Most of us grew up being taught that it was dangerous to forage and eat things from the wild. In particular, mushrooms and berries were singled out as being the most hazardous options out there. Then, oddly, when a person starts foraging, it’s often wild berries and wild mushrooms that provide the most sustenance and excitement.
The truth is that our parents weren’t completely wrong to give us a healthy fear of wild foods. There are many mushrooms and berries that can make us very ill, even some that can send us to the sweet bye and bye. Odds are, for the majority of us, our parents had little clue which berries would delight us and which would good-night us, so it made sense to steer clear of them all.
However, foraging the right berries (We are sticking to berries in this article, check out some mushroom tips here) is relatively easy. In some circumstances, it can provide pounds of free food and offer a great pastime for those of us who enjoy being out in nature. Here’s how to forage wild berries safely.
Know What You Are Looking For and Where
The first step to knowing what to look for is becoming a little more familiar with the immediate climatic region. There will be certain wild berries that are common to the area, so it pays to know what they are and when they’ll be available. It’s not a terrible idea to buy a foraging guide for whatever region you are in.
That said, there are some common berries that are found in abundance in nature. Blackberries are a common find in old pastures, along forest edges, and in sunny patches. Raspberries can be found in similar locations. Blueberries prefer drier, more acidic places with sandier soil, particularly on sunny and rocky areas. Strawberries like to grow near streams or near the edges of forests.
In other words, it’s entirely possible to forage for the most recognizable of berries.
Know What Your Aren’t Looking For
As important as knowing what you are looking for is being able to recognize poisonous berries that are common. Virginia creeper has leaves with five fingers and poisonous dark blue berries. Pokeweed has blue berries that look tasty but are deadly. Bittersweet is a beautiful, invasive vine that has toxic berries in orangish-yellow casings. Berries on ivy or yew should be avoided, and mistletoe and holly also produce noxious berries.
Inexperienced foragers should stay away from white, yellow, and green berries as, more often than not, these are toxic (Note: Immature blackberries and raspberries are green.) Red berries are about a fifty-fifty shot, with clusters being more questionable than single berries. By and large, aggregate berries, like blackberries and raspberries, are safe, with a few easily recognizable exceptions. Some other things to watch out for are plants with spines (Note: Thorns are okay, but spines are a bad sign.) Plants with bitter smells are sending out a warning, as are plants with milky sap.
Some General Safety Rules
All that said, we shouldn’t simply give up on foraging berries. Rather than completely abstaining from berry picking, there are a few easy rules to follow to stay out of trouble:
- Don’t eat what you don’t know. Foraging is not about going out and trying any tasty-looking plant. It’s about finding wild foods that we already know are delicious. In other words, become familiar with what you are planning to eat.
- Verify the plants you are going to eat from. Use identifying measures from a field guide to match leaves, stems, and berries before eating. Hiring a professional is a good way to get a head start with foraging.
- Taste before gorging. With anything foraged, it’s good to only sample to begin with so as to make sure there aren’t any bad reactions, either due to toxicity or allergy.
- Avoid areas that may have been sprayed with chemicals or could possibly have contaminated earth. And, though busy roadsides often have wild edible berries growing alongside them, this is a bad idea, too.
- Depending where this foraging is taking place, being aware of bears is a good safety tip as well. They are really into berries and do a bit of their own foraging, and they don’t like to share.
- While wild animals are the topic, it’s also important to realize that just because a wild animal eats something safely does not mean a human can. We have different digestive capabilities. Additionally, be sure to leave some berries for the wild animals when you do find a patch to forage from.
Berries: Go for It!
The fact of the matter is that we don’t have to be supreme survivalists or amazing wilderness experts to forage berries. Just from what we’ve bought at the supermarket, we are already familiar with cultivated versions of edible varieties. Blackberries (mulberries, dewberries, and boysenberries) and raspberries (red mulberries and thimbleberries) have a few lookalikes, but they too are edible. Blueberries are much the same, with toxic tutsan berries being a difficult to mistake lookalike. Strawberries can be mistaken for false strawberries, a weed commonly found in lawns, and its fruits are edible but tasteless.
In other words, foraging berries is completely doable and safe. It’s just a matter of eating what’s familiar and not sampling what isn’t. That said, it’s always a good idea to consult with a guidebook or professional when getting started. Anything less than a 100 percent identification is not good enough.
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