Many generations of rural Americans grew up collecting nuts and berries as a family tradition. At the appropriate times of the year, they would go collect black walnuts, hickory nuts, pine nuts, chestnuts, blackberries, elderberries, wild strawberries, blueberries, cherries, mulberries, apples, grapes and other bounty from the forest. These are some of the foods that people from just a few generations ago took for granted.
Foraging has enjoyed increased interest as more and more people are realizing the great value in being able to identify feral foods that are still essentially free for the picking. When North America was exclusively Native American territory, just about every food plant was carefully exploited. Nuts, berries, greens, flowers, roots – all were used and surplus was dried for later consumption.
“MANY GENERATIONS OF RURAL AMERICANS GREW UP COLLECTING NUTS AND BERRIES AS A FAMILY TRADITION.… THESE ARE SOME OF THE FOODS THAT PEOPLE FROM JUST A FEW GENERATIONS AGO TOOK FOR GRANTED.”
Today, people take to the woods and backyards in search of wild nuts and berries for many reasons. Most folks get hooked on the idea that you can just go outside, commune with nature in the way that’s best for you, and then find a snack or lunch. Food is everywhere. When I began learning how to forage at around age 12, it seemed terribly exciting to know how to find food that was always there, that Native Americans had known about and used for millennia. It was like peeling back a mysterious fog and penetrating into the deep past for a skill that would be with me forever in this modern world.
Of course, the collection and use of wild edibles has gained popularity in the last few decades because more people are aware of the fragility of our modern methods of agriculture, not to mention all the support systems that get food from the farm to your local store. It makes practical sense to learn about local wild plants, and it also makes sense to grow at least a little of your own food.
In his book “Participating in Nature,” Thomas J. Elpel created a unique chart to give a perspective on the sheer number of edible, medicinal, and poisonous plants. First, almost every plant with known ethnobotanical uses can be used medicinally. Medicine is everywhere, but nearly two-thirds of these plants are neither poisonous nor used for food for various reasons.
About 10 to 15 percent of wild foods consist of berries or fruits, and timing is everything. Unlike greens, which you can usually find year-round, fruits and berries are typically available only seasonally, so if you want some during other parts of the year, you’ll need to dry them or make jams or preserves. These fruits provide sugars and flavor, and as with greens, you would not make a meal entirely from fruits and berries.
Another small category of wild foods consists of seeds and nuts. This includes grass seeds, pine nuts, mesquite, screwbeans, acorns and many others. It is in this small category, maybe 5 percent of wild foods, where you obtain the carbohydrates, oils and sometimes proteins that constitute the staff of life. Though these are not available all year, some have a longer harvest time than others. However, some may have a harvest period as short as two weeks.
In other words, though nuts and berries comprise a very small percentage of available wild foods, and though they are available only seasonally, they are among the most essential plant foods that we need. It is no wonder that nuts and berries have been held in such high esteem for millennia by societies all over the world.
Let’s take a look at some of these nuts and berries, especially those that can be found nationwide.NUTS
WALNUTS (Juglans spp).
Walnut trees can be found widely throughout North America. Often stately trees with pinnately divided leaves, they can also be smallish bushes. Though often found around water, they are pretty widespread in their distribution. The walnuts are smaller than the English walnuts you find in the markets. Wild walnuts, also known as black walnuts, have a soft green layer covering the shell. This ripens to a black color, generally in late summer, as they drop to the ground. The walnuts are collected in summer, and because the black husk stains the skin, it’s best to collect them with gloves. Crack the thick shell with a hammer or rock, and enjoy the nutmeat inside in any of the ways you’d enjoy regular walnuts.
PINE NUTS (Pinus spp.)
Pine nuts are the seeds that develop inside the pine cones. The thin shell of these seeds is black or brown and, theoretically, the nut of every pine is edible. However, some may be too dry, or not developed at all.
In the fall when the cones develop, one seed will develop under each scale of the cone. The seeds may usually drop from the cones onto the ground before the cones actually drop, so sometimes the easiest way to collect is to lay sheets under the trees and come back in a day or two to gather them up.
The seeds are easily shelled and are readily palatable to everyone. Pines are widespread, and are the most widely planted tree in the world for lumber.
Pine trees are distinguished from other conifers by their needle-like leaves always bundled in a paper-like fascicle at their base, even if it is a pine with only one needle per fascicle.
HICKORY NUTS (Carya spp.)
Hickory trees are most common in the eastern half of the U.S. and they are often quite large. The leaves are pinnate-divided, like the walnut. The nut is small, like a small walnut, and round with shallow grooves. The nut is slightly four-angled and comes to a short abrupt point. They are as hard to crack as a wild walnut, necessitating a hammer or a rock with an anvil.
When I lived on my grandfather’s farm in rural Ohio, a large hickory tree grew at the entrance to the farm. We often drove over the nuts when coming home and sometimes that was enough to crack them open so we could eat them. But usually, we would collect the nuts and crack them on a rock with another rock.BERRIES
Blackberries (and their many kin) are widespread vines throughout North America. In some areas they are so common and widespread that most of the fruit just rots on the ground. It’s actually amazing that anyone buys blackberries at the markets, because they are also incredibly easy to grow.
The vines are spiny and so are easy to recognize. The flowers are five-petalled, and the leaves are palmately divided (think “palm” of the hand) into five to seven segments. The fruit are the commonly recognized aggregate fruits, and most people recognize these because they’ve seen them at the supermarket. Their close relatives include raspberry, salmonberry and thimbleberry, the latter so-called because when you pick the fruit, there is a hollow, making it look like a sewing thimble.
These are collected when ripe and eaten fresh. They can also be made into drinks, pie filling, jam and a variety of desserts.
ELDERBERRIES (Sambucus spp).
Elderberries are found in most environments across North America. They are usually large bushes to small trees, often appearing dead in the winter, but then blooming out with their pinnately divided leaves. In the spring, the light yellow flower clusters make the plant more conspicuous, and by early summer, the clusters of the small BB-size fruit begin to ripen. Depending on the species, the berries ripen black, purple or blue and even red. The red ones are best not eaten. The others can be eaten raw sparingly, but are best for everyone when they are cooked before using. If making an elder juice (for food or medicine), carefully remove the berries from the stems, then simmer with a little water. Once gently cooked, they are fine to make various beverages, or jam and jellies, or pie fillings. I like to simply dry the fruits and nibble on them like raisins.
STRAWBERRIES (Fragaria spp).
If you’ve ever grown strawberries, you know what the leaves and fruits look like. When people see wild strawberries for the first time, they often say, “Hey, that looks like a strawberry!” Yes, because it is a strawberry, though the wild ones are typically much smaller than the cultivated ones. This member of the rose family has flowers with five petals, and three-lobed leaves with fine teeth on the edges. The fruit has all the seeds on the outside, making this a distinctive fruit to recognize.
Strawberries are eaten with ice cream, in salads, in shakes, in dessert dishes, and any way you’d use ordinary cultivated strawberries.
CHERRIES (Prunus spp).
Wild cherries of one sort or another are found across North America. They can be evergreen or deciduous (deciduous means the tree loses its leaves in the winter). When you crush a cherry leaf, it gives off a distinctive bitter almond extract smell, which is a form of cyanide, so don’t make tea from the leaves.
Cherries begin as green fruits in early summer and ripen into dark red fruits by late August and September. The flesh of the ripe fruits is enjoyed by everyone, and it can be made into juices, jams, jellies, fruit leather and even dried as a form of wild sugar.
APPLES (Malus sp.)
Apples are surprisingly common throughout the United States, either from orchards gone fallow or from growths of truly wild crab apples. Nearly everyone recognizes the common apple when the fruit is on the tree. The crab apple looks very similar except the fruit is much smaller, like a cherry.
Apples are one of the great foods that all early pioneers learned to use. They are eaten fresh, made into sauce, cider, juice, pie filling, jams and jellies. Dried and ground apples can also be used as sugar.
The wild crab apples can be eaten sparingly when raw but are best cooked. The entire apple can be cooked and then the pulp passed through a sieve to remove the seeds.
Apple stems will sprout readily when planted, and this method will produce a vegetative clone of the parent.
Johnny Appleseed was a real person, a traveling preacher who paid his way by sprouting apple seeds and selling the trees to farmers and homesteaders. Whereas a cutting will always result in a duplicate of the parent tree, the tree grown from a seed is not so restricted, and it’s anyone’s guess what sort of apple you might get.
MULBERRIES (Morus spp.)
Mulberry trees can be found throughout North America, in both the urban and semi-wilderness landscapes. When people see the fruits for the first time, they think they’re an elongated blackberry because it’s an aggregate fruit. The fruits are white or purple, and can be eaten directly from the tree or made into various dessert items.
The tree can be large, with fine teeth on the leaves; the leaves are typically lobed, but can be unlobed. The long straight branches of this tree make ideal archery bows, by the way.
GRAPES (Vitis spp).
Worldwide, there are 65 species of Vitis, grapes, and the wild ones look very much like the cultivated ones. If you have ever seen a grape vine in someone’s orchard, you know what the wild grape looks like. The main difference is that the wild grapes never fruit as abundantly as the cultivated grapes, and wild grapes are not as sweet. This means that you always cook the wild grapes before using, and make them into juices, wine, pies, jams or jellies. They can also be dried to create a tart raisin.
Incidentally, if you’ve ever been to a Mediterranean restaurant, you’ve probably had something called grape leaves. This is rice, sometimes with lamb added, rolled in a grape leaf. If you choose to collect your own wild grape leaves for this dish, collect the youngest and most tender leaves. Boil them before you roll the rice into the leaves.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the January, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.