The pace and connectivity of modern life often push us away from the simple pleasures of the natural world. Housing developments and business zones have replaced patches of forest that used to thrive at the edges of town, in between farmers' fields, and next to the old family homestead. But many simple and natural things are still there, waiting to be discovered and to offer up their treasures to those who have a different way of looking at the world.
Berry picking is one way that I connect with, and find joy in, nature. Whether I'm hiking rocky hills in northeastern Minnesota in search of blueberries, or slipping into a pocket of untamed trees and shrubs next to a suburban ballpark to look for gooseberries, I am always thrilled to spot glimmers of color that point me to a patch of wild berries. I've also had good luck in woodsy buffer areas that have been left undisturbed as townhouses and office parks are built. In Minnesota, berry picking is allowed in state parks and in state and national forests, and the rangers might even direct you to a good area.
You don't need fancy equipment. A one-gallon ice cream pail with a handle works well to hold the fruit. You can set it on the ground and drop berries into it as you pick, and unlike a plastic bag, it won't snag on sticks and thorns as you walk. Hiking boots are great for rough or steep areas. Lighter footwear is fine for easy hikes, but don't be tempted to wear sandals, which don't offer enough foot protection. Long-sleeved shirts and pants are recommended to avoid scratches, scrapes, and mosquitoes; I also carry insect repellent and drinking water, particularly in warm weather.
Here are tips on five of the berries (and berry-like fruits) that I enjoy gathering in Minnesota.
Minnesota has two native blueberries: common lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium) and velvet-leaf blueberries (V. myrtilloides). Both grow primarily in the northeastern half of the state, but they can be found growing from the furthest northwestern counties all the way to the southeastern corner of the state.
Habitat includes open, coniferous woodlands and sandy or rocky edges of coniferous and mixed-woods forests; sun-drenched hilltops and rocky ridges; forest clearings; and edges of footpaths. (Blueberries are very common along portages in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, where berry picking is also allowed.) They thrive in areas that have been scoured by fire, where picking can be phenomenal for the next few years. Blueberries ripen starting in mid- to late July, continuing through August.
Blueberry shrubs are 1 to 2½ feet tall and often grow in colonies. Leaves are shaped like an elongated football, typically 1 to 1½ inches long; they grow alternately on greenish-brown branches. Common lowbush blueberries have smooth leaves with fine teeth along the edges, while leaves of velvet-leaf blueberries are hairy and toothless. Fruits of both grow in clusters from branch tips. Underripe berries are green, becoming pinkish before ripening to deep blue with a whitish bloom; ripe berries look just like supermarket blueberries but are smaller—typically ¼ to 1/3 inch across. A key ID feature is the short five-pointed crown that is present on the top.
Ripe berries detach easily from the bush. Although you can use opened fingers to comb through a cluster of blueberries, you'll get less debris if you pluck individual fruits. Velvet-leaf blueberries are tarter than common lowbush blueberries, which are also called sweet lowbush blueberries. Both can be used like domestic blueberries, but because they're so small they pack together more closely—so you can use a smaller measure of wild blueberries in muffins or similar recipes. Wild blueberries make outstanding jam and pie.
You may know these as juneberries, saskatoons, or shadbush—or you may not know them at all. Eight species of serviceberries (Amelanchier spp.) are native to Minnesota, and most counties have at least one type, but many people are unfamiliar with them. That's too bad, because they produce delicious fruits that are similar to blueberries.
Look for serviceberries along sandy or gravelly lakeshores, in brushy areas near meadows and streams, next to ditches along gravel roads, and, increasingly, as landscape plants in urban areas. In the northern half of the state, find them along the edges of dry open woods and around rocky outcrops. Some species grow in colonies, while others are more solitary.
Serviceberries grow as leggy, multi-stemmed shrubs or small, slender trees. Shrub varieties are typically less than 15 feet tall; those growing as trees may reach 40 feet, although they are usually shorter. Leaves grow alternately and are roughly egg-shaped; they are 1 to 3 inches long. Edges have fine to coarse teeth, and leaf tips may be sharply pointed or nearly rounded, depending on species. All Amelanchier produce edible fruit, so exact species identification isn't important to the forager.
The fruits resemble blueberries—including the crown and dusty bloom—but ripe fruits range from purplish red to deep purple to blackish, depending on species, and most are slightly larger than blueberries. Fruits are arranged in hanging clusters growing from the tips of small branches; each fruit grows on a thin stalk that is connected to a central fruiting stem. Judge ripeness by the texture, choosing fruits that are plump and somewhat soft. Taste a few before gathering any quantity; fruits of some species are fairly bland, while those of others are sweet, similar to blueberries with a slight almond note. The darkest fruits on a plant will be the tastiest, as long as they are not overripe and wrinkled. Serviceberries can be eaten raw or used in pies, muffins, jam, and other cooked dishes—exactly like blueberries.
Although there are numerous species in the Rubus genus that bear some resemblances to red raspberries (including thimbleberries, dwarf raspberries, black raspberries, and numerous dewberry species), there is only one “true” wild red raspberry: Rubus idaeus. It is native to the United States and is found throughout most of Minnesota with the possible exception of the southwestern corner and a few scattered counties elsewhere.
It’s no surprise that wild red raspberries resemble the supermarket variety—commercial crops are derived from R. idaeus. Other than their smaller size, fruits picked in the wild look exactly like their domestic cousins, making identification easy.
Red raspberries thrive in areas with full to partial sun, including open woodlands, forest edges, roadsides, streambanks, ravines, and untamed prairies and grasslands. They often appear a year or two after an area has been cleared, whether intentionally or due to fires, and they are not particular about soil, growing in sandy soil, swampy areas, and almost everything in between.
Stems—called canes—are up to 5 feet long and may be upright or arching; they are distinctly bristly but have no thorns. Leaves are compound, with three to five egg-shaped to oblong leaflets on each leaf stalk; the leaf stalks are arranged alternately on the canes. The top sides of the leaves are rich green, while undersides are silvery and hairy; edges have coarse teeth and the leaf tips are pointed. Red raspberries often grow in colonies.
Raspberries are biennial. First-year canes have leaves with five leaflets and do not produce flowers. In the second year, leaves have three leaflets; the plants produce white flowers that develop into the familiar fruit. Look for ripe red raspberries from midsummer through late summer. Ripe fruits detach easily from the plant, leaving the core behind so the picked fruit is hollow. Wild red raspberries can be eaten raw or used in any recipe as a substitute for store-bought red raspberries.
The Other Red Raspberry
If you find plants that resemble red raspberries but have thorns and a whitish bloom on the canes, you have probably found black raspberries (Rubus occidentalis). Underripe black raspberries pass through a red stage that looks similar to red raspberries, but the fruits are hard and don't detach easily from the core. Black raspberries are delicious; note the location of underripe fruit and return in a week or so to harvest ripe fruits, which are blackish-purple and hollow when picked. In Minnesota, this species is most common in the southern half of the state.
Currant or Gooseberry
Five varieties of currants (Ribes spp.) are native to Minnesota and are easy to confuse with gooseberries because their leaves are quite similar. Two key points make it easy to separate the two. First, currant shrubs have no prickles or bristles on the stems, while gooseberry stems have scattered to dense bristles. Second, currant fruits grow in hanging clusters, with six to 20 (or more) fruits on each fruiting stem. Ripe fruits range from red to reddish-purple to black; most are slightly smaller than gooseberries, but have the same pigtail on the end. Currants are edible, so misidentification wouldn't be tragic.
Bees are the primary pollinators for blueberries, though nocturnal moths might also pollinate the plants.
In the past, the appearance of serviceberry blooms in the woods signaled that the ground was soft enough to dig graves—and hold services—for those who had passed in the winter.
The ancient Greeks harvested raspberries as early as 370 BCE.
Old legends say that fairies hide under the gooseberry's prickly stems, giving rise to the plant's fanciful name, "fayberries."
Henry David Thoreau called highbush cranberries "tree cranberries" and wrote that they were "equal to the common cranberry" when stewed with sugar.
These common berries have an uncommon attribute: They can be used in both the green and ripe stages. Four native gooseberry species (Ribes spp.) inhabit Minnesota, and every county has at least one. Depending on species, habitats include mixed forests; thickets and shelter belts; dry, rocky outcrops and bluffs; swamps and shorelines; and areas with mixed shrubs and trees. They prefer sun or dappled shade.
Gooseberry shrubs are typically 2 to 4 feet tall, with upright or arching stems; Missouri gooseberries (R. missouriense, found throughout the southern half of the state) may be 6 feet or longer. Stems have sparse to abundant bristles or prickles, although these may be absent on older branches. Most varieties have one to three thorn-like spines where side branches meet the main stem.
Leaves grow alternately and have three to five lobes with scalloped edges; they resemble rounded maple leaves. Berries are ¼ to ½ inch across and grow singly or in clusters of two or three. Subtle stripes run lengthwise; a withered floral remnant, called a "pigtail," is present on the top. Young gooseberries are green, ripening to red, purple, or blackish, depending on variety. Prickly gooseberries (R. cynosbati, found throughout most of the state) have soft prickles over at least half of the berry, but these soften when cooked.
Start your harvest when the green fruits soften a bit and become somewhat translucent. They will be sour, but if they are too astringent, let them ripen a bit longer before picking. Gooseberries have a rhubarb-like flavor. Green gooseberries are rich in pectin and make delicious jam or jelly. Ripe gooseberries are good for baked desserts, and they also work well in sweet or savory sauces. Look for green gooseberries starting in mid-June, and ripe fruits from mid-July through mid-August. To prepare gooseberries, remove the stem and pigtail; a knife works on green gooseberries but a small, sharp scissors is better for ripe berries, which are softer and more delicate.
Also called American cranberrybush, this native shrub (Viburnum opulus var. americanum) grows throughout Minnesota except the southwest and a few counties elsewhere. It thrives in moist, well-drained forests and thickets, especially in clearings and edges, and also grows in swampy areas, next to streams and lakes, and on riverbanks. It is typically 6 to 15 feet tall. Leaves grow oppositely and are three-lobed, resembling maple leaves.
Fruits grow in large, hanging clusters and are bright red, shiny, and somewhat translucent when ripe. They are about 1/3 inch across and contain a single large, inedible seed, so the fruits—which are technically drupes, not berries—must be puréed before using.
When foraging, watch out for Guelder rose (V. opulus var. opulus), a European look-alike that is planted as an ornamental; in Minnesota it's found primarily around cities, where it has escaped cultivation. To identify, look at the small, bump-like glands at the base of each leaf. On highbush cranberries, the glands are rounded at the tip, while those of Guelder rose have bowl-shaped tips. An easier way to distinguish them is to taste a ripe fruit. Highbush cranberries taste similar to real cranberries, while Guelder rose fruits are truly dreadful; although it won't hurt you to try one, you won't want a second.
Gather only bright red fruits. If they are soft, you can process them immediately. If they are still hard, pull individual fruits off the stems and freeze them; thawed fruits will be soft enough to process without cooking, which is not advised due to the bitter seeds. Process fruits through a food mill, or crush them gently with a potato masher, then press through a colander. Use the purée for sauces or jam. For juice, add water to the desired consistency and sweeten to taste; if you like, let the juice settle in the fridge for a few days, then pour off the clear liquid from the top.