finding wineberries

I couldn't be more excited to see summer this year. For a few reasons, but somewhere high on the top 10 is foraging for wild berries and fruit. It all started last year, when I noticed the wild black raspberries- known as 'blackcaps'- growing behind the garage in my home in Michigan. There were only a few berries on the plant- it wasn't much larger than a boxwood, and certainly had not been cared for. I would call it a plucky plant.

At first I was concerned that they may be inedible, or poisonous, so I bought a great field guide to figure out what the do's and don'ts are of wild berry picking. Once I was confident that I wouldn't be going on a poison berry acid trip, I tried one. It was the best raspberry I have ever eaten, bar none. The discovery- this wild weed growing in an unforgiving spot behind our garage- spurred me to look elsewhere in the area. If they grew wild in my yard, why not elsewhere? Why not in fields, along roads, in church parking lots, in state parks?

Sure enough….the berries were everywhere. Not that it didn't take some searching to find them, but once I developed a formula, I could tell you almost instantly if a sad-looking patch of weeds gone to seed was likely to hold a berry treasure. (Read below to find out my tips for berry hunting!)

I found a friend to go berry-picking with, and we spent hours picking wild black raspberries and blackberries. Eventually we found other fruit, like wild pin cherries and an invasive species known as wineberries. I would cook the pounds and pounds of berries into pies, tarts, ice cream, and quarts of compote (which yielded so much there is is still some in the freezer this year!).

I have since left Michigan, and I was more than a little upset to think of all those berries in my berry patches (mine, except that they are in public places, of course) withering on the vine. Granted, the animals love them too, but with so many, it's practically impossible that they will all be eaten without being picked by intrepid humans.

This week, I'm in Atlanta checking out places I may want to live, moving forward. With such a big change, there is always trepidation, and I'm faced with lots of decisions. 

Truman, my yellow lab, is my constant companion, and he's here this week as well, checking out the potential new digs. As I am wont to do, I took him to the dog park first thing this morning, a little nervous about driving around in this area. We had a great time at the park, and on my way back, I noticed something about the bushes.

Berries. Blackberries, to be exact. Flourishing everywhere. The largest patch is directly outside my hotel room window- I can see them as I write. Somehow I think this is all going to work out just fine.

So you want to be a berry harvester. Here's a few suggestions.

1. Buy a good, reliable field guide for your area. I bought several and was disappointed in all of them but one. I am not affiliated with the book in any way, other than my copy is stained with juice from hours of consultation. Now, use it! There are lots of great wild fruits out there, but there are also lots of beautiful poisonous ones. Learn the difference.

2. Lose whatever sense of shame you may have re: picking berries in public. At this point, I have spent countless hours doing it and never once has someone asked me a question or said anything to me at all about my presence in the bushes. 

3. Look for areas that have been cleared of trees in the last five years, and then left to seed. In Michigan, my formula was abandoned subdivision developments (which, unfortunately, can be found in abundance up there). The berries like wide, flattish areas with lots of sun and water. I rarely found any berry bushes more than 20 feet inside shaded areas.

4. Create a berry picking kit. I recommend a small cooler packed with ice, a few plastic containers with lids, rubber or leather boots, leather and latex gloves, and some pruning shears. You'll want the latex gloves to protect your hands from poison ivy, and the leather gloves to gently move the berry branches out of the way- blackberries especially are wicked with thorns.

5. Use good judgment. Don't pick in patches on private property without permission. If there is any sign of pesticide treatment (like on the side of the road, for instance) nearby, don't pick there. Take a friend with you, especially if you're heading to an isolated area.

6. Familiarize yourself with the plants that grow nearby your favorite berries, so that you can recognize a potential patch even if you can't see the berries at first. In Michigan, blackberries and black raspberries are super besties with poison ivy. They love each other so much they might as well get married and have poison ivy berry babies. They've certainly already moved in together. 

7. Have a plan for the yields of your labor. A few times I had so many berries in the fridge, I let them wait too long while I decided, and had to throw them away. Don't be like me.

Here's a few photos to help you on your quest. 

These are black raspberries, or blackcaps. You can tell the difference between blackberries and black raspberries by checking the way the berries grow and release from the plants- raspberries will leave a little cap, or 'rasp' behind when you pick them, which makes them hollow. They grow in small bunches on large plants, in groups of three-five with the berries pointing upwards at you.

These are black raspberries, or blackcaps. You can tell the difference between blackberries and black raspberries by checking the way the berries grow and release from the plants- raspberries will leave a little cap, or 'rasp' behind when you pick them, which makes them hollow. They grow in small bunches on large plants, in groups of three-five with the berries pointing upwards at you.

Black raspberry bush.

Black raspberry bush.

This is a wineberry bush. It's an invasive species in Michigan, and I only ever found two bushes, which were right next to each other in a public park. The berries will emerge from within these pods as they ripen, and they start out a yellow-orange color.

This is a wineberry bush. It's an invasive species in Michigan, and I only ever found two bushes, which were right next to each other in a public park. The berries will emerge from within these pods as they ripen, and they start out a yellow-orange color.

The wineberries will ripen to a deep orange red, and will release from the bush easily when they are ready. Of all the berries, these are my absolute favorite. They have a raspberry/citrus flavor.

The wineberries will ripen to a deep orange red, and will release from the bush easily when they are ready. Of all the berries, these are my absolute favorite. They have a raspberry/citrus flavor.

Blackberries grow in thickets, with each bush typically laden with fruit. The berries grow downwards, under the leaves, and can oftentimes be invisible from above with smaller plants. (Truman is not great at discerning which berries are ripe)

Blackberries grow in thickets, with each bush typically laden with fruit. The berries grow downwards, under the leaves, and can oftentimes be invisible from above with smaller plants. (Truman is not great at discerning which berries are ripe)

Blackberries will have a solid center which comes with the berry when picked. This shows a black raspberry (right) and a blackberry (left) both picked in my untamed backyard in Michigan last year.

Blackberries will have a solid center which comes with the berry when picked. This shows a black raspberry (right) and a blackberry (left) both picked in my untamed backyard in Michigan last year.

Berry picking kit, assembled at the ready in the trunk of my car from mid-June to August.

Berry picking kit, assembled at the ready in the trunk of my car from mid-June to August.

Soon you'll have more berries than you know what to do with!

Soon you'll have more berries than you know what to do with!