Fruits And Vegetables
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Wild berries: How to know they are safe to eat

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Lesley Hebert's image for:
"Wild berries: How to know they are safe to eat"
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Image by: Pietr Kratochvil

Wild berries are naturally organic, packed with healthy nutrients, and free for the picking. However, it is crucial to Identify wild berries carefully before picking them. While many are safe to eat, others can be extremely poisonous, and common sense is not always the best guide. The deadly nightshade or belladonna, for example, looks attractive and tastes sweet, and yet as few as two berries may be deadly to a small child.

A good illustrated guide to wild foods in your area is the best way to identify a berry as safe. North American guides recommended by Mother Earth News include “Edible Wild Plants, A North American Field Guide” by Eilas and Dykeman, “Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants” by Christopher Nyerges for Southern California, and “Food Plants of Interior First Peoples” by Nancy J. Turner for the Pacific Northwest.

The countrylovers website provides an illustrated guide to berries in the U.K. Safe choices include sea buckthorn, wild honeysuckle, bilberry, damson and sloe. Elderberry, mountain ash and guelder rose are also edible but may cause adverse reactions in some people, and are generally considered safe to eat cooked in a dessert or used for jam or wine. Hawthorn is also safe provided only the flesh is used, because the seeds are poisonous.

Mother Earth News provides some wise general advice concerning wild berries. Things to avoid include areas that have been sprayed with herbicide, white berries, all vine fruit except grapes, and all hard, shiny bright red berries. Once you have identified a berry as safe to eat, cautiously taste one to see if it is palatable, since some wild fruit classified as safe may be either quite tasteless or extremely bitter.

Edible fruit common to both Europe and North America includes blackberries, strawberries, rose hips, and black elderberries.

There are many varieties of bramble fruits in North America, including the common blackberry, wild raspberry, and dewberry, a small blackberry found on a low-growing plant which creeps along the ground. Bramble fruits are a challenge to pick because the plants have sharp thorns, but the reward of tackling the brambles will be a generous haul of juicy, delicious fruit which may be safely eaten raw, cooked in desserts, or made into jam or wine.

Wild strawberries are hard to spot as they grow close to the ground, but are instantly recognizable as a miniature version of garden or store-bought strawberries. 

The fruit of the wild rose is the rose hip which is extremely nutritious, and especially high in vitamin C.  Rose hips are a common ingredient in commercial herb tea, and home-made rose hip tea may be used to prevent colds. Hips may also be used to make jam or wine. However, the seeds should be removed before cooking a dessert with rose hips. Although not poisonous, the seeds of some varieties are covered in fine hairs and will cause anal irritation if consumed.

Elderberries grow in large umbrella-like formations on a small tree.  Red elderberries are poisonous, but black elderberries are safe when cooked.  The elder tree first produces large sprays of lacy white flowers which are also edible, and may be used to flavor baked goods, deep fried in batter, or used to make a delicious white elderflower wine.  When used for desserts, elderberries have a distinct, strong flavor which may not be to everybody’s liking.  However, from this writer’s personal experience, they make a delicious and quite potent wine.

Edible fruits native to North America include the blueberry and its cousin the huckleberry, which ranges in color from purple to pinkish red, the cranberry and the wild grape. If you believe you have found wild grapes, be sure to examine the seed.  Grapes should have at least two pip-shaped seeds.  If the fruit contains a single, crescent seed avoid it because you have encountered a poisonous look-alike, the moonseed.

Some wild fruits are found in specific geographic locations.  There are several berries which only grow in Canada and the northern U.S., including a blueberry-like fruit which has various local names, including serviceberry, juneberry or highbush cranberry which is actually not related to the true cranberry, and the nannyberry, a member of the honeysuckle family native to Ontario. Eastern North America is home to paw paws, while the Oregon grape, not a true grape but a shrub with shiny, holly-like leaves, is found in the Pacific Northwest. 

So if you enjoy walking or hiking in the summer and fall, take along a bucket and good guide to wild foods in your area, and see what you can find.

More about this author: Lesley Hebert

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