The beauty of berries is that you don’t have to go out of your way to find them because wild berries grow in every state. They’re perhaps most abundant in coastal mountain regions and in the Northern states, but you’ll also find patches alongside trails in Georgia, Texas, and Arizona, as well. You just have to know where and when to look.
While there are dozens if not hundreds of different types of edible berries growing along trails, the most common and easy to identify are red and black raspberries, blackberries, wild blueberries, and huckleberries (see “Pick And Choose”). According to edible plant experts, these berries have no poisonous look-alikes, so once you know what to look for, you can munch away with confidence.
Edible berry-bearing plants usually grow where they can get plenty of sunlight, which means open areas like high mountain bogs, forest clearings, fencerows, along roadways, and above treeline. When berries ripen depends on the type of plant, as well as its elevation and latitude. For instance, raspberries on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon ripen in early july, but in Montana don’t expect them to reach maturity until late August. Huckleberries on Oregon’s Mt. Hood ripen a good three weeks before they do on Washington’s Mt. Baker, even though they grow at almost the same elevation. But generally, consider that the berry-picking season runs approximately from midsummer to early autumn.
Berrying on the trail is a catch-as-you-can proposition that calls for the eye of a hungry bear and the opportunism of a fox. Some people have a nose for berries that always seems to land them in the ripest, most lush patches. if you will be gathering berries during the day for that night’s dinner or tomorrow’s breakfast, you’ll need a receptacle of some kind to hold your pickings. A wide-mouth water bottle works fine. if the weather is hot and the mileage to camp long, then plop the berries into the bottle half-filled with water to prevent them from getting bounced around and reduced to jam.
While berrying conjures images of summer idylls in mountain meadows, there are a few precautions worth mentioning. Bears are as fond of ripe berries as you are, so keep a watchful eye out for the four-legged competition. When hiking in thick, overgrown berry country where you may not be able to see around the next bend, talk loudly and give bears a chance to run off. Some varieties of nonpoisonous snakes fancy berries, as well, so watch your step. Also, poison oak, sumac, and ivy tend to enjoy the same growing conditions as the brambly berries, so learn to identify them. And beware of the stickers on wild blackberries and raspberries. Anything that good has to come with a catch.
As for the matter of which is the best tasting berry, that’s a bit like asking about the finest mountain range. Still, the backcountry gourmands I’ve talked to all mention huckleberries, and herein lies a conundrum: What is a huckleberry? Some people confuse them with blueberries, and the debate over which is which can be fierce. Wild mountain huckleberries grow from Oregon to Alaska and from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. New Englanders argue that their region is home to the true huckleberry, and that the Pacific Northwest berries are actually bilberries or dewberries. Experienced berry pickers in Oregon, Washington, and Montana counter that their berries are true huckleberries, and more flavorful and sweeter than East Coast “blueberries.”
Who’s right, who’s wrong? That’s difficult to say, but the proof should be in the pudding or batter or pie filling.
1 1/2 cups flour 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder 1 Tbsp. powdered milk 1 Tbsp. sugar 1/2 tsp. salt water 1 cup berries, any type
Mix together dry ingredients. Add water gradually until you reach a pourable consistency. Fold in berries until they’re covered. Lightly grease your frying pan and spoon batter into pan once hot. Cook gently over medium heat, rotating pan frequently to prevent burning. Turn when bubbles on top surface set. Serves two to four.
Berry Breakfast Cake(**)
1 cup berries, any type 2 cups Bisquick baking mix 1/4 cup powdered milk 2 Tbsp. sugar 1/2 tsp. cinnamon water
Heat berries in large pot. While heating, mix dry ingredients with enough water to make a thick batter. Drop spoonfuls of the batter onto the berries. Cover and let cook until batter becomes cake-like. Serves two to four.
Beef and Berry Stew with Dumplings
Stew 6 oz. dried beef 2 to 3 cups water 2 Tbsp. dried onions 2 Tbsp. dried bell peppers 1/4 cup dried tomatoes 2 Tbsp. dried carrots 2 Tbsp. dried celery pinch basil, thyme, and parsley 1 cup berries (any variety, but huckleberries are best) 2 Tbsp. cornstarch
Rinse excess salt off dried beef. Discard salty water. Cut or tear beef slices into small pieces. Add about 2 cups fresh water to large pot. Add rinsed, shredded beef and all dried ingredients and herbs. Cover and bring to boil. Reduce flame and simmer for 15 minutes. Add more water if needed (there should be enough water to cover all ingredients). Add berries. Slowly stir in cornstarch (to thicken mixture). Add in drops of dumpling mixture, cover and cook an additional 10 minutes. Serves two to four.
Dumplings 1 cup flour 1 tsp. baking powder 2 1/2 tsp. shortening pinch salt 1/2 cup water
Pre-mix all ingredients except water and store in a large plastic bag with twist-tie top (grocery store produce bags work great). Once in camp, add water to bag and knead mixture to form dough. When stew is ready, cut one corner off the bag and squeeze dough in large drops onto surface of boiling stew.
(Serve with wild rice and fresh trout, if you were lucky.) 1/4 cup raisins 1/4 cup dried apples 1/4 cup dried onion flakes 1/4 cup dried pineapple (optional) 1/4 cup chopped walnuts or cashew pieces (optional) 1 Tbsp. sugar (use if berries are tart) 1 cup water 2 sprigs cilantro (preferably fresh) 1 cup salmonberries (or virtually any other edible berries)
Combine all ingredients except fresh berries in pot and bring to gentle boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain excess water, add fresh berries, and continue to simmer for 1 minute to heat berries. Remove from heat and set aside and keep warm. Serves two.