Foraging Highlights #1: Last year’s fruit harvest.

Other than eating a few wineberries as a kid, I have been foraging for over a year and a half now. Last year was my first full year seriously foraging, and I learned a whole lot by obsessively reading and exploring the woods. I tried over 30 new plants, being more cautious in my identification than I think some foragers are. That being said, if I could go back and do it over again, I would have focused more on learning to really use some of the more important species instead of trying to just learn as many as possible.

This year I will mostly be figuring out how to cook, preserve, and propagate the plants that I already know. I am also planning to learn how to fish this year, maybe how to bowhunt small game too, but probably not for another year or two. I’m learning to take things slow.

In the meanwhile, I am recapping last year’s adventures in several parts.

Here is part #1, Last year’s fruit harvest.

Photo of mayapple plants in the woods.
A patch of mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) plants in bloom.

It feels appropriate to start out with mayapple plants (Podophyllum peltatum), considering they probably provided me with the most emotional ups and downs of any plant last year.

I must say from the start that every part of the mayapple plant, other than the ripe fruit, is quite toxic. Also, the fruit does not necessarily sit well with everybody, especially when raw.

When I first spotted a large colony of them just opening up last spring, I didn’t know what they were, and couldn’t believe that I had never noticed such an unearthly looking group of plants so close to the edge of the yard. Especially when they are young, mayapples really do look like they are from some other planet.

Anyway, after studying them briefly, I hurried back to the house and looked through my books. I found the section on mayapples in Steve Brill’s book, and was pretty sure that that was what they were. I still wasn’t positive of my identification however, so I was very happy when I received Nature’s Garden by Samuel Thayer, and conclusively confirmed it. The photos and plant descriptions in his books really are quite superb.

I was surprised to read that despite their abundance, most years the plants don’t produce much fruit. Certainly my patch would be different though.

Mayapple flower
Mayapple flower.

I found several other patches nearby, and soon they began to bloom.

What gorgeous flowers, and so many of them too. My son and I became obsessed with with wandering around the woods pausing to look at the flowers. Every once and a while he still asks where they went, and we discuss the seasons.

Photo of unripe mayapple
Unripe mayapple on the stalk.

As the season progressed many plants were shaded out by jewelweed and other taller plants, but I was amazed at how many did start to grow small fruit. During summer, long before any of them were even close to ripe, almost all of the plants died back and dropped their leaves.

Nature’s Garden had said that they might do this, but not nearly this early in the season. I was sure that the entire crop was lost.

Photo of ripe mayapple in my hand
Ripe mayapple of typical size.

I was wrong once again. While many didn’t ever ripen, a couple dozen hung on to their withered stalks and ripened into beautiful yellow fruits with a hypnotic tropical aroma.

Inside the skin of the mayapple, was pulp with seeds that clung to it very tenaciously. I tried them raw, spitting out the seeds as I went, and was instantly addicted.

Photo of the inside of a mayapple
Inside the mayapple.

Unfortunately, the third and fourth time I ate them, I felt vaguely nauseous afterward. Next year, if the mayapple crop is good, I might try cooking a small amount or just leave them for the box turtles.

According to Plants to Watch “Researchers have discovered that Eastern Box Turtles ( Terrapene carlolina ) have a remarkable impact on mayapple seed germination, and are the primary dispersal agent of the species. According to Braun and Brooks (1987), seeds ingested by the turtles exhibited a 38.7% germination rate, whereas un-digested seeds only had a success rate of 8.5%.”

Photo of my son picking raspberries with my wife.
My son picking raspberries (Rubus species) with my wife.

Speaking of box turtles, they don’t just like mayapples. There is a nice patch of raspberries right at the edge of the yard, so for a little over a week we get a big bowl every day with very little work. One day the three of us were picking away, when we discovered that we were not alone. A box turtle was picking off all the low hanging fruit from inside the tangle of raspberry canes.

Photo of raspberries in my hand
Raspberries (can't wait for next raspberry season).

Not sure if these are a native species or not, but they are so good that I will definitely be propagating these when we get some land.

Photo of serviceberries with leaves
Serviceberries, juneberries, etc. (Amelanchier species).

After reading about serviceberries in several of my books, I searched pretty much every inch of the small woods near here. I could not find a single serviceberry shrub or tree.

Then one day, when my son and I were taking a walk, we spotted three large shrubs absolutely covered with red and purple berries. Several branches of one of the shrubs were hanging out well over the street and littering it with berries, so I snapped off a small twig with some leaves and berries on it. We walked home and broke out the books. Yep, definitely serviceberry.

Photo of a plate of serviceberries
Serviceberries about to magically disappear.

The taste was not at all what I was expecting, but very good. Their flavor was somewhat like a blueberry with a fairly strong cherry cough syrup flavor mixed in. That probably doesn’t sound real appealing, but those several branches provided two or three quarts over the next few days, and we didn’t have any trouble getting rid of them.

This is one berry that I plan on preserving in large quantities in the future.

Photo of picking black cherries
Black cherries (Prunus serotina).

We have a fair number of black cherry trees around here. Most of them are too tall for easy harvest, and their flavor is often not real great.

However, while we were on vacation in the small town of Mexico Pennsylvania, I did find a fairly young open grown black cherry tree with pretty good fruit. Most afternoons I would wander across the campground where we were staying, pluck a large handful or two, and go sit on the porch to enjoy a nice snack.

While I don’t think that I will ever go to great lengths to gather black cherries, I do think that the trees are visually quite elegant, and I will always count them as one of my growing number of wild friends and allies.

Thanks for reading, I hope to have Foraging Highlights #2: Various Small Plants posted soon.

Thanks,
Nate

* any pictures or descriptions of plants or information about them is provided for your information and inspiration. I highly recommend foraging, but buy yourself a reliable guide like either of Samuel Thayer’s books from Forager’s Harvest Press.

** I rely heavily on Nature’s Garden and The Forager’s Harvest by Samuel Thayer, and to a lesser extent Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants by Steve Brill. All three books are quite good, however I find Thayer’s work more reliable and detailed.

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