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DIY: Harvesting Wild Fruits and Berries in Nebraska

I always get rather impatient this time of year. Is it the hunting seasons that are forthcoming? No, not really. Then, why?

Well, I am anxiously waiting to harvest elderberries.

Here I am checking out wild elderberries for ripeness on a Saunders County, NE farm in mid August. Photo by Rich Berggren/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Elderberries!

Ripe elderberries growing on a Sarpy County, NE farm. Elderberries are never to be eaten raw, but must be properly prepared and used in proven recipes only. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Yep. I am thinking about that tasty elderberry jelly that a buddy of mine makes. Oh, so good!

It is berry picking time in Nebraska or nearing it and not just for elderberries but for other popular wild fruits and berries as well. In fact, I have already gathered chokecherries, sand cherries and mulberries. Yes, for some it’s too late. However, the bulk of edible wild fruits and berries in the Nebraska countryside are ready for harvest or soon will be!

Fully mature crabapples in southeast Nebraska. Photo by Katie Stacey/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

But, before you get started in the enjoyment of picking wild fruits and berries for the kitchen, here are the foraging rules, regulations and guidelines that you need to know.

Practice responsible recreation. Responsible recreation means the safe and constructive use of of natural and recreational resources to help one cope with the current COVID-19 pandemic. Getting outdoors is one of the best ways to practice social distancing, as long as it is done responsibly. Foraging is best done solo or within your social isolation group. If going alone, tell someone what your itinerary is. Staying safe outdoors during the pandemic means to plan ahead, recreate close to home, comply with local, state or federal health directives or guidelines for avoiding COVID-19 and pack out your trash. Get more information about COVID-19 Health Information by visiting our Nebraska Game and Parks Commission website: www.OutdoorNebraska.gov

Ask the farmer or rancher first! You must acquire permission from the landowner before gathering wild fruits on private property in Nebraska – 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! If you know the landowner, call or text message them in advance for permission to tread on their property. During the COVID-19 pandemic, adhere to CDC guidelines when approaching landowners. Additionally, you’ll find that rural landowners are wonderful resources of information about wild edible plants. You also need to ask an individual farmer or rancher if any potentially harmful pesticides or herbicides have been sprayed on or near the fruit or berries you intend to pick! After the harvest, offer a gesture of thanks for being allowed on their property like sending them a gift card to a local hardware or agricultural equipment supply store.

Public lands available? For the Nebraska state park lands, by regulation, a person needs to consult 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 of it to find out if foraging is allowable to do or not.

Where exactly to look (and not to look). Wild fruits and berries in the Cornhusker State can be found in many 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. Make certain to gather your quarry from areas not treated with pesticides, herbicides or pollutants. It is good to familiarize yourself with the local ecosystem and habitat. 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 well over a dozen different kinds of edible wild fruits and berries, and you should understand and be able to recognize the characteristics of each. If you are not confident at identifying fruit-bearing trees or berry-producing plants, visit with someone who has picked wild fruits and berries for years, carry a reliable field ID guide, or use a handy, known and trusted mobile app on your Android or iPhone 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.

Chokecherries that are ripe in the Nebraska Sandhills. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Have the right containers, bring extra ones and don’t compress your fruits and berries. 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. Bring more containers than you’ll think you need.

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

The gear. It doesn’t take much as far as gear goes for picking wild fruits and berries. You’ll need that container (shallow bucket or wicker basket), sunscreen or sunblock, insect repellent, old but comfortable shoes, and socks, short or long-sleeved shirt (preferred) and pants, plus a hat and bottle of water. You could also add a pocketknife and small first-aid kit to the gear list. Oh, and don’t forget your PPE items (face covering and hand sanitizer).

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). Make a little noise to alert fruit-nibbling critters (e.g. fur-bearing animals, snakes, birds) of your presence, too.

When to harvest? For the most part, let your eye dictate when to harvest wild fruits and berries. Color and size are obvious indicators of their ripeness. Color usually changes to a more vibrant end of the color spectrum though, anywhere from red, orange, yellow, purple and blue (and/or combinations of those hues and others). Fruits and berries should be uniformly colored on the plant. However, color alone should not be the sole basis for harvesting fruits and berries. Equally important when harvesting fruits and berries is the smell of them. The aroma of fruits and berries becomes more fragrant as they ripen. Keep in mind that ripe fruits and berries yield to gentle pressure by the fingers, too, especially near the tip. There should be a little give to it. In addition, note that the skin of fruits and berries needs to be smooth and wrinkle-free. Ripe fruits and berries should also feel a little heavy for their size in your hand. When wild fruits and berries ripen depend on climate, weather and other factors.

Gently picking ripe wild plums. Photo by T. Andre Shousha of Waterloo, NE.

Sample the fruit, but not the elderberries. If you have never tasted wild fruits, you should try a couple before you collect a bunch, but not the elderberries. Eating elderberries that are not cooked thoroughly or unripe may cause poisonous effects if consumed, and so can eating the leaves, seeds, bark and roots of this plant. Proper preparation and proven recipes generally break down the toxins in the elderberries. 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. Let me point out that it certainly is a good idea to introduce new wild foods to your diet in a very small quantity to check for a reaction, and if you have a specific medical condition, seek advice from your physician before adding any new wild-grown foods to your diet.

Sampling the American plum fruit on a friend’s southeast Nebraska Farm. Photo by T. Andre Shousha of Waterloo, NE.

What to pick, when to go picking. Only harvest healthy-looking, robust fruits and berries, none with spots, mold, rot, signs of insect infestation or bites taken out by wildlife. Consider the foraging process to be comparable to what you would do if you were selecting the best pieces of produce at the supermarket. You should try to harvest your wild fruits and berries during the early morning hours (around sunrise) if possible before heat can build up within the fruits and berries making them mushy.

Pawpaws, referred to as Husker bananas, on tree in wooded Missouri River bluffs of rural Otoe County, NE. The flavor of this fruit is described as “tropical.” Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Take only what you can use, don’t damage plants.  Don’t take more fruit than you can use, please. Remember that other people may want to harvest some wild fruits and berries, and these are important food sources for a variety of wildlife species. Why would anyone take an overabundance of fruit to let spoil and go to waste? Be mindful that no good forager breaks down or tramples fruit-bearing bushes.

After the harvest. Keep your wild fruits in the shade and get them into the refrigerator or an 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 planning 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 saltwater to dislodge any small insects that might be hiding on or within them.

What to make with wild fruits and berries? 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, juices, jams, jellies, preserves, pies, cobblers, syrups, sauces and wines.

Persimmon fruit ready for harvest on a southeast Nebraska farm. The completely ripe persimmon fruits are truly a naturally sweet delicacy. Some say the ripe permission fruit has flavors reminiscent of butterscotch and caramel, and I would agree! Persimmon makes the sweetest syrup for pancakes! Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Involve kids. Get the kids in your household to take part in the harvest of these various fruits and berries. And, complete the process by making goodies out of what you have gathered. The kids will have a blast! Foraging for wild edibles is among those wonderful family activities that help foster an appreciation of food and nature. Truly, there’s just something sort of magical about eating stuff found growing in the outdoors surrounded by a natural environment. 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 these fit into the locavore movement (an effort to eat food that is locally produced and not moved long distances to market)!

Kids love gathering fruits and berries. Here is young Isabelle is picking plums on her family’s southeast Nebraska farm. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

Gathering wild fruits and berries is good for personal, nutritious food procurement, Vitamin D absorption, calorie burning and some exercise. During the pandemic, getting to know wild edible plants a little better is sure helpful in keeping us mentally sharp, and for relieving stress and cooped up anxiety. Picking fruits and berries also fits perfectly into an individual self-reliance program. Time outdoors foraging for fruits and berries growing wild is indeed time well spent.

Young Isabelle eats a tart American wild plum on her family’s southeast Nebraska farm. Photo by Greg Wagner/Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.

NOTE: 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

Buffaloberry – late July to early September

Elderberry – mid-August to mid-September

Serviceberry (Juneberry) – June or July

Silverberry (Autumnberry or Autumn Olive) — September and October

Pawpaw – September or early October

Persimmon – September to October after the first hard frost of the year

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

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

This blog post would not be complete without a recipe, right? So, here is a fun favorite of the Wagner family.

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!

About Wild Fruits and Berries

INTERESTING HISTORICAL FACTS: 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. Native Americans enjoyed gooseberries and currants fresh, cooked, juiced or dried. Some tribes used currants, along with larger amounts of chokecherries and serviceberries, in pemmican – a winter staple of dried and pounded meat and berries to which melted buffalo fat was added. Settlers ate gooseberries and currants fresh, preserved and cooked into flavorful pies, jellies and jams.

WILDLIFE USE: Some 79 different species wildlife benefit from the elderberry shrub in one way or another, according to research done by the Nebraska Forest Service and National Arbor Day Foundation.

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.

Ripe western sand cherries growing on a farm in Nebraska’s Elkhorn River Valley. 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 channels, 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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