Edible Wild Berries
Wild Berries of the Pacific Northwest
Harvest and Eat Native Berries
The Pacific Northwest is fortunate to have an abundance of native shrubs that have tasty edible berries. Anyone who learns to identify these delicious berries can enjoy healthy gourmet food for free. Most native wild fruits are high in antioxidants, vitamins and other nutrients. They are usually organically grown and not genetically engineered or altered to suit the convenience of corporate farming practices to the detriment of nutrional value.
Some of the shrubs with edible berries include those commonly called blackberries, dewberries, salmonberries, thimbleberries, black caps, huckleberries, serviceberries, salal, oregon grape, currants and gooseberries. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, many of these plants may be growing in your neighborhood or even in your yard.
Of course, always check your local laws and ask landowners for permission before picking on private property. When picking berries in the national forest or on other public lands remember to only take what you will eat and leave plenty for the birds and animals in the area who depend on the fruit to survive.
Some of these berry plants have a wide distribution and may be found in many areas of North America. No matter where you live, you can find species of delicious native fruits to stretch your grocery budget.
If you would like to enjoy growing carefree native plants, there are sources for obtaining them inexpensively so you can start enjoying free food. Planting native berries will also attract native birds and animals who will usually happily help you clean-up any extra fruit.
All photos by the author, Vicki Green unless otherwise credited.
Northwestern Wild Berries
Identifying Wild Berries
Before you run out and start picking and eating wild berries, it is important to make sure you know how to correctly identify which berries are edible and which are poisonous. Learning from others who are knowledgeable and experienced in identifying local berries, taking a class or carefully studying field guides and other reference materials are important to avoid eating the wrong berries.
Himalayan Blackberry - Rubus Discolor
Blackberries are certainly one of the most familiar, tasty and abundant berries in the Pacific Northwest. The most commonly found blackberry, the Himalayan Blackberry (Rubus Armeniacus or Rubus Discolor) is not a native plant but has become naturalized in the Pacific Northwest and other areas and is found growing along roadsides, parks and in almost any sunny spot where it is not aggressively controlled.
The berries usually begin to ripen in August and continue to be available for a month or longer until cool, damp weather causes them to mold and rot.
Picking them can be a painful experience and it is not for the faint-hearted. The thorns are incredibly nasty and they have some sort of a toxin which makes them very painful. Long sleeves, long pants and sturdy shoes are recommended. Tank tops, shorts and flip-flops are only worn by newbies or masochists. Did I mention the bugs? That's were the rest of the not-for-the faint-hearted comes in. There are always lots of bees, hornets, spiders and other little 6 and 8 legged creatures hiding in the blackberry thickets. Arachnophobics will not last long. But the berries are delicious!
Pacific or Trailing Blackberry
Trailing Pacific Blackberry - Rubus Ursinus
The Pacific or Trailing Blackberry is a native blackberry of the Pacific Northwest. As one of its common names suggests it grows on vines that trail along the ground. It is usually found on forest edges and in meadows often growing tangled with grasses and other plants. The berries are smaller than those of the Himalayan blackberry and they ripen about a month to 6 weeks earlier, usually around the first week of July in the Puget Sound area. The Pacific blackberry is smaller and the shape is usually more elongated. The trailing blackberry is more flavorful than the Himalayan Blackberry and has smaller seeds. It is an excellent berry for making pies, cobblers, crisps and jams.
Blackberry Cobbler Recipe
6 to 8 cups fresh or frozen blackberries*
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons fresh-squeezed lemon juice
1 to 2 tablespoons blackberry liqueur, optional
Biscuit Topping (see recipe below)
Whipped Cream or Vanilla ice cream
* The amount of blackberries used depends on the size of your pan. If using a Cast-Iron Skillet, use 6 cups - 13x9-inch baking pan, use 8 cups.
2 cups all-purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Zest (peel) of 1 lemon
1/2 cup chilled butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
2/3 cup milk
1 egg, slightly beaten
In a large bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, sugar, salt, and lemon zest. With a pastry blender or two knives, cut in butter until particles are the size of small peas. Add milk and egg; stir with a fork just until blended.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil (this is to catch the blackberry juice that usually boils over from the baking dish or skillet).
If using fresh blackberries, wash, stem, and drain blackberries.
In a large bowl, combine sugar, flour, blackberries, lemon juice, and blackberry liqueur. Pour into prepared baking dish or skillet.
Bake, uncovered, 15 to 20 minutes or until hot and bubbly. When blackberry mixture is hot, remove from oven and spoon Biscuit Topping mixture onto the top in 10 to 12 large spoonfuls. Return to oven and bake another 20 to 25 minutes or until biscuits are lightly browned and a toothpick inserted in the center of one of the dumplings comes out clean.
Remove from oven and cool on a wire rack for at least 10 minutes before serving. Serve either warm or room temperature. To serve, top with vanilla ice cream.
Makes 10 to 12 servings.
Black Cap Berries or Black Raspberries
Black Caps - Rubus Leucodermis
Black cap berries of the Pacific Northwest (rubus leucodermis) are a type of raspberry and are similar to Rubus Occidentalis, the native black raspberry species that grows in the eastern part of North America. Black caps are one of the earliest berries to ripen, usually in late June or early July in the Puget Sound area. The common name of Black cap berries is very descriptive of the ripe berries, they are a dark blue-black when ripe and the berry has a more shallow cup than garden varieties of raspberries so it is shaped like a little cap. Black cap berries are very high in anthocyanins which are powerful antioxidants and are currently being researched as a potential cancer treatment.
The stems of the blackcap berry plant are a blue-ish white color, although sometimes the new shoots are pinkish. Historically many landowners would remove black cap plants because the stems have some pretty nasty thorns. The delicious taste and nutritional value of black cap berries has lead to a greater appreciation of their value and in some places they are now being commercially grown as a gourmet heirloom fruit. Although they have their own distinctive flavor, they can be used in almost any recipe that calls for raspberries.
Try a Berry Picking Rake
Make Picking Berries Easier with a Berry Picker
Berry picking can be a tedious and painful experience. Berry pickers have been around for centuries to make the job easier. Originally they were made from wood and metal as a handy tool to make picking berries quicker. Modern berry rakes are usually made from plastic making them easier to clean.
Thimbleberry - Rubus parviflorus
Thimbleberries are a North American native berry species that can be found from Alaska south to Mexico and east to Michigan. In the southern part of the range it is only found at higher elevations. Thimbleberries can easily be identified by their very large soft almost furry feeling leaves and bright red berries that look like a flattened raspberry and fit on a finger tip like a thimble.
Thimbleberries taste similar to raspberries, but not quite as juicy and with more seeds. They usually start to ripen in July, but it may be earlier or later depending on the weather and elevation.The plants do not have thorns which makes them much more pleasant and easy to pick, but they aren't as numerous as blackberries.
Thimbleberry Jam Recipe
2 c. of Thimble berries
2 c. sugar
3 1/2 pint jars with lids, sterilized
In a heavy saucepan, bring berries & sugar to a boil over medium heat.
Cook for 5 minutes.
Pour into jars and seal
Salmonberry - Rubus Spectabilis
Another member of the same genus as blackberries, raspberries and thimbleberries is the salmonberry. Salmonberries are a common native berry in the Pacific Northwest that tend to grow in large thickets in moist areas in filtered shade, especially under tall alder trees. They have beautiful magenta flowers in early spring that attract hummingbirds. Salmonberries have a more subtle flavor than blackberries or raspberries. There are several theories about how the salmonberry got its common name. Some say it originated from the traditional use by Native Americans of combining it with salmon roe to make it into pemmican. Others maintain it is because of the ripe salmonberry's resemblance to a cluster of salmon eggs. The berry has a core like a raspberry, but is glossy like a blackberry and ripens into various colors from yellow to shades of red and a bright pinkish orange color. They can be made into sauces, jams or wine, but these delicate berries are best enjoyed raw either as a snack or as a garnish on a salad. My hub about salmonberries has more information and recipes.
Serviceberries or Juneberries
Serviceberry - Amelanchier Species
There are about 20 different species of serviceberries, most of which occur in North America. There are also two species that are native to Asia and one in Europe. Serviceberries are called by many different common local names including sarvisberries, Juneberries, shadbush, shadblow, shadwood, saskatoon, chuckley pear and wild-plum. There is at least one native species of serviceberry found in every US state except Hawaii.
Although serviceberries are more closely related to apples, they look and taste similar to blueberries. In many areas serviceberries are among the first berries to ripen in the summer. In some places they are called Juneberries because they are traditionally ready to pick in June. Serviceberries can be substituted for blueberries in many recipes.
If you would like to purchase serviceberry plants they are often available from native plant nurseries or they can be purchased from Nature Hills Nursery.
Lemon-Juneberry Bread Recipe
Makes 1 loaf
2 cups serviceberries (or blueberries)
3/4 cup sugar
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons poppy seeds
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 tablespoons butter at room temperature
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 large eggs at room temperature
1/3 cup slivered almonds
Prepare the loaf pan by buttering, lining with wax paper and buttering again.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
In a medium bowl place the berries and 1/4 cup of sugar. Mix well and set aside.
In a medium bowl combine the flour, 1/4 cup of sugar, baking powder, poppy seeds and salt. Stir well and set aside.
In a large bowl place the soft butter, balance of sugar (1/4 cup), lemon zest and lemon juice. Mix with an electric mixer at slow speed until creamy. Add the eggs one at a time and mix at medium speed until well mixed and smooth.
Add the flour mixture and gently fold in with a spoon until barely mixed.
Add the berry mixture and fold until just moistened.
Spoon the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Top with the almond slices.
Bake for 65 to 70 minutes until golden and toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.
Remove from oven and let cool for 10 minutes before removing from the pan.
Loosen the bread by gently pulling up on the wax paper and then lift it from pan. Cool on racks until warm or room temperature, then peel off the wax paper.
The bread will keep for 2 to 3 days in a cool place, but is better fresh out of the oven
Salal - Gaultheria shallon
Salal grows from Alaska south through British Columbia, Washington and Oregon to Southern California. The berries ripen to a dark blue-black in the late summer or fall. They taste sweet but rather bland. They do make good jellies and jams. The leaves can also be used to make a tea.
Salal Cranberry Relish Recipe
3 cups whole salal berries (rinsed and cleaned)
Rind of 1 organic orange (coarsely grated)
3/4 cup sugar
3 cups cranberries (raw, whole)
Put all ingredients in a saucepan
Cook on low heat until the berries are tender.
Great served with salmon or poultry
Oregon Grape - Mahonia Species
Oregon Grape are not grapes at all, but the dark blue clusters of fruit do resemble grapes. The plant is also sometimes called Oregon Holly, but the plant is actually in the barberry family. There are three different species that have slightly different appearance and natural habitat, but the berries are the same as far as I can tell. The one in the photo is Mahonia Aquifolium. They all tend to grow naturally as forest under story or on the edges of forested areas.
Oregon grape berries ripen in mid to late summer and are quite tart, but by adding sugar or mixing with sweeter berries they can be used in many recipes.
Oregon Grape Jam or Jelly Recipe
Oregon Grape Jam
Oregon Grapes are incredibly tart when eaten fresh. (Ok, I've eaten them and they are more than tart, they are mouth puckering sour!) However, they do make a very tasty jam or jelly if enough sugar is added.
Oregon Grape jam (or jelly) Recipe
Makes approximately four 6-ounce jars
2 to 3 cups fresh-picked Oregon Grapes, rinsed
2 cups water
½ packet = 1 ounce ( ½ of a 1/3 cup measure) commercial pectin
2½ cups sugar
Before you start, sterilize four 6-ounce glass jam jars with boiling water. Wash the lids.
Boil rinsed Oregon Grapes in 2 cups of water for about 10 minutes.
Pour mixture through a colander set over a large pan. Using the back of a wooden spoon, mash the pulp then press some of it through the colander into the pan below. Discard the seeds. (At this point, to make jelly, strain the pulp through cheesecloth.)
Bring mixture to a boil again.
Stir in 1 ounce commercial pectin, then bring to a rolling boil.
Add 2½ cups sugar, stirring constantly. Stir and boil for about 4 minutes, or until the mixture thickens.
Set the glass jars on a wire rack or folded towel for cooling, then carefully ladle the jam into the jars. Cover loosely with a towel overnight.
When set (probably by the next morning), the jam may be refrigerated for up to three weeks, or frozen for up to a year. Or you may can the jam or jelly as you usually do.
A Berry Comb for Children - A Child Size Berry Rake
Picking Berries with Children
I have fond childhood memories of picking wild berries with my parents. It was very rewarding to help gather fruit that my mother would later turn into a delicious pie, cobbler or jam. To involve children with helping to pick berries, especially those with thorns, giving them a child-sized berry rake of their own will make the task much easier and less painful.
Red Huckleberry - Vaccinium parvifolium
The red huckleberry is only found in northwestern North America from southeastern Alaska south through British Columbia western Washington and Oregon to California. It grows as part of the understory in forests and in areas that have been logged. It usually is found growing on old decaying logs and stumps. The berries ripen in early summer and are quite tasty, but tart. Red Huckleberries can be eaten fresh or can be used to make jams, jellies or pies.
Cautionary Note: Red huckleberries closely resemble the very toxic berries of the Pacific Yew which is found in the same type of habitat. The foliage of the two plants is very different so luckily it is fairly easy to tell them apart. As you can see from the photo, the leaves of the red huckleberry shrub are small, light green, fairly round. Red Huckleberry leaves are deciduous so the plant has no leaves in the winter. The Pacific Yew has dark green needles that are evergreen, remaining on the plant year round. However, it can't be over-emphasized that it is very important to be certain of your identification before eating any wild berries!
Keep Your Hands Free with a Berry Picking Harness
Berry Picking Tip: Use a Fruit Picking Bucket and Harness
Using a berry picking bucket with a harness provides a handy place to carry fruits and berries, keeps your hands free for picking and minimizes the chance of spilling your fruit.
Evergreen Huckleberry - Vaccinium ovatum
Evergreen huckleberry grows from British Columbia south through the west side of the Cascades in Washington south to the redwoods forests of California. It can occasionally be found as far south as the area of Santa Barbara, CA.
Huckleberries and Blueberries are closely related vaccinium species. Generally the wild vaccinium species growing naturally in the western part of North America are called "huckleberries" and the species that grow in the eastern part of North America are called "blueberries".
The evergreen huckleberry grows well in forests under tall evergreen trees and bears a heavy crop of fruit even when growing in the shade. The berries ripen to a dark purple to almost black in the late summer and fall. They are delicious eaten fresh or can be used in jams and jellies.
Mountain or Big Huckleberry
Wild Mountain Huckleberry
Mountain Huckleberry - Vaccinium membranaceum
Mountain or Big Huckleberry grows from Alaska and British Columbia south through the Cascade and Olympic mountains to California and east through Ontario, Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, and parts of Michigan. They ripen to a dark blue color in the summer to fall, depending on the elevation. These are very abundant in western Montana and Idaho and are the berries that are made into all sorts of huckleberry treats that are sold in gift shops in that area.
Huckleberries are considered by many people to be the best tasting wild berry. They are delicious eaten fresh or can be substituted for blueberries in any recipe.
Huckleberry Coffee Cake Recipe
2 cups all purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking power
1/2 teaspoon sale
1/4 cup butter or margarine, softened
3/4 cup milk
2 cups fresh or frozen huckleberries
1/2 cup sugar
1/3 cup all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 cup butter softened
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Batter: In a bowl, blend together flour sugar, baking power, salt, butter or margairine, milk and egg.
Using and eclectric mixer, eat vigorously for 30 seconds. Carefully stir huckleberries into the batter. Pour into a greased 9 inch square pan.
(I was surprised how thick the batter was the first time I made this, so don't be alarmed, it's ok)
Mis the topping ingredients together and sprinkle over the batter.
Bake for 45 to 50 minutes until a toothpick stuck into the middle comes out clean.
Keep Your Berries Fresh with a Berry Keeper
Keeping Your Berries Fresh After Picking
If you can't use your berries immediately after picking, there are containers that are especially designed to help keep berries fresh longer. Berry keepers have a water reservoir in the base to provide moisture to prevent the berries from drying out and have a vent to allow air flow. They are stackable and save room in the refrigerator.
Field Guides - Tools for Identifying Wild Edible Plants
There are more field guides that cover all of North America that you can use to help you learn to identify many edible wild plants and even more importantly, to distinguish them from poisonous ones.
Gardening in the Pacific Northwest
My blog, Life at Willeth Farm has more articles and information about gardening in the Pacific Northwest.
© 2010 Vicki Green