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Foraging for wild berries


Foraging for wild berries

Juicy wild berries right off the stem or baked into a cobbler are a tasty seasonal delight for hikers and gatherers. Some berries found in Michigan include brambles (raspberries and blackberries), blueberries, strawberries and juneberries. 

Properly identify any wild fruit before eating it, and be aware that some people may have allergies to some varieties of berries. When gathering, leave some berries so plants can continue to grow and reproduce, and wildlife can have a share, too.   


Wild blueberry shrubs are stout plants with small, pointed leaves and pinkish-white flowers. They can be found in acidic and fire-adapted ecosystems tough for other plants to grow in. Rich in vitamin C and antioxidants, the blue-to-purple berries ripen in mid-to-late summer and are full of flavor. Berries can be identified by a five-pointed crown on their undersides. Blueberries are excellent eaten fresh or dried, and can be made into preserves and baked goods.

Information about Michigan blueberry species from Michigan Flora


Berries in the bramble family are among the easiest to identify and pick. These include raspberries, blackberries, black raspberries and thimbleberries. They are identifiable by their clusters of hollow-capped, compound berries that ripen in summer.

These plants grow in thickets and feature woody canes with bristles or thorns, alternate toothed leaves with lighter undersides and small white flowers. Bramble berries are perfect for making smoothies, jams, jellies and pies.

In addition to its fruit, raspberry leaves are sometimes used to make tea-like infusion. 

Bramble identification from Michigan State University


The American elderberry is a fast-growing plant that forms thickets of shrubs or small trees. Its leaves are opposite on the branch with toothed edges; they are green on top and paler underneath. Cream-colored clusters of star-shaped flowers open in early summer and grow into juicy, dark purple bunches of fruit ripening in late summer. Find elderberry bushes in woodland edges in partial shade, often in moist areas such as lakeshores or wetlands. Elderberries should be eaten cooked. They are popular in baked goods, dried, in preserves, in pies or made into a syrup. 

Do not mistake elderberries for pokeweed, which is poisonous. Pokeweed has reddish stems and waxy leaves.

Elderberry information from the USDA Forest Service


Tasty, purplish blueberry-like fruits are the reward for finding a small, shrubby tree of the amelanchier family, known by many names including juneberry, serviceberry, shadbush or saskatoon. As their name implies, they ripen early and can most often be found in the month of June. These plants can be sought throughout Michigan around forest edges or in sandy, open forest areas near aspens, oaks, maples and jack pines. They are recognizable by small white flowers blooming in early spring and oval, finely toothed leaves that turn reddish in autumn. The bark of the tree is silvery gray to black-brown. Fruits have a fringe-like crown on the ends. Use juneberry fruits fresh, in baked goods, smoothies, or dried as you would blueberries. 

Information about Michigan juneberry species from Michigan Flora


Although they're called juniper "berries," the fruit of the juniper plant, a conifer, is actually a type of tiny cone similar to a pinecone. Blue juniper berries grow on female plants and are about the size of a peppercorn. These aren't berries to make a pie out of, rather, they're used in small amounts as a powerfully-flavored spice. They have traditionally been used to flavor game meats like venison, sauerkraut and beverages such as gin. Juniper berries have a sharp, distinctive taste and are usually used dried.

Two types of junipers can be harvested for berries, the common juniper (Juniperus communis) and eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana), which is not a biological cedar despite its name. The common juniper has sharper-flavored berries and the red cedar berries are milder. 

There are about 60 species of juniper worldwide. Ornamental junipers may not be an edible variety, so make sure to have the correct plant when harvesting.

Eastern red cedar


Native strawberry species including wild and woodland strawberries are jucy and sweet, but much smaller than their domesticated cousins. They grow on runners low to the ground, have three toothed leaves and bloom with five-petaled white flowers. They can be found in woodland edges and forest openings. Wild strawberries and woodland strawberries look similar, however, woodland strawberry fruits are more cone-shaped and are much less common than wild strawberries. Native strawberry fruits point downward from the stem. Harvests are generally small, and can be enjoyed fresh or cooked. 

A similar-looking plant is the invasive mock strawberry. This plant has yellow flowers and is not sweet. Unlike native strawberries, the fruit of this plant point upward. Eating them generally does not make people sick but is not desirable, as it is bitter-to-flavorless and has a crumbly texture. 

Wild and woodland strawberry information from the USDA Forest Service

Staghorn sumac berries

Bright red sumac berries are a spice used around the world for their tart, lemony flavor. The plants grow as a shrub or small tree with serrated leaves. The veins of leaves are fuzzy, with bright green tops that turn red in autumn. The berrylike fruit form in cone-shaped clusters with fuzz like the horn of a stag, and have a citus-like scent. Sumac is tart on its own but can be used to make sumac "lemonade" or dried and ground into a powder, traditionally used in many Middle Eastern dishes like fattoush or hummus.

Note: Sumac is in the family of trees related to cashews and mangoes, so if you have allergies to these foods, it's probably best to avoid sumac. Staghorn sumac is not related to poison sumac, which is in the poison ivy family and is usually found in swamps. Poison sumac has smooth leaf edges and whitish-green berries. 

Staghorn sumac identification from Michigan State University