Delicious, Mouthwatering Berries: Your Guide to Goodness

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ILLUSTRATIONS: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Thanksgiving wouldn't be the same without the cranberry's tart goodness.

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

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)

Cranberries

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

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.

Raspberries

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.

Strawberries

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.

Huckleberries

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

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.

Mulberries

If you never ended a day as a child gloriously stuffed full
of and stained head to toe with–red mulberries (
Morusrubra), 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”.

Dewberries

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.

Currants

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.

Elderberries

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.

Black Raspberries

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.