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Time Will Soon Be Ripe For Much Wild Fruit And Berry Picking

The mulberries have been ripe for a couple weeks now. Wild strawberries and raspberries have been picked already. But, soon the bulk of the edible wild fruits and berries in the Nebraska countryside will be ready for harvest.

Ripe elderberries in southeastern Nebraska. Elderberries are not to be eaten raw, but must be properly prepared and used in proven recipes only. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Before you get started in the fun of harvesting wild fruits and berries in Nebraska, here are a some foraging rules, regulations and guidelines that you need to know.

Ask the farmer or rancher first! You must acquire permission before gathering wild fruits on private property – even if it’s just across the fence along the edge of a public road. Think how you’d feel or what you’d do if the tables were turned! Additionally, you’ll find that landowners are wonderful resources of information about wild edible fruits. You also need to ask an individual landowner if any potentially harmful pesticides or herbicides have been sprayed on or near the fruit you intend to pick! As a gesture of thanks for being allowed on the property, offer the landowner some of your bounty.

Public lands available? For the Nebraska state park lands, by regulation, a person needs to see the area park superintendent for permission to harvest wild fruits and berries for personal use by hand. Regarding state wildlife management areas, the picking or removal of fruits and berries is prohibited unless special permission has been granted by the wildlife division of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. Prior to foraging for any wild edibles on a given tract of public land, make certain to contact the governing authority to find out if it is allowable to do or not.

Where exactly to look (and not to look). Wild fruits and berries in Nebraska can be found in a number of locations — along the edges of woodlands, old shelterbelts, fence lines, farm fields, pastures, overgrown meadows, ditches, abandon farmsteads and along rivers and creeks. Keep in mind that fruit trees/vines and berry bushes mainly thrive in the sun. As mentioned, field edges or meadow margins are places to look. Also, take note: Often the best fruits are hidden in the middle of the plant. And, it is best to avoid fruits and berries next to busy roads: Besides traffic safety concerns, roadside berries may collect heavy metals from exhaust or store toxins from roadside spraying. Once wild fruit and berry plants are located, monitor them for ripeness and know that invasive Japanese beetles prefer their pleasant-smelling leaves.

Know what you’re going to pick. Nebraska has more than a dozen different kinds of edible wild fruits and berries, and you should know the characteristics of each. If you are not confident at identifying fruit-bearing trees or berry-producing plants, go with someone who knows what they’re going to pick or use a handy mobile phone app related to identification of various tree species or wild edible fruits and berries. By the way, if you see a bird eating a wild fruit, don’t assume that it is safe to eat! Birds eat many wild berries that are poisonous to humans. Don’t forget, raw elderberries are off limits for human consumption.

Have the right container, and don’t compress them. Put your fruits/berries in a shallow bucket or basket. Lightweight plastic bowls also work well. It is okay to fill the container, but be gentle and don’t apply pressure to compress or pack the fruits or berries.

plumswildinbasket
American wild plums gathered in a wicker basket. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

A bit of caution. While picking wild fruits such as plums, exercise a bit of caution. The twigs of some of these scrubby trees may be covered with dull pointed thorns that can sometimes prick you. Expect insects (e.g. wasps, mosquitoes, chiggers) to be present as well as irritating plants, to your skin (e.g. poison ivy, stinging nettles). It is also a good idea to make a little noise to alert fruit-nibbling critters (e.g. fur-bearing animals, snakes, birds) of your presence.

Sample the fruit. If you have never tasted wild fruits, you should try a couple before you collect a bunch, with the exception of elderberries. They are absolutely not be eaten raw! Many parts of the elderberry are toxic, but proper preparation and proven recipes generally break down the toxins in the berries. When it comes to most other wild fruits and berries, there’s no point in picking something you don’t like and that may go to waste, so sample them. Wild fruits and berries tend to be tart to the taste, but keep in mind that many recipes call for ample amounts of sugar or sweetener to be added to counteract that sharp, sour taste.

Take only what you can use.  Don’t take more fruit than you can use, please. Remember that other people may want to harvest some wild fruits and berries as well, and that these are important food sources for a variety of wildlife. Don’t take an overabundance of fruit that you might let spoil and go to waste.

After the harvest. Keep your wild fruits in the shade and get them into the refrigerator or a iced cooler as soon as you can. They’ll keep for a few days, possibly a week, in the fridge. Don’t wash them until right before you’re going to use them. To wash, rinse the berries in cool water, discarding any rotten or squashed ones. Some veteran fruit pickers like to soak their fresh fruits for about an hour or so in salt water to dislodge any small insects that might be hiding on or within them.

What to make with them. There are so many things you can do with wild fruits and berries. Packed with vitamins and antioxidants, most wild fruits and berries can be eaten fresh off the bush (not elderberries) or taken home and used as toppings on cereals, salads and ice cream (no elderberries). They also can be made into smoothies, jams, jellies, preserves, pies, cobblers, syrups, sauces and wines.

Involve kids. By all means involve your kids in the harvest of these various fruits and berries, too, plus making goodies out of them. The kids will have a blast! Foraging for wild edibles is among those wonderful family activities that help foster an appreciation of nature. Truly, there’s just something sort of magical about eating stuff found growing in the outdoors. It’s more important than ever to take kids on foraging adventures for wild fruit so they fully understand the origins of their food and how this fits into the locavore movement (an effort to eat food that is locally produced and not moved long distances to market)!

Young Isabelle eats a tart American wild plum on a southeastern Nebraska farm. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

So, why not begin a wild edible picking tradition with your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews or young neighbors today. It will continue into adulthood and priceless memories will be made!

If you plan to make syrups, jellies or wines, it is important to know when the fruit becomes available. These are the ripening periods for various Nebraska wild fruits and berries.

APPROXIMATE RIPENING DATES FOR FRUITS AND BERRIES IN NEBRASKA

Mulberry – mid June to mid July

Strawberry – mid June to mid July

Raspberry – late June to mid July

Chokecherry – mid July to mid August

Crabapple – early August to late October

Aronia or black chokeberry – late August to early September

Currant – mid July to early August

Sand Cherry – early July to early August

Gooseberry – mid July to mid August

Ground Cherry – July to September

Blackberry – late July to early August

Buffalo Berry – late July to early September

Elderberry – mid August to mid September

Wild Grape – late August to early October* (the leaves are delicious and can be used as wraps)

Plum – late August to early October*

*light frost improves flavor

This blog post would not be complete without a recipe or two, right? So, here are a couple favorites of the Wagner family.

Sweet Chokecherry Syrup

Ingredients

8 cups ripe chokecherries

about 1/2 to 1/4 cup water

4 cups sugar

1 pkg fruit pectin (use liquid type)

Directions

Wash and remove stems from cherries. Place in a large kettle, adding just enough water to prevent scorching. Simmer until soft, mash, then strain and measure about 4 cups of juice. Place back in kettle, add pectin,  and bring to a boil. Stir in sugar, boil hard for 1 minute, skim, and pour into sterilized jars.

Ripe chokecherries in the Nebraska Sandhills. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Plum Good Ketchup

Ingredients

2 cups cooked and strained plum puree

¼ cup apple cider vinegar

½ cup honey

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground cloves

a few scratches of nutmeg

½ teaspoon salt

pepper to taste

Directions

      1. Mix all the ingredients and bring this mixture to a very low simmer.
      2. Let the mixture cook until it thickens considerably.
      3. Taste while the batch is cooking and vary the amount of vinegar, sweetener and spices in this recipe to suit your tastes. Just keep tasting it until it hits the right notes for your palate.
      4. Let the mixture cook gently over low heat for 20 minutes, or until it reaches a thick, jam-like consistency.
      5. Keep refrigerated.

Enjoy!

Wild plums ripe for the picking on a southeastern Nebraska farm. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

INTERESTING FACT: For Plains Native American tribes and early white settlers, gooseberries and currants, along with wild strawberries, plums, serviceberries and raspberries were the only available fruit.

BEST FORAGING QUOTE: “Foraging is like fishing – you don’t necessarily want to go looking for anything specific, but just see what you can find.” — Lincoln, NE foragers Adam Hintz and Dustin Rymph in an interview with NET News.

GREAT REFERENCE BOOK: Wild Seasons: Gathering and Cooking Wild Plants of the Great Plains (Paperback — August 1, 1993) by Kay Young.

Western sand cherries growing on a southeastern Nebraska farm. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

About greg wagner

A native of Gretna, NE, a graduate of Gretna High School and Bellevue University, Greg Wagner currently serves as the Public Information Officer and Manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission's Service Center in Omaha. On a weekly basis, Wagner can be heard on a number of radio stations, seen on local television in Omaha, and on social media sites, creatively conveying natural resource conservation messages as well as promoting outdoor activities and destinations in Nebraska. Wagner, whose career at Game and Parks began in 1979, walks, talks, lives, breathes and blogs about Nebraska’s outdoors. He grew up in rural Gretna, building forts in the woods, hunting, fishing, collecting leaves, and generally thriving on constant outdoor activity. One of the primary goals of his blog is to get people, especially young ones, to have fun and spend time outside!

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