In this day when fresh fruits from around the world are readily available any day of the year in our supermarkets, many of us are becoming increasingly disconnected not only from the land our food comes from but also from the seasonal cycles that used to be an intimate part of the availability of many foods. Once upon a time, it was unthinkable to eat fresh strawberries in December. Now, we can eat fresh berries whenever we like – albeit tasteless, misshapen specimens that have travelled hundreds or thousands of miles from the fields where they were grown.
While growing your own garden is an excellent way both to eat locally and to become more aware of both the origin and seasonality of your foods, eating wild foods is an even more intimate way to become closely acquainted with your bioregion – its native species and its influences on the availability of food. While most of us probably do not want to forage and hunt for all of our foods, it is not difficult to add at least occasional wild foods to our diets.
Berries are probably the easiest wild food to start with. They are familiar, tasty (much more so than their cultivated, store-bought counterparts), and relatively simple to harvest and eat. To begin with, you’ll need to acquaint yourself with your native species of berry-bearing shrubs and plants. You’ll need a good field guide, preferably one that not only gives you the information you need to identify different species and species groups, but also provides some information on the edibility of the berries. Be aware of any potentially poisonous and unpalatable species! If you are not sure of the identity of a berry, do not eat it. And just because you see birds or other animals eating the berries does not mean that they are safe for you to eat.
When harvesting wild berries, treat the plant and its environment with respect. Do not remove all of the berries from a single plant, but be sure to leave some for wildlife. Take care not to trample or damage the surrounding vegetation too much. If you’re collecting in an area that is frequented by people, take a few minutes to pick up any garbage in the area. And do not harvest in a national park or any other protected area where collecting is forbidden. Although even in town you can sometimes find wild places where berries may grow, try to avoid picking in areas where the berries may have been sprayed with pesticides or exposed to excessive pollution.
The wild berry I am most familiar with is the saskatoon or serviceberry (Amelanchier alnifolia). This is a blueberry-like berry that is tasty enough to eat raw. When we lived in the country, saskatoon bushes grew everywhere, and we would often pick the berries in the summer to make jelly. Now that we live now in town, we have few saskatoons, but instead we have many chokecherry (Prunus virginiana) bushes nearby. Chokecherries are a bit sour to eat raw (although some people like them), but make delicious jellies. Over the years, we have also made jam from local wild raspberries and black raspberries (Rubus idaeus and R. leucodermis), and jellies from both wild blueberries (Vaccinium spp.) and Oregon-grape berries (Mahonia aquifolium). Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus), a relative of the raspberry, is another common local berry, although to me, they usually taste a bit bland. However, the jewel of the wild berries is, for me, the wild strawberry (Fragaria spp.). If you are lucky enough to find a patch of these, you may be able to pick half a handful of tiny, sweet berries. Each berry is no larger than the nail of my little finger, but is sweeter by far than any cultivated strawberry – and bears scarcely any relation to those horrid, tasteless, store-bought strawberries.
There are many benefits to gathering and eating wild berries. Gathering the berries gets you out of the house and into nature, helping you to get more fresh air and more exercise. Becoming more familiar with your local berries encourages you to improve your plant identification skills, and to become more aware of the plant species that exist in your local environment. As you gather berries repeatedly over the years, you may also become aware of other things, such as the influence of environment and climate on the quality of the berries. A wet spring leads to juicier berries, while a hot, dry summer can dry out the berries while they’re still on the branch. You may also find yourself noticing differences in taste between berries that grow on a north slope and those that grow on a south slope, or those that grow on exposed hilltops and those that grow in damp gullies. And then of course there is the delicious taste of wild berries (and the products you can make from them) and the nutrients they contain.
Most importantly, eating wild berries or any other wild food begins to restore the intimate connection between us and the land where we live, reminding us of our ultimate dependence on the products of the land for our existence.