Exotic Wild Berries and Fruits

Category Archives:Epicurian

Exotic Wild Berries and Fruits


For some, wild berry picking is a means to supplement their income. It is tradition and culture for many. For others it is a summer ritual or a just pleasant way to spend the afternoon in the great outdoors. Whatever the reason, harvesting some of the natural bounty of wild foods is a pastime that is healthful on many levels: it reconnects you with origins of our food, gives you an opportunity for outdoor activity and exercise, and the fruits of your labour are packed with good-for-you nutrients and phyto-chemicals.

There is sufficient variety in the wild berries and fruits of North America to fill 100 posts on the topic, so rather than itemizing the common berries of summer (Saskatoons, huckleberries/wild blueberries, black berries, and others) I would like to share some of the more exotic berries and wild fruits I enjoy in the wild west. These can be more difficult to find, and you many not garner more than few pints for your day’s efforts, but quality and novelty more than makes up for the lack of quantity.

Berries and fruit, as with any wild treasure, should only be gathered if it is legal and safe to do so. I would encourage you to live by these wild harvest rules:

  1. Know what you are picking. Always make sure you are certain of the species you are picking and eating;
  2. Know where you are picking. Don’t trespass and make sure you know the site history (i.e. don’t pick on contaminated-polluted soil or in an area that has been recently treated with pesticides);
  3. Come prepared. Bring a map of the area, compass/GPS, bear spray, food, water, sturdy footwear and layered clothing. Be bear (and other predator) aware and let someone know where you are going and when you expect to be back; and,
  4. Only harvest what you need, and never take all the fruits from a given patch or bush – it is bad karma to do so; leave some for the wild creatures that depend on them for food and so new plants will establish.
  5. If you pack it in, pack it out. Do not leave your trash in the woods.

With those good words to live by, here are few of my favourite exotic wild fruits for those want to take a walk on the wild side:

Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) – A delicate cousin to the raspberry and blackberry (none of which are technically berries, but rather they are aggregate fruits, but I’ll stow the botanical jargon for another post). This low growing shrub has large light-green leaves that somewhat resemble maple leaves, with five pointed lobes, and toothed edges. The large five-petaled, white flowers grow in clusters at the ends of the stems, and the green to light pink fruit ripens into a deep red. Eating a ripe thimbleberry has always been a summer treat for me. You likely will never see this berry in a market, nor be able to gather these fruits in great quantity to take home – their flesh is so tender and watery that even their own weight will render them into a mushy paste once picked and stacked into a bucket. I prefer to enjoy them as a wild snack on the go.

thimbleberry

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Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa) – These berries grow on large shrubs, sometimes growing into small trees, approximately 5-m tall. The large, compound leaves are each composed of 5 to 9 pointed leaflets. The flowers are small and creamy-white, and form in small, pyramid-shaped clusters, giving rise to numerous small fruits, which are bright red when mature. Red elderberries are found on moist ground in clearings and under partial shade from open forests. They are delicious fresh or processed into juice and jelly. They cure well in the sun and can be dried for later use.

red elderberry

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Pin Cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) – not be confused with its botanical relations, the chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), pin cherries form on small trees, from 1- to 5-m tall. The bark is smooth and grey in colour. Its leaves are elliptical, and sharply pointed, and finely toothed around the edges. White flowers, formed in small clusters, give rise to small cherries (0.5 to 1.0 cm diameter), slightly elongated, and ranging in colour from bright-red to almost black. The flesh of pin cherries is very tart and encases a large stone. The astringent tartness of this fruit is very much an acquired taste. Many people prefer to boil the fruit in order to extract juice, which makes for a fantastic flavouring or base to make jelly or syrup.

pin cherry

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Highbush Cranberry (Virburnum edule) – borne on small to mid-sized shrubs (approx. 0.5 to 2-m tall) with smooth red-coloured bark. Leaves form in opposite pairs along the stems with three shallow lobes at their tips. Flowers form in small, round clusters and develop into shiny red-orange berries, with a large flat seed in each berry. Highbush cranberries are quite acidic, though the taste can be tempered by autumn frost.

highbush cranberry

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Honey Berry (False Solomon’s Seal, Smilacina racemosa aka Maianthemum racemosum). These exotic berries grown on a tall perennial plant with broad elliptical leaves alternating along arching stems. Clusters of small white to cream-coloured flowers form at the ends of the stems and develop into small, somewhat seedy berries. Immature berries are mottled green and brown, turning red when ripe. These berries are a favourite of the bears, and it is sometimes difficult to find ripe berries in bear country. The ripe berries are extremely sweet and delicious, but when unripened they are inedible save for those with the strongest of stomachs.

honey berry

More Edible Invasives – Vegetable Greens at Your Backdoor


Spring has sprung,
The grass has ris’,
I wonder where my backyard produce is.

Although the grass has not yet sprung forth in the corner of Great White North where I reside, it soon will be on the way. Spring is an excellent time to reacquaint yourself with the wonders of nature. And foraging for salad and cooking greens is not only a rite of spring, it also spices up one’s diet.

In a previous article (Edible Invasives – Eat Your Garden and Lawn Weeds) I covered dandelions, wild mustard, chickweed, lamb’s quarters, purslane and red clover. And by popular demand, I’ve assembled four more backyard ‘weeds’ that are also exotic epicurian edibles, guaranteed to add diversity to your diet, save you a few dollars on groceries and put you a few steps forward on a zero-mile diet. Many of these edible invasives are best consumed early in the growing season, as they can become bitter with age, making spring the best time to harvest.

First, in the interest of safety, let me reiterate my previous warnings on foraging for edible weeds:

  1. Not every weed is edible, and indeed, some are poisonous. Proper identification of prospective food plants is essential. If you have any reservations as to the identity, play it safe and don’t eat it.
  2. Always wash your greens before eating them and don’t pick any that have been directly or indirectly subjected to pesticides.
  3. Don’t eat plants from public boulevards, parks, playing fields, ditches, or any other area where you don’t know with certainty that they are free of unseen contamination.

With this in mind, why not try some of these edible invasives:

Stinging Nettle, Urtica dioica
The name doesn’t suggest a great food option, but stinging nettles, when handled and prepared properly, offer great spring fare. Stinging nettle is a perennial herb, growing up to 1-m tall from yellow-coloured rhizomes and stolons (underground stems). The strongly-toothed leaves, range from 3- to 15-cm long and are borne in alternating, opposite pairs on erect green stems. This nettle bears numerous small green to brownish flowers in dense bundles. The leaves and stems are very hairy with both non-stinging and stinging hairs. The nettles contain chemicals that can sting and irritate. Wear gloves and long-clothing to prevent skin contact during harvest and handling. Nettle leaves are delicious cooking greens and are rich in vitamin K. Gather young leaves before plants reach 30-cm tall. When mature, nettle becomes increasingly tough and inedible. Cooking destroys the stinging properties of the nettles. Try using nettle as a replacement for spinach in spinach soup recipes.

Stinging Nettle

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Common Plantain, Plantago major
This common lawn and roadside plant sends up groups oval, dark green leaves, 10-cm long, from short, tough rootstock. The leaves are thick, strong and fibrous when mature, with 3 to 7 or more ribbed veins extending from a long reddish leaf stalk (aka the petiole). Harvest young leaves early in spring before they thicken and become stringy. Leaves can be eaten raw in salads or boiled, blanched, steamed or sauteed.

Plantain

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Sheperd’s Purse, Capsella bursa-pastoris
This garden and pasture weed looks somewhat like wild mustard, and has the same sharp, peppery taste. The lobed-leaves grow in a basal rosette. Stems emerge from this base and grow between 20 and 50 cm tall, and bear a few pointed leaves which clasp around the stem. Small, white flowers produce distinctive heart-shaped seed pods. Only use early spring growth – these plants become increasingly bitter-tasting with age. Sheperd’s purse is a popular cooking herb in China, Korea and Japan. Try it sliced and stir-fried with a mix of other vegetables and mushrooms.

Sheperd's Purse

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Common Meadow Violet, Viola sororia
These tiny 4 to 10 cm tall, perennial plants appear stemless, because leaf stalks emerge from below ground level. The heart-shaped leaves are hairless and have rounded teeth along the margins. Purple or occasionally white flowers form on leaf-less stalks. More common in eastern North America, these free seeding plants are one of the earliest spring flowers in many areas. Both the flowers and leaves are edible and can be used when young in salads or as garnish. Candied violet flowers can be made by preserving newly opened blooms with a coating of egg white and crystallized sugar.

Violet

Edible Invasives – Eat Your Garden and Lawn Weeds


Are you distracted by dandelions? Perturbed by purslane? Stressed by sorrels? Don’t spray and pray your garden and lawn weeds away. Pull out your fork and enjoy the bounty of exotic edible greens at your doorstep.

Many of the common weed species that have infiltrated North America are introduced plants from Eurasia. Some of these ‘weeds’ have long been sought out as tasty, nutritious additions to summer fare in both the old country and new. They can add welcome variety to ordinary salads, or as steamed or stir-fried greens, and are often packed with nutrients and healthful phytochemicals.

What follows is a brief introduction to some common, and easy to identify, edible lawn and garden invaders that I’ve eaten.

Before diving into the details though, I feel compelled to warn the casual back-yard forager that not every weed you will encounter is edible, and indeed, some are poisonous. Proper identification of prospective food plants is essential. If you have any reservations as to the identity, play it safe and don’t eat it. Always wash your greens before eating them and don’t pick any that have been directly or indirectly subjected to pesticides. And don’t eat plants from public boulevards or out of ditches, as you can never know with certainty if they are free of unseen contamination.

On to the greens…

Dandelion, Taraxacum officinale
This ubiquitous, perennial lawn weed, springs forth a circle of elongated and irregularly-toothed, dark-green leaves from a deep, carrot-like taproot. Bright yellow flower heads are borne on ends of long, smooth, hollow stalks that arise from the middle of this rosette of leaves. When mature, the flowers are replaced by seeds tipped with a tuft of white hairs allowing them to parachute through the air. Both the young leaves and flower buds of dandelion are great in salads or on sandwiches or lightly steamed like spinach.

Dandelion

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Wild Mustard, Sinapis arvensis
This annual weed of gardens, fields and pastures grows from 30- to 100-cm tall and is identifiable by the clusters of bright yellow flowers with four petals arranged in a cross pattern. The young leaves have a slightly rough texture, and sometimes with coarsely toothed and indented edges. The undersurface of the leaves have small hairs along the leaf veins, with slightly longer, stiff hairs near base of the stem. If crushed the leaves emit a familiar ‘mustardy’ smell. Harvest only the early-growth leaves. They have a sharp, peppery taste and are good raw for spicing up a mixed vegetable salad. As a cooked green, wild mustard pairs nicely with bolder-flavoured meats. I enjoy mustard greens with pork or bison. The young flower buds of wild mustard can also be eaten raw or steamed like broccoli.

Wild Mustard

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Chickweed, Stellaria media
Chickweed’s many branched stems spread close to the ground and can grow over 30-cm long. Stems are covered by bright green, 1- to 2-cm long, pointed leaves that form in pairs. This annual lawn and garden weed is delicious raw as a salad green, especially when the tender tops are harvested.

Chickweed

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Lamb’s quarters, Chenopodium album
Somewhat variable in appearance because of plastic stem form. Lamb’s quarter can be recognized from its triangular (wedge-) shaped silvery blue-green, leaves that have a wavy indentation along the edge and somewhat resemble those of its botanical cousin, spinach. Flowers are very small, green and grouped together in clusters at the tip of the plant. This garden weed can grow more than 2-m tall on rich soils. When young and small (<20 cm) the whole plant is tender and tasty. Upper (newer) leaves can be picked continually from older plants and eaten raw or steamed in the manner of spinach. Lamb's quarters

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Purslane, Portulaca oleracea
A common, ground-hugging garden invader forming circular mats up to 60-cm in diameter if you really get behind on your weeding. It has thick, succulent, deep-green oval leaves on reddish and equally watery stems. Leaves and stems can be eaten raw or cooked, and the leaves can be frozen or pickled for storage. Purslane is noted as a rich source of dietary iron. The flavour is reminiscent of lemon and it is also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids. It also has okra-like, gelatinous qualities when cooked, and so can be used to thicken soups and stews.

Purslane

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Red clover, Trifolium pratense
Edible properties aside, it baffles me why anyone would want to nuke a nitrogen-fixing plant from their lawn. Yet some still consider this short-lived, perennial legume a weed. It has a weak central tap root with numerous fibrous side branches. As its scientific name indicates (“Tri-folium”), leaves form in groups of three on the numerous stems that rise from the root centre. Tiny red to light purple, pea-shaped flowers are crowded together in a dense globe-shaped flower head which emerges from the tips of the branches. Clover flowers and leaves are rich in vitamins and add exotic-tasting variety to mixed salads or when cooked into soups and stews. The closely related white clover (T. repens) has a milder flavour but is similarly good raw or cooked.

Red clover

All these and many more edible invasives add credence to my belief that weeds are merely plants whose virtues have yet to be discovered. Or in the case of plants introduced from afar, virtues that have not yet been rediscovered. Add these backyard greens to your diet and you may soon be regretting all the sod grass getting in the way of your wild salad bar.

Read about More Edible Invasives here

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