and woods throughout the eastern half of the U.S. and Canada. In July, the plant produces abundant clusters of tiny white flowers—themselves a delicious treat when fried in batter like fritters—that fill the air with a heady perfume and (by early August) give way to equally numerous bunches of berries. When green, the fruit can be pickled and used to flavor sauces as a substitute for capers. Most foragers, however, wait until September . . . when the berries have ripened to a sweet deep purple and virtually beg to be picked by the handful.
The wild black raspberry (Rubus occidentalis, sometimes known locally as "thimbleberry") is more widespread than its red-colored cousin, and a bit more hazardous too . . . the canes' strong sharp thorns have left many a berry picker scratched from the ankles up. You're most likely to find this outrageously tasty species along roadsides and fence rows and in neglected fields from Quebec to Ontario and south to Georgia and Missouri. The plant seems to have a special liking for old tree trunks and rocky places, so keep an eye out for such spots when you're looking. Black raspberries ripen during July and early August . . . harvest 'em when they're plump and heavy with juice.