Foraging for wild berries is definitely a prickly adventure, but the payoff is definitely worth all of the bother. Growing, raising, and hunting for your own groceries are the primary parts of a survival food plan, but foraging may also be essential to staving off starvation during a long-term disaster.
A prepper who is dependent upon shelf-stable food stockpiles and/or gardening may very well end up being a statistic, and not a survivor.
Disease or weather can quickly wipe out a garden and fire or marauders can destroy a stockpile of preserved or purchased food. Even the most self-reliant prepping family set up well on a survival homestead could find itself suddenly forced to flee or rebuild after a fire. Knowing how and when to forage is yet another way to take care of teh food problem in a long-term disastrous situation.
When Is Berry Pickin’ Season?
Generally speaking, wild berries ripen and are ready to harvest in the middle to late summer months. But, as with all things in life, there are exceptions to this “rule”. Where you live, what type of wild berries you are foraging for, and the weather have a whole lot to do when it is time to go into the woods to pick berries.
This year, thanks to the long periods of heavy rain and intense heat, the wild berries on our survival homestead were ready to harvest about three weeks ahead of their usual schedule. Not all of the berries on the bushes were ready, but that is common as they tend to come on in stages.
Blueberries and strawberries are prime examples of late spring through early summer harvestable wild berries.
It is best to locate the wild berry bushes through leaf identification in the early spring so you can monitor their growing progress and not miss the berry pickin’ season.
Wild berries can be found throughout the United States and North America. The best regions of our country to locate large patches of wild berries are the Midwest, the Northwest, the Southeast, and the Northeast.
Of course, rural areas are where you will find the most berries, but wild bushes can also be found in suburban and even urban areas. But, when picking berries in such locations, the chances of them having been contaminated with chemical agriculture sprays and exposure to other potentially toxic debris, vastly increases.
Aggregate Fruit or Berries – What’s The Difference?
If you want to get really technical about it, a lot of the “wild berries” that foragers eagerly go on the hunt for annually, are not berries at all – they are aggregate fruits. Aggregate berries boast densely packed carpels, or fruit clusters. Every tiny rounded end that forms say, a black raspberry, is actually its own little piece of fruit.
Aggregate berries are part of the rose family, and all grow on long cane stems that arch over to give a traditional bush look to the plant. These thickets the fruit grows upon are extremely brambly in nature, and are filled with bristly thorns.
Wild Berry Foraging Facts and Tips
- Never eat what you do not know. Wrongfully identifying a berry (or anything you stumble across) could prove to be a fatal mistake.
- If you are new to foraging, spend a few bucks on a quality identifying guide. I actually recommend buying a guide even if you are a seasoned forager so less accomplished wild edibles hunters in your clan would be able to pick food if you are no longer available as a survival food tutor.
- Learn as much as you can about the environment in your region so can train your eyes to better spot safe to eat wild berries and other forest food. Typically, wild berries grow alongside the same type of plants – many of them edible as well.
- Pack a first aid kit and water with your during a foraging adventure. Do not go into the woods even before a SHTF event and just assume you will be going home uninjured – or back home at all.
- Never forage in an area you are not absolutely positive is free of potentially toxic agricultural sprays, predator traps, debris contaminants like motor oil and other fuel, or on private property.
- Never harvest even a succulent looking berry from a bush that is showing signs of an insect infestation, mold, or plant disease.
- Look over each individual berry before putting it in either your mouth or storage container for signs of disease, mold, or rotting.
- Unless you are in a dire survival situation or going to preserve the wild berries, do not pick a bush entirely bare.
- To help increase the amount of wild berry bushes you have on your survival retreat or in your favorite foraging area, simply broadcast a few seeds from the berries in quality growing spots to hopefully sprout new bushes for the following year.
The advice in this article is for information purposes only. You should only forage something if you know what you’re doing. In case of side-effects, consult your doctor as soon as possible. Neither the author nor the website or the company behind it shall be held liable for any side-effects as a result of applying the advice given in this article.
Wild Berry Toxicity Testing
Like with many other wild edibles (mushrooms in particular) berries can boast some very dangerous look-alikes. If you are unsure about a berry, the best advice would be to just pass it on by.
But, during a survival situation, there are a few ways to test the potential toxicity level of a wild berry to help determine whether or not it might be safe to eat.
- Pluck a few leaves from the bush and rub them onto a small patch on your bare arm. Watch the spot for several minutes to see if any type of a rash, swelling, bumps, burning, or itching develops.
- If the berry leaves pass the first toxicity test, rub a VERY small amount of the berry onto your closed lips. Do NOT rub the berry on like you are applying lip balm – that would expose you to way too much potential toxin.
- Wait a few minutes once again to determine if the berry rubbed onto your lips leads to any burning, tingling sensation, or bumps.
- Should the wild berry pass this test as well, nibble – and I mean nibble here fellow preppers – on a tiny portion of a single berry. Wait about 15 minutes for any ill side effects to develop. If you do not experience any burning sensation, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, sweating, or diarrhea, the chances are in your favor that the wild berry is indeed safe to eat.
Again I caution you, this simple four step testing system is by no means exhaustive or foolproof. It is entirely feasible that toxicity side effects could appear much later after the 15 minutes – and by then it could be too late to save your life if you have eaten more of the wild berries.
Even when you are absolutely certain that a wild berry is safe to eat without resorting to the testing system above, that does not mean you might not have some type of allergic reaction when eating a new food – wild or not.
It is often too tempting not to toss back a bunch of the deliciously sweet berries into your mouth. This temptation might be too hard to avoid if you have gone without food for an extended period of time. Eating too much of anything on an empty stomach, especially something so sweet, could induce quite a stomach ache and vomiting.
When foraging for wild berries you may not have to journey deep into the forest, but you will be exposed to some potentially intense hiking and reaching into razor sharp brambles.
Going foraging unprepared could make an otherwise enjoyable outing that leads to an overflowing bucket of sweet wild berries a painful and frustrating endeavor.
- Gloves – wear leather work gloves when foraging for wild berries Even if you must remove one glove to actually pluck the berry from a vine, the gloved hand can hold back the briar on the bush so your face is not scratched to bits and you do not suddenly find yourself attached (re:tangled) to the brambles by your hair. The gloves will also protect your sweaty hands from coming into contact with anything poisonous before you wipe your dripping forehead or stinging eyes with the now contaminated hand.
- Clothing – No matter how hot it is, I always throw on some type of lightweight yet sturdy jacket over my sundress when going berry picking. My husband dresses far smarter and wears jeans. I don’t want to be all bundled up and extra hot, so I come home with scores of tiny scratches and sometimes dripping blood on my legs.
- Footwear – Boots. Always boots of some type. I don’t own tennis shoes, but folks who do and berry hunt in them wind up with tangled in briars and cuts to their feet after the spiky vines have poked through the mesh. Also, you will be in snake territory when hunting berries, tennis shoes will so not protect you from them.
- Container – A sack is annoying and problematic when foraging for wild berries. It will tear, topple over, or the bottom will fall out from the weight of your bounty – even if you double bag it. A sturdy container with a lid or a small opening works best. We usually cut a hole near the top of an empty milk jug and use it and it’s easy to tote handle.
- Scissors or Pruners – Being able to cut or reach through thick brambles and difficult to remove berries is a must. You do not want to be elbow deep into an awesome berry patch only to find it too thick or durable to pick by hand. Sturdy scissors or snips of some type will make removing aggregate berries from their canes a snap.
How To Identify and Find Wild Berries
These delicious berries are also commonly referred to as wild raspberries and thimble berries. We are blessed with hundreds of these berry bushes on our survival homestead. While we have ample foraging material at our fingertips, we still have to beat the birds and free ranging goats and chickens to the bushes every summer.
The brambles the berries grow in can be taller than your head and deep, or so short you have to bend and reach through thin “branches” to get a berry at nearly ground level.
Black raspberries can be easily identified by the white cone shaped receptacle left on the vine before harvest time. A gathering of seeds form around the cone and change color as they grow.
They are a vibrant red when they are growing and turn a deep purple to a black shade when they are ripe and ready to eat.
While you could eat the berries before they are ripe, the taste will be exceptionally tart, and often lead to a serious stomach ache. Novice foragers often confuse the unripened red berries for raspberries, and their gut pays the price if several handfuls are eaten at once.
You often find black raspberries growing along the edge of the woods, and especially on farm land bordering horse pastures and hay fields. These wild berry bushes tend to favor a partial shade environment in rich soil.
When searching for bushes in the early spring before buds begin to form, look for prickly bushes that boast leaves with serrated edges, and have a somewhat lighter shade of green on the underbelly of the leaves.
Typically, black raspberries are ready to harvest from late June through the first few weeks of July, depending upon the local climate. There are some varieties of wild black raspberries that are capable of producing fruit well into the early weeks of fall.
You may have to suffer a lot of thorn pricks to get to wild blackberry bushes, but your diligent and brave foraging efforts can come with a great reward.
The thick canes on a blackberry bush range in color from a red hue to a deep shade of green. Although blackberries look very similar to black raspberries, the fruit from this type of bush is almost always distinctly larger. It is not uncommon for wild blackberries to grow as big as your thumb.
Blackberries change in shade from white to green as they are growing. It is not until the wild berries are a deep purple or black that they are ready to harvest. Some berries may never fully mature, and still have some dots of red amid the black. These would be pretty tart berries, but safe to eat and some folks love them.
More often than not, the prickly stem of the berry remains attached when it is plucked from a bush. Make sure to look at the base of the berry before tossing it back into your mouth – or prepare to shout “Ouch!” and possibly a few curse words as you swallow.
Wild blackberry bushes are prone to growing on farms, and can reach heights of 20 feet tall. The reason these bushes get so much taller than their wild cousins – the black raspberry, is because their thick and densely briar covered vines convince all but the highly determined forager, to leave them alone.
Although blackberry bushes may prefer a more secluded spot in the woods to grow than black raspberries, they can also be found bordering pastures or even right in the middle of an agricultural field.
Wild blackberries usually come on during the middle to latter weeks of summer, depending upon which region of the country they are located.
Even though they can grow from a tree, mulberries are still berries. There are three common variations of mulberries, so they can be found in shades of white, red, or a purple to black hue.
In my region, black mulberries are most common. They look like an elongated blackberry with a slightly football style shape. Red mulberries look a lot like raspberry, and are skinnier than a typical blackberry. They being looking white and then turn a light green before they ripen.
Mulberry tree leaves look similar to those on a maple tree but boast more of a heart shape with a distinctive serrated edge.
The whole fruit (berry) is directly joined to the stem, so there will be no white receptacle of any type left behind or attached to the berries, after it is picked.
Mulberries can be difficult to remove from the stem, cutting it free is easier than plucking. But, on the bright side, the stem is edible as well. It has a sweet yet somewhat tart taste.
It is typically ready to harvest in the late spring through early weeks of summer. Mulberry trees tend to grow along the edges of wooded areas, and along creek banks – often in spots where other plants do not easily grow.
These wild berries can grow on bushes that can reach as high as 20 feet tall. The bushes have warty like twigs and are a bell shape with hanging flowers.
Blueberries generally prefer sandy to slightly acidic, and dry soil, and can be found along wooded clearings in full sun areas of growing adjacent to large rocks – especially where patches of moss also thrive. In my personal experience, blueberry bushes often grow next to oak trees.
Wild blueberries are usually far tastier and juicier than those sold commercially. The middle of summer is the best time to go blueberry foraging.
These delicious wild treats have a small look a like that is commonly referred to as a “false strawberry” or a “mock berry.” They are a rather bland wild berry that can safely be eaten, but have a bland taste. False strawberries are typically found in vegetable growing beds or near less forested areas.
Real wild strawberries grow along creek banks, and next to rivers. They are also commonly spotted along the forest edge near treelines – like many other types of wild berries.
Although mock berries and strawberries look extremely similar, real wild strawberries boast white flowers when they are blooming. The fruit on false strawberries does not have a white flower and its fruit grows straight up.
If you taste one, it will not harm you (unless you have an allergic reaction) but the taste will let you know immediately you have foraged an impostor.
They both taste and smell a whole lot like the store bought variety – so much better.
Wild strawberries are most commonly found along waterway embankments and nearby slopes – or sometimes in untended fields. They prefer to grow in rich soil and in spots that are exposed to full sun.
Huckleberries grow as shrubs or bushes, preferring soil with low acidity levels.
Huckleberries are also a pretty shade of blue, but can easily be differentiated from blueberries by the crown they possess on one end of the fruit. They are small, yet their seeds are larger than those found in blueberries. It is not unusual for huckleberry seeds to get stuck in the forager’s teeth.
They can be harvested during the late summer through early fall, depending upon your local climate. In my opinion, huckleberries have a more enticing and robust flavor when harvested in the early days of September. These wild berry bushes are extremely susceptible to drought.
These wild berries are also commonly referred to as either serviceberries or saskatoons. They have a crown on one end, and are blue to purple in color.
Juneberries, like mulberries, grow from a tree rather than a bramble or a bush. They are most commonly found in the Pacific Northwest.
These wild berries have a glorious mixture of tartness and a sweet savory flavor. Juneberries are incredible juicy and are rather plump. One of the traditional homesteading ways to use juneberries is to turn them into jam that has also been infused with rose petals.
These tart wild berries are also prevalent through the bulk of North America. They are also found along the edges of the woods, and are sometimes referred to as Japanese wineberries.
Wineberries can usually be spotted easily thanks to their distinctive canes – they do not boast any briars, a rarity in the wild berry world. The canes Asian wineberries grow upon are also distinctively fuzzy in texture.
The ruby red berries shine like a jewel – or so the ravings of satisfied wild berry forages indicate. The berries grow from inside a fuzzy case, giving the bushes they grow upon the look of an outdoor Christmas decoration.
Like black raspberries, wineberries leave behind a white cone when picked. They have often been dubbed the “super raspberry.” They are typically ready to harvest in the middle to late weeks of summer.
Because Asian wineberries have been deemed invasive in multiple states, finding a wild bush is getting harder to do – and buying them from a garden supplier pretty much impossible.
Less Common Berries To Forage
Foraging for wild elderberries is a double treat because both the berries and the flowers on these trees are edible. The berries should (must is a better word) be cooked before consuming them. The heating process deactivates the quite possibly toxic compounds in the elderberries.
Always make sure all of the leaves, stems, and bark are completely removed before munching on or using the elderberries in recipes, because these parts of the trees are all highly toxic.
Elderberry flowers taste as good as they smell, hence why they are so often used to make wine, lemonade, tea, and liquor.
Typically, elderberries are most often foraged to make medicinal and fever and cold symptom reducing syrup or hot tea. When the berries are processed in this manner their high level of vitamin C is harnessed and used as an immune system booster.
The most commonly available elderberry varieties available to forage include: American black elderberries, blue elderberries, and black elderberries.
Elderberry trees tend to grow not at the edge of the woods like most berry bushes and brambles, but deep in the forest environment. They range in height from 10 to about 25 feet tall. Rivers, creeks, and wetlands located in a wooded environment are a perfect spot to forage elderberries.
Flowers on elderberry trees start to bloom during the final weeks of spring into the middle of summer. Elderberries do not appear and mature until later in the summer, and into the early days of fall.
These berries are typically referred to as wild grapes. Muscadines are primarily foraged in southeastern United States. They are a bright shade of light green as they grow, but turn a deep purple once they mature and are ready for harvesting.
Muscadines boast large seeds and can be consumed either raw or cooked. They are a considerably fleshy berry with a distinct sweetness. Wild grapes can be a delight to discover and eat by the handful, but they are most often used to make wine and jam.
They are often found along the edges of the woods in partially shady areas. Wild grape vines often grow rampant in clusters, and use any abandoned man-made or natural structure as a trellis to garner more access to the sun. A single tendil grows opposite of each leaf.
Muscadines has a gelatinous flesh and a chewy and thick skin. The wild grapes can be crushed to make grape oil and the white powdery substance on the skin is a natural yeast that is often used during the wine fermentation process.
During a survival situation, you could use the thick grapevines the muscadines grow from as an emergency water source. Cut through the thickest grapevine you can find and manipulate to free it from the rest. Next, cut it open at the bottom and collect the water that drips out.
These beautiful and delicate wild berries are incredibly hard to find – perhaps that is why gourmet chefs consider them a delicacy.
Cloudberries look like faded raspberries. They boast a juicy texture with a creamy flest. But, their taste is more like a green apple – a bit sour, than that of a sweet raspberry.
These wild berries are not usually eaten raw as a snack, but used to make jams, vinaigrettes, liqueur, teas, and preserves. Cloudberries have long been used in teas, and tinctures as an active ingredient in home remedies designed to treat scurvy.
Cloudberries grow in only a very few places in the United States, Alaska, Washington state, and Minnesota being chief among them. If you are foraging in Norway or Finland, you are far more likely to come across them.
The berries are deep shade of red when growing and then turn to the glowing orange they are known for when ripe and ready to pick.
Cloudberries typically grow only in high altitude locations and in wooded areas around bogs, wetlands, and sometimes even swamps. They require an enormous amount of water to grow. If you are foraging in a place where mosquitoes would love to live, that is the spot where cloudberries might appear.
Each cloudberry plant grows only one flower, which in turn grows a single stem with one berry. It is also the only berry that I know of that can be picked before it is ripe, and then ripen over the course of the next few days after being detached from its stem.
Even though they are tiny, cloudberries boast more vitamin C than a single orange. They are also chalkful of omega 3 and omega 6. They have large seeds and at first glance by a novice, could look like unripened or scorched raspberries.
The most important aspect of foraging for wild berries is making sure you properly identify anything you put in your hand, in your bucket, and definitely into your mouth. Some berries or berry-like fruits that grow wild in the woods across the country can be toxic at a lethal level.
Tossing the wrong berry into your buckets among scores of safe to eat ones could make you and your loved ones gravely ill. No wild berry picking guide in the entire world, either online or in print, can substitute for years of skilled foraging – or cover ever possible tree, bush, or bramble you might discover.
The more you learn about all of the wild edibles and toxic plants growing in your region, the safer your wild berry foraging efforts will be. The vast majority of wild plants have natural companion plants.
Once you learn what tends to grow in guilds in the woods and pastures where you live, it will be easier to find what you are searching for, and to avoid things that can make you sick.
Tara Dodrill is a homesteading and survival journalist and author. She lives on a small ranch with her family in Appalachia. She has been both a host and frequent guest on preparedness radio shows. In addition to the publication of her first book, ‘Power Grid Down: How to Prepare, Survive, and Thrive after the Lights go Out’, Dodrill also travels to offer prepping tips and hands-on training and survival camps and expos.