The Wild Kitchen & Apothecary — Wild Summer Berries

July 31, 2018

By Nick Wersel

We have now reached the peak of summer, when the humidity climbs and life-bringing rain showers frequently pop out of clear skies. Much of the harvest in the fields and orchards will not take place until next month, but this is the ideal time of year for wild berries!

Some varieties, like serviceberries, mulberries, and strawberries, have already come and gone. However, there are still many fruits ripening in our local green spaces along fence lines, in wooded areas, and even sprouting in our yards that many may think are weeds! While you are out walking, you are likely to find some remaining black raspberries, as well as blackberries, chokecherries, and unripe elderberries.

Black raspberries, also known as black caps, are a favorite of many foragers because of their abundance and myriad uses in the kitchen. The berry of the native wild black raspberry species that grows in nearly
every acre of wild green space resembles the black raspberries you would find in the grocery store, but the fruit can vary in size more than the store-bought variety. They began to bear fruit in late July, although in some areas you will still find them now, in early August. They are characterized by their long, drooping bright green canes covered in thorns and they bear leaves in groups of three. Once you get to know this plant, it is easy to spot from a distance.

Wild Black Raspberries. —Photo Alina Zienowicz

A completely different species, and one that is often confused with black raspberries, is the blackberry. Blackberries grow more like a vine in contrast to the black raspberry’s arched canes. Blackberry plants have markedly different, ridged leaves, often forming in groups of five. The berries are more elongated and significantly larger than black raspberries. They have a stem that connects
directly to the fruit, unlike raspberries, which detach from the plant, leaving the characteristic hollow space inside the berry. The blackberry fruit is shinier and firmer than raspberries, which are softer and slightly fuzzy.

In the kitchen, blackberries are interchangeable with raspberries and have a similar flavor. Both raspberries and blackberries grow in large numbers that make them a great candidate for making wines, jams, and pies. They also bring color and a burst of flavor to salads or on ice cream! When collecting either type of fruit, use a wide vessel and don’t pile them too high on top of each other to avoid crushing the fragile berries.

Chokecherries are a seldom-used fruit that is highly underappreciated. While similar in structure to the cherries we are familiar with, their flavor differs greatly. They are more tart and astringent, hence the name chokecherry. The presence of a high level of tannin and its low sugar content make the fruit mostly unsuitable for eating raw unless mixed with other fruit. By the same token, those tannins and acids make them fantastic for wine and jam. Their pucker power can cut through a lot of sugar, as in a jelly recipe, for example. The high pectin content also serves as a natural thickener.

Chokecherries grow on a tall bush, and form long, string-like clusters. They are ripe when the fruit is black. 

One fruit that you will want to be on the lookout for this month is the American elderberry. The berries will not be ripe until September, but often the very moment they are ripe is exactly when the birds will begin to pick the plants clean, so finding them early is a must! Identifying this plant can be tricky for some, and there are a few toxic plants in the carrot family that look somewhat similar to it, so always consult someone who is knowledgeable before harvesting elderberries or any wild food that you are not familiar with.

Wild chokecherries. —Photo Jennifer Kleffner

Elderberries were some of the first recorded fruits used to make wine in ancient Europe, millennia ago. Far before grapes became the stars of the wine world, elderberries were providing people with a tart, astringent, and nutritious beverage packed with antioxidants and vitamins. Today they have soared to popularity as a health food, and are often made into syrup, jam, and juice.

As with any foraged food, do not collect anything unless you have a 100 percent positive identification. Sometimes it is necessary to send pictures and questions to an expert to make sure you have found the fruit you are looking for. Beyond that, August will be a great month to get familiar with these versatile berries! Once you have the skills to identify and process these wild treasures, you’ll begin to see beautiful produce surrounding you every time you go out in nature.

Disclaimer: The text, images, photographs and drawings in this article are for illustrative purposes only and are not intended as a guide to identification. Before consuming any wild plants, consult with an expert to verify the
safety of the plant for human consumption.

Nick Wersel is a local foraging, cooking, preserving, winemaking, gardening, and nature enthusiast working to connect the public to its natural landscape. Originally from Pewaukee, Nick is a self-employed tile craftsman, when he isn’t wandering Southeast Wisconsin’s greenspaces in search of unique flavors. His endeavor to involve others in foraging and related group activities can be followed on his Facebook page, Myco MKE: https://goo.gl/8AbmUr

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