Consider them nature’s ode to the patriotic colors we associate with summer.
The reds, blues and other attractive colors of wild berries are rivaled only by the sweet, yet slightly tart, taste we all love baked into pies, cooked down into jellies or — perhaps best of all — enjoyed fresh off the plant.
Pennsylvania offers quite a variety of wild berry options for those who want to enjoy a few handfuls during a hike — just be careful which berries you decide to consume.
BERRIES TO ENJOY
Strawberries: While we are past strawberry season in our region, both commercially and in the wild, these berries can offer quite a bit of versatility when it comes to usage.
“The leaves are divided into three parts, each coarsely toothed on both strawberries. Wild strawberry is more common, found along roadsides, fields and other open places. Wood strawberry, as the name implies, is found rocky woods,” said Jon Beam, assistant director and outdoor educator with the Montour Area Recreation Commission and the Montour Preserve. “The stalks of wild strawberry that bear flowers and fruit do not rise higher than the leaves. Its red fruits are ovoid and seeds are embedded in small pits. Wood strawberry fruit is conical with seeds on the surface.”
The plant name is Fragaria Virginana, according to Chris Firestone, the wild plant program manager for the PA Department of Conservation and Natural Resources Bureau of Forestry in the Tioga State Forest, adding that the flowery part of the plant has many as five white petals and a yellowish-green to pale yellow center.
Raspberries and blackberries: Found in abundance right now along fencerows and other spots of transition throughout the state, raspberries and blackberries are common on bushes and thorny brambles.
“Raspberries often grow in dense patches providing both food and cover for birds and mammals,” said Beam. Members of the rose family, like the strawberry, the most common form of these sweet treats is the red raspberry, or Rubus strigosus. The interior of the berry separates from its stalk and forms a hollow center. Beyond the normal uses for these berries, the leaves can be made into a tea.
Black raspberries, and the common blackberry are the second and most common form of this group.
“Blackberries and raspberries are an aggregate fruit, a cluster or group of small fleshy fruits originating from a number of separate pistils in a single flower,” Firestone said.
Blueberries: There are several species of blueberries that grow on high or low shrubs that reach or “on dense creepers along the ground reaching up to two feet high,” Beam said, adding that blueberries love muddy earth.
“They prefer acidic soils typically either in bogs or barrens. Highbush varieties grow on woody-stemmed, rounded shrubs six to 20 feet tall,” he said. “Lowbush varieties grow on dense creepers along the ground reaching up to two feet high.”
Blueberries have pink flowers before they bloom into luscious juicy fruit during the summer months, typically in true picking form between late June and August.
Elderberries: A dark berry that droops from shrubs is an appealing fruit to the eye but not necessarily a favorite of the taste buds.
The elderberry is part of the honeysuckle family and creates an umbrella-like flower before sprouting into its edible form.
“Although the berries are considered mildly unpleasant tasting by some people, when properly prepared they can be used for jams, jellies and wine and have a long history of medicinal use,” said Beam. “Consuming too many of the ripe berries has made some people sick.”
They enjoy lots of sunshine and moist earth. If people don’t enjoy them, Beam said, some wild birds find them as a delicacy.
Wild grapes: A berry that grows in part of Pennsylvania is actually a grape. Beam listed the wild grape or the Vitis as among the top common berries in the area.
The vines of these particular grapes climb trees and produce greenish yellow leaves in the summer months. By early fall, the fruit produced is either dark purple or black.
“Large, maple-like leaves make grapes easy to distinguish from other vines. Grapes have one to six pear-shaped seeds,” said Beam. “Ripe fox grapes are sweet when ripe although other grape species tend to be more tart. Grapes grow in thickets and along forest edges.”
Like most other edible berries, wild grapes are a favorite among several birds and mammals who aid in dispersing the seeds.
BERRIES TO AVOID
Pokeberries: These berries are commonly mistaken for blueberries or elderberries and ree the “most common toxic berry” in our area, according to Beam.
Identification is the biggest issue, according to Firestone.
“Confusion for identification with elderberry is the color of the berry, both dark purple or black. The fruit is a berry, and the species is native to PA, but pops up in disturbed areas, gardens and edges,” he said. “The birds love it. All parts of this plant are considered poisonous including berries.”
Beam said the leaves are typically large and red, different than that of the blueberry or elderberry.
Jack-in-the-pulpit: Beware these poisonous egg-shaped red berries.
“The green to brown, striped hood or spathe arches over the club-like spadix or flower head inside. Due to the oxalic acid in all members of this family, Jack-in-the-pulpit is not considered edible,” Beam said. “The berries will produce a peppery, burning of the mouth and throat that can lead to respiratory distress.”
Nightshades: Common nightshade (Solanum nigrum) and bittersweet nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) are part of the tomato family. Don’t look for these poisonous berries because chances are you don’t want to be where they are growing.
Beam said the protruding yellow beaks grow into blackish berries and “grow in waste places and disturbed areas.”
The plant grows up to two feet tall with a weak vine and violet petals opened wide to reveal the yellow “beak.” These poisonous berries are only found in the far southeastern part of Pennsylvania.
Virginia creeper: Though they are deadly to humans, the Virginia creeper is good for birds in migration.
These berries are also dark purple in color when they ripen in the summer and grow from green flowers that blossom in the spring. Their vines grow up trees and poles.
“Oxalic acid in the berries can cause kidney damage and death,” Beam said.
Baneberry, horsenettle, privet and English yew: Baneberries are tiny red berries in bunches with leaflets that look like poison ivy.
Horsenettle may be light green or ripen to an orange color berry and grow in disturbed soils and cultivated areas much like Nightshade, Firestone said.
Privet, Firestone said, is a white flower that grows into a berry that is non-native to the olive family.
English yew is a small red berry that grows on a conifer.
“English yew (Taxus baccata) is poisonous except for the red fruit called an aril. The internal seed, however, is poisonous,” said Firestone. “This species is common non-native in landscaping. There is a native species in PA (Taxus canadensis) but it is not common at all in Central Pennsylvania.”
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John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.