Guest Post by Helen Yoest
As a curious gardener and a naturalist, I have always been intrigued by flashy berries hanging from the branches of trees and shrubs.
There was a field next to our house where I grew up, and behind the field on one side of my elementary school was a small tributary. Along the water’s edge were Aronia melanocarpa. I knew them as black chokeberries. On crisp fall days as I walked to school, I’d check the plants for ripe fruit.
It was in this grove of aronia that I first met my soon-to-be childhood best friend, Sharon. She was walking to school too and doing the same thing as I, tasting the ripened berries. In hindsight, eating an berry from a small tree wasn’t the smartest thing a nine-year-old could do. I never got sick, but I had no idea if the berries were edible. Honestly, it never occurred to me to question it. That fall of my 9th year could have been fatal.
I remember the chokeberries being somewhat tasty and a bit astringent, and I learned to spit seeds to great distances. More hindsight tells me that the grove was an exceptionally sweet patch of chokeberries. The flavor of most edible berries in the wild will vary from plant to plant. But all the chokeberries will sugar up nicely for a jam.
Fast forward a few decades, and I’m still eating wild berries, but I do it with more knowledge. It wasn’t until I was hiking in the Rockies that I lost all confidence on foraging berries. I came across chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) full of fresh fruit. All of a sudden, I didn’t trust my knowledge. I know this shrub. I grow it. I eat it and make jelly from it. But at six-thousand feet, so many zones removed from home, I didn’t feel confident enough to take a chance.
It was then I decided to really get to know my berries. And what I found was that loss of confidence was common amongst day hikers, greenway walkers, and cycling foragers. We teach our kids never to put anything from the outside in our mouths. (I never got my Mom’s memo or if I did, I ignored it.)
Indeed this is good solid better-be-safe-than-sorry advice. I’m not a botanist. I’m not a horticulturist. I’m a gardener, albeit an extreme edible wildlife habitat gardener. In many ways, the advice has gone too far.
Take the native common, but oh so delicious, blackberry. I included this common berry in the book because I found that most people I talked with were unsure they are edible. They had confidence buying them from the store or even growing them in their own gardens, but never realized the ones in the wild were the same. Of course there has been development to make the blackberries more homeowner-friendly, like the thornless variety, but still the berry is the same. At home, I don’t grow blackberries, because I know enough wild areas in Raleigh to keep me in supply.
I use my mere half acre for berries that I can’t find #foraging or are very expensive to buy. As such, I have a big raspberry patch, figs, and cherries. I also grow Serviceberry blueberries, lingonberries, rose hips, and mayapples. The list is long.
During the research for the book I found several surprises, including learning that beautyberries (Callicarpa americana) were edible. Who knew?The berries of my childhood were my springboard for learning about berries and foraging wherever I go. Learning about cultivated plants with edible fruit has become even more interesting to me. This started a new journey and ignited some big and delightful surprises. I take great joy in advising people to, say plant a serviceberry, also known as shadbush, shad blow, or Juneberry (Amelanchier) instead of just another crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia.)
Here’s a tip. It’s easier to spot a serviceberry foraging in the spring than once it’s in berry and other trees leaf out. Forage early, find the trees in flower, and mark your spot. Oh, and don’t tell anyone. Can’t be too careful when it comes to free delectable fruit.