Story and photos by Gerry Steinauer, Botanist
I began foraging as a youngster in small-town Millard in the 1960s. On July mornings, my sister Teri and I would hoof it down to Grandma’s house to pick luscious raspberries from fence line bushes, and when playing along the local creek, my friends and I often snacked on plump, ripe mulberries.
Now much older, I still pluck wild fruits whenever the opportunity arises and strategically stock our shelves with enough jars of wild plum syrup and jam to feed an army. Regarding the latter, my wife says I get carried away. I respond that foraging is in my blood, and I can’t help myself. Modern humans are descendants of hunter-gatherers, and the urge to forage is ingrained deep in our genome. By luck of the draw, I was born with more foraging genes than most folks and unabashedly express them.
I will also argue that it’s high time others unleash their suppressed urge to forage. Foraging is a great family activity, an opportunity to introduce children to Mother Nature. And in times of high food prices, why not stock your shelves with free, wild food? Also appealing is the fact that unlike many hobbies, foraging requires little financial investment: All that is needed is a bucket, sunscreen and for the soft-handed, gloves for picking berries growing on prickly bushes. The web provides ample information on how to clean and preserve your harvest, as well as a plethora of recipes to transform the fruit to wonderful desserts and preserves.
Although Nebraska offers many wild fruits to forage, I will focus this short article on a few tasty species that are easily identified, still relatively common on the landscape, and in many years, can be harvested in abundance: wild plums, chokecherries, sand cherries, raspberries, blackberries and mulberries.
Wild Plums and Cherries
For jelly-makers, wild plums, chokecherries and sand cherries are heaven. They belong to the rose family and more specifically the genus Prunus, all having white flowers and fleshy fruits surrounding a central pit.
Wild plum (P. americana) is a tall, thicket-forming shrub found growing along roadsides and in fencerows, pastures and woodland edges. Its dense clusters of flowers bloom in mid-April before the leaves emerge, turning the thickets into snowballs of white. The oblong plums, up to an inch long, ripen to a glossy deep red or purple color in late summer. Inside the rather thick skin lies a delicious orange pulp.
Native American children so loved the plums that they picked the bushes near their villages clean before the fruits ripened. The tribes gathered the ripe plums and sun-dried them, either whole or pitted, for later use. Euroamerican settlers reportedly harvested plums by the bushel and wagon-load for sauces, pies, puddings, jelly and preserves.
I start making the rounds of the plum thickets around my hometown of Aurora in mid-August. If the plums are ripe, I return with a bucket. Unfortunately, the early-blooming flowers are sometimes nipped by frost and produce no fruit. So in a good plum year, I stock away as many preserves as possible, stopping only when my wife begins to question my sanity.
I spread the plums on newspapers in our garage or porch for a few days until all are fully ripe — soft to the touch and juicy. I love eating them fresh, popping one into my mouth and biting through the skin to release the sweet pulp before spitting out the pit and rather tart skin. Unlike me, Native children likely did not waste the nutritious skin. My favorite use for plums is to make jam or syrup, which are great on buttery toast or as a topping on cottage cheese, yogurt, ice cream or pancakes. You can also cut the plums in half, remove the pit and made a wonderful wild plum pie.
Chokecherry (P. virginiana) is also a tall, thicket-forming shrub that is common statewide and grows in the same habitats as the wild plum. The flowers, which hang in distinguishing, drooping clusters, appear in mid-April through May, and the pea-sized cherries ripen from red to blackish-purple in June and July. In many years, the bushes are loaded with fruit that can be picked by the gallon. A warning: Picking the small cherries can be rather tedious work. This is where children can come in handy.
By harvesting the cherries, you will be repeating an ancient tradition of Great Plains tribes who traveled many miles to stream valleys where they were abundant. There, “they went into camp and worked at preparing the cherries as long as they lasted … the cherries were pounded to a pulp, pits and all, on stone mortars, and after being shaped into small cakes, were laid out to dry in the sun [and stored for later use],” wrote ethnobotanist Melvin R. Gilmore in his classic 1914 book Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region. The dried cherries, along with dried and pounded bison meat and boiled fat, were also used to make pemmican, a long-lasting winter food sealed in hide bags.
Recently, my friend Scott Wessel of Bloomfield made chokecherry patties using the method described above, going as far as grinding the cherries, pits and all, between stones, but drying the cakes in a dehydrator rather than in the sun. He said that drying removed much of the cherries’ bitterness, which can cause your mouth to pucker or even worse, as the name implies, to choke when eaten fresh. He described the cakes as “a pleasant combination of sweet and tart with a hint of almond.” The drying also neutralizes the prussic acid naturally found in the pits and responsible for the almond flavor, making the patties safe to eat.
Chokecherries were also a staple fruit of early settlers. One of their recipes was for marmalade, where the cherries were mixed with an equal quantity of wild plums or crabapples to soften their bitterness. They also preserved the cherries as jelly, juice and wine. The latter helped many a lonely settler pass the long winter nights in a cold sod house.
Sand cherry (P. pumila) is a low shrub with willow-like leaves that forms open to dense thickets. In Nebraska, it is most abundant in the Sandhills, but also grows in sand prairie statewide except in southeastern counties. The flowers bloom in clusters of two to four in mid-April through mid-June, and the fingernail-sized, dark-purple fruits ripen in July and August.
In her 1993 book Wild Seasons: Gathering and Cooking Wild Plants of the Great Plains, a must read for serious foragers, author Kay Young wrote that sand cherries produce abundant crops about every third year. The cherries are a bit bitter, less so than chokecherries, and are not bad when
eaten fresh, but they come to life when sweetened with sugar and cooked. According to Young, sand cherries can be a substitute in any recipe that calls for sour cherries, and her book includes recipes for sand cherry pie, juice, jubilee, jam, jelly and more.
In summer 2021, for some unknown reason, the sand cherry crop was exceptionally prolific in areas of the eastern Sandhills. Wessel tipped me off to this phenomenon and said the cherries were bigger and sweeter than normal and that the sand cherry pie he baked was delicious. Based on my past experience with both sand cherries and Scott, I thought he might be stretching the truth.
A few days later, while driving through the Sandhills, I caught a glimpse of a cherry thicket in the highway right-of-way flush with purple fruit. I pulled over, emptied my water jug and filled it with cherries in a mere half hour. The next day, I pitted the cherries and froze some in quart jars for later use. I baked the remaining cherries into a pie using a pioneer family recipe that Wessel had found online.
Following the recipe, I combined 1 cup of sugar and 2 tablespoons of flour, then added 1 cup of heavy whipping cream. I poured this mixture over 1 quart of pitted sand cherries, which I had placed in an unbaked bottom pie crust inside a baking dish. Next, I put the top crust in place and baked the pie at 375 degrees for about 40 minutes.
Dang, the pie was good: I kicked myself for not picking a 5-gallon bucket of the cherries.
Raspberries and Blackberries
Black raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) and two species of highbush blackberry (R. pensilvanicus and R. allegheniensis) are other members of the rose family found in Nebraska that produce tasty fruits. The thicket-forming shrubs are easily identified by their arching, purplish, semi-woody stems that bear curved thorns and grow in similar sunny to partially-shaded habitats.
Black raspberry is common over the eastern half of the state. Its flowers appear in late May and the berries ripen in late June and early July. The late-blooming flowers are not susceptible to late frosts, and the plants bear fruit in most years.
In my humble opinion, raspberries are the most divine-tasting of our wild fruits. Unfortunately, you will be hard-pressed to pick a pail full. From a few nice thickets, however, you can enjoy them fresh by the handful or harvest enough for a few pints of jam or batch of delicious muffins or scones. Fortunately, the wild shrubs are easily transplanted. We moved several plants into our backyard that, when properly pruned in winter, produces a good crop the following summer. Cultivated raspberries, usually a hybrid of Nebraska natives and other species, are available, and although the berries are good, they lack the intense flavor of wild berries.
The two species of highbush blackberry, which are very similar in appearance, grow in southeastern Nebraska, mainly in counties bordering the Missouri River. The shrubs flower May through June, and the berries ripen in slow procession to shiny black in color late July through August.
Although generally larger in size, blackberries trail behind raspberries with regard to flavor. But don’t get me wrong, they are still a treat to eat fresh from the bush on a hot summer day. For cooking, they can be used in the same manner as raspberries: baked into pies, muffins, scones and pancakes or preserved as jams, jellies and sauces. And who has not been tempted by blackberry brandy or wine?
Blackberries are less abundant in our state than raspberries, and finding sites where they can be harvested in abundance is a challenge. I have picked sufficient berries for jam-making from rocky pastures in Jefferson County and the oak woodlands at Indian Cave State Park in Nemaha and Richardson counties.
Native Americans surely picked both raspberries and blackberries from these same areas, enjoying them fresh and dried for winter use. Active managers of the land, they often set fire to eastern Nebraska woodlands to limit tree densities and promote these and other sun-loving, fruit-bearing plants. In recent years, the Game and Parks Commission has conducted prescribed burns at Indian Cave to enhance native plants and improve wildlife habitat. A result of the burning, blackberries and raspberries have flourished in the park.
For foragers, a berry-laden white mulberry (Morus alba) tree is easy pickings. This species was introduced to the eastern United States from its native China in the early 1600s and rapidly spread from there. A member of the fig family, the tree is now common in vacant lots, road ditches, pastures and woodlands throughout eastern and central Nebraska.
The mulberry’s tiny, green flowers arranged in drooping catkins appear in late April and May. The oblong berries ripen in slow procession from green to purplish-black in color throughout June and July, providing a long harvest season. The tree’s low, spreading branches place the berries within easy reach of foragers.
If harvesting a few juicy fruits to eat fresh, or enough for a single pie, hand picking will suffice. If you desire sufficient berries for several pies or freezing and later use, place an old sheet or tarp under the tree and give a branch a good shake. The ripe berries will rain down on the sheet, along with a few leaves, twigs and unripe berries that you will need to remove.
Mulberries are often described as blackberry-like in flavor with a hint of vanilla. My unrefined taste buds cannot discern these hints of flavor, and for me, the berries taste uniquely “mulberry-like.” The juiciness, sweetness and flavor of the berries can vary from tree-to-tree, and you may have to sample fruit from several trees to find the best berries. Mulberries can be used alone or mixed with other wild fruits in desserts, including pies, cakes and cookies, and preserves including jam, jelly and syrup. Young wrote that tartness can bring out the mulberry flavor, and she often added gooseberries or rhubarb to her mulberry desserts.
Whether seeking mulberries or other wild fruits, Nebraska provides ample opportunity to forage. The benefits are many: you can relive your hunter-gatherer past, explore a new hobby, try new recipes and best of all, treat yourself to nature’s sweetness.