If you are anything like me, you often wonder what plants are edible out in the wild. Whenever I step onto a trail, I see berries, and somewhere in the back of my mind there is a little person asking, "Can I eat that?" Then, at least in my mind, flashes of the film "Into the Wild" summon themselves to my consciousness, and I envision myself falling dead on the spot after consuming the berries. Nope, I'll stick to the blueberries at the grocery. Needless to say, I tend to move on, neglecting the "Can I eat that?" voice that still whispers in my ear.
What I do know for sure is that I am tired of berries trucked in from California. On the conservative side, botanists estimate that there are more than 20,000 edible plant species on Earth. Today, in this country, 90 percent of all our produce comes from less than 20 of these. Not only does this seem like a serious oversight from the consumer's perspective, it also seems to demand that there must be something closer, fresher and newer for my taste buds to try. Anyone who has ever eaten a tomato (which, botanically defined, is a berry) out of their own garden versus one from a grocery store can vouch in favor of this. Fresh food is simply better tasting, not to mention that it is generally more nutritionally sound and often times free ... if you know where and when to look.
I have already admitted that I am not one to dive right into eating wild berries. This, I believe, is simply sound judgment. A good climber does not climb without good equipment and the knowledge of how to use it. The same guidelines apply to berry foraging. In any case that you find yourself less than 102 percent sure that a berry is safe to eat, you must do two things. This is not an and/or situation. Do both. One, collect the plant and check it in an edible plant guidebook. I would recommend Lone Pine's "Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Rockies." This is a great resource in full color that combines good, clear information and warnings on potentially harmful look-alike plants of the area. The second must when deciding to eat a new berry is to take the collected plant to a person you trust, preferably a more experienced berry-collector than yourself. Even if the book indicates that your berry is safe, we know from stories that look-alikes are tricky to spot and can be deadly. And, if you happen to find yourself in a survival situation without a plant guide, remember this important tip: About 90 percent of white berries are poisonous; 50 percent of red berries are poisonous; and about 10 percent of blue or black berries are poisonous. Blue is best, red is risky, white is worst.
With the above warnings in mind, the Southern Rockies do contain a wealth of edible berries! Many of my favorites are those that are easiest to identify and safest to consume. They include: Wild rose hips (delicious, though not technically a berry), wild red raspberry, thimbleberry, wild strawberry, gooseberry and serviceberry. Again, it is worth your time to research these in an edible plant guide. Gather your berries conservatively from many sources, leaving some for others. Many animals, especially birds, small rodents and black bears, depend on berries as a food source. Taking only what you need will respect the health of wildlife and your own health by forcing you to double-check your plants.
Be smart, guard your health, explore and protect the plants around you, and for goodness sake, answer the curious voice in your head! It might be the tastiest answer you ever (safely) discover.
Tom Calvert-Rosenberger is a naturalist at Walking Mountains Science Center. Visit Tom at Walking Mountains on Thursdays at 5 p.m. for a free hour-long hike (Apres Ascent) and discover berries in the wild!