Who needs to buy fruit at the supermarket, when nature’s fruit market is open for business, at no charge, right?
In Nebraska, from a general standpoint, we are either at or nearing the time when many wild, native fruits and berries, packed with vitamins and antioxidants, are ready to be picked!
There are so many things you can do with wild fruits and berries. They can be eaten directly in the field, or taken home and used as toppings on cereals, salads and ice cream or made into smoothies, jams, jellies, pies, cobblers, syrups and wines.
The fruits/berries of crab apple, chokecherry, ground cherry, sand cherry, gooseberry, blackberry, elderberry, buffalo berry, currant, wild grape and plum all should now be checked and/or monitored in your region for ripeness. Of course, mulberry fruit has been ripe for sometime.
A prairie treat, sand cherries are ripe and ready for the picking!
In a couple weeks summer crab apples should be ready for harvest.
Around Labor Day or shortly thereafter, plums most likely will be ripe for gathering.
Before you get started in harvesting wild fruits in Nebraska, there are a few foraging rules, regulations and guidelines that apply.
Ask the farmer first! You must acquire permission before gathering wild fruits on private property – 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! Additionally, you’ll find that landowners are wonderful resources of information about wild edible fruits. You also need to ask an individual landowner if any potentially harmful pesticides or herbicides have been sprayed on or near the fruit you intend to pick! As a gesture of thanks for being allowed on the property, offer the landowner some of your bounty.
Public lands available? For the Nebraska state park lands, by regulation, a person needs to see 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 to find out if it is allowable to do or not.
Where exactly to look (and not to look). Wild fruits in Nebraska can be found in a number of sunny locations — along woodland edges, fence lines, farm fields, pastures, overgrown meadows, old farmsteads and along rivers and creeks. Take note: Often the best fruits are hidden in the middle of the plant. And, it is best to avoid fruits and berries right next to busy roads: Besides traffic safety concerns, roadside berries may collect heavy metals from exhaust or store toxins from roadside spraying.
Know what you’re going to pick. If you are not confident at identifying fruit-bearing plants or trees, go with someone who knows what they’re going to pick or use a handy mobile phone app related to identification of various tree species or wild edible fruits. 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.
Have the right container, and don’t compress them. Put your fruits 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.
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) present as well as irritating plants, to your skin (e.g. poison ivy, stinging nettles). It is also a good idea to make a little noise to alert fruit-nibbling critters (e.g. , fur-bearing animals, snakes) of your presence.
Taste the fruit. If you have never tasted wild fruits, you should try a couple before you collect a bunch. There’s no point in picking something you don’t like and that may go to waste. Wild fruits and berries tend to be tart, but keep in mind that many recipes call for ample amounts of sugar or sweetener to be added to counteract that sharp, sour taste.
Take only what you can use. Don’t take more fruit than you can use, please. Remember that other people may want to harvest some wild fruit as well, and that wild fruit is an important food source for a variety of wildlife. If you’re sure you’re going to use it – take what you’ll use, but don’t take fruit that you might let spoil.
After the harvest. Keep your wild fruits in the shade and get them into the refrigerator or a 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 going 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 salt water to dislodge any small insects that might be hiding on or within them.
Involve kids. By all means involve kids in the harvest of these various fruits and berries, too, plus making goodies out of them. The kids will have a blast!
Foraging for wild edibles is among those wonderful family activities that help foster an appreciation of nature. Truly, there’s something kind of magical about eating stuff found in the outdoors!
I believe it’s more important than ever to take kids on foraging adventures for wild fruit so they understand the origins of their food and how this fits into the locavore movement (an effort to eat food that is locally produced and not moved long distances to market)!
So, why not begin a wild edible picking tradition with your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews or young neighbors today. It will continue into adulthood!
Here’s a fun, simple recipe to make homemade wild plum ketchup. Try it, you’ll love it!
Plum Good Ketchup
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
- Mix all the ingredients and bring this mixture to a very low simmer.
- Let the mixture cook until it thickens considerably.
- 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.
- Let the mixture cook gently over low heat for 20 minutes, or until it reaches a thick, jam-like consistency.
- Keep refrigerated.