Wild Food of Summer: A Foraging Guide

Stained hands holding wild blueberries

If you’re an adventurous cook, frugal camper, or weekend warrior, summer is a great season to go wildcrafting. Searching for wild edibles is yet another reason to get on the trail, traipse through vibrant meadows, and lose yourself in lush forests.

In summer, Mother Nature is abundant with delicious treasures waiting to be discovered. Whether you're a seasoned wildcrafter or someone who's simply curious about the wonders of nature's pantry, this is the season to embrace your inner explorer and set forth on a foraging escapade. From sweet, juicy berries to fragrant wildflowers, summer is a feast for the senses.

Note: As with any foraging or wildcrafting, make sure you can positively identify plants and avoid harvesting from polluted or contaminated areas. If you're unsure about a plant's identification or safety, seek guidance from an experienced forager or botanist.

Here are some of the most common - and delicious - wild edibles you should look out for in the summertime.

1. Thimbleberries

An unripe thimbleberry close up

Thimbleberries (Rubus parviflorus) are extremely delicate, delicious wild berries native to North America, particularly found in the western regions. They belong to the same genus as raspberries and blackberries and share some obvious similarities with these fruits, but they have their own distinct characteristics and flavors.

How to identify thimbleberries:

Thimbleberry plants are deciduous shrubs that typically grow between 3 to 6 feet tall. They have large maple-shaped leaves with a soft, velvety texture. The flowers are small, white to pinkish, and have five petals. These common berry bushes thrive in a variety of habitats, including moist forests, woodlands, meadows, and stream banks.

The fruit of thimbleberries is round and red, resembling a small thimble, hence their common name. When ripe, the berries are soft and highly perishable. They have a slightly tart, sweet, and somewhat floral flavor, making them a delightful treat for anyone who finds them in the wild.

Eating thimbleberries:

Thimbleberries are typically enjoyed straight from the bush, as their delicate texture makes them poor travelers. If you find these berries deep in the woods, consider them an in-the-moment snack, as they turn to mush pretty quickly after handling.

However, if you’re lucky enough to find some near camp, you might consider throwing them into your campfire baked goods or breakfast treats. Try adding them to your morning granola or topping your camp pancakes with the bright red fruits.

2. Elderflowers

An elderflower umbel with mountains in the background

Elderflowers are the dainty cream-colored flowers of the elderberry tree (Sambucus cerulea), a deciduous shrub or small tree native to many parts of the world. In fact, I have found these trees in nearly every country I’ve ever traveled to. The flowers have a long history of culinary and medicinal use and are known for their intoxicating fragrance.

How to identify elderflowers:

The flowers grow in large, flat clusters known as umbels. Each cluster contains multiple small, star-shaped pale yellow flowers with five petals and a strong floral aroma. The flowers typically bloom in late spring to early summer, depending on the region and climate.

They have long, opposite leaves with serrated edges that often grow in clusters of five. Their most distinctive feature, however, is their aroma. Once you’re familiar with it, it’s difficult to confuse the flowers with anything else.

Consuming elderflowers:

Elderflowers are widely used in culinary applications. They can be used fresh or dried to infuse flavor into various dishes and beverages. Some common uses of elderflowers include:

  1. Elderflower Cordial: A sweet, floral syrup made from steeping elderflowers in sugar and water. It's often diluted with sparkling water to make a refreshing drink. Great for a day in the sun paddle boarding!
  1. Elderflower Tea: Dried elderflowers can be used to make a soothing herbal tea, great for alleviating symptoms of colds and flu. It makes for a lovely non-alcoholic nightcap around the campfire.
  1. Elderflower Tincture: Steeping elderflowers in alcohol is a great way to extract their medicinal benefits and preserve their shelf life. Take a small bottle of elderflower tincture with you on a backpacking trip to keep your immunity up!

3. Blackcap Raspberries

Blackcap raspberries growing in the forest

Rubus leucodermis, commonly known as blackcap raspberry or blackcap, is a species of raspberry native to western North America. It is a member of the Rosaceae (rose) family and belongs to the same genus as other raspberries and blackberries.

How to identity blackcap raspberries:

Blackcap raspberry is a deciduous shrub that typically grows between 2 to 5 feet tall. The stems of the plant are covered with a whitish, waxy bloom, giving rise to the specific epithet "leucodermis," which means "white-skinned." 

The leaves are compound with three to five leaflets and have serrated edges. The underside of the leaves often has a bluish or white appearance due to fine hairs. When ripe, the berries are dark purple to black in color, sweet, and flavorful. They are larger than those of red raspberries but smaller than cultivated blackberries.

These plants are native to the western regions of North America. They typically grow in a variety of habitats, such as moist woodlands, mountain slopes, forest edges, and disturbed areas.

Eating blackcap raspberries:

Blackcap raspberries have a delightful, sweet-tart flavor that’s not dissimilar to other berries in the Rosaceae family. In addition to eating the berries fresh, they can be used in various culinary applications.

Try adding the berries into muffins and other baked trail snacks for a burst of natural sweetness and a touch of color. Or, if you’re lucky enough to find an abundant patch of berries, consider dehydrating them. The dried berries are great added to granola or homemade trail mix. 

4. Wild Garlic

The flower of wild garlic up close

Wild garlic (Allium ursinum), also known as ramsons or wood garlic, is a plant belonging to the same family that includes onions, leeks, and chives. It’s native to Europe and parts of Asia and is characterized by its distinctive garlicky aroma and flavor. Wild garlic is a popular foraging plant, appreciated for its culinary uses.

How to identify wild garlic:

Wild garlic is a perennial herb that grows from a bulb, producing long, slender, lance-shaped leaves. The leaves are deep green and can reach up to 12 inches in length. The plant puts out clusters of star-shaped, white or purple flowers in late spring to early summer.

It thrives in damp, shaded woodlands, and often grows in large colonies on the forest floor. It prefers rich, moist soil and can be found in temperate regions. In some areas, wild garlic has become a protected species due to its popularity and vulnerability to over-harvesting.

Be cautious when foraging for wild garlic, as it does have poisonous lookalikes! The greatest indication that you’ve found a wild allium is the scent, but it's essential to ensure proper identification of this plant.  

Eating wild garlic:

The leaves of wild garlic are the most sought-after part of the plant, but the whole plant is edible, from bulb to flowers. All parts of the plant have a lovely garlic flavor that’s milder and fresher than cultivated garlic. It can be used in both raw and cooked forms as a substitute for garlic, spring onions, or chives in recipes.

Like other members of the Allium family, wild garlic has potential health benefits. It contains various nutrients and compounds known for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. 

5. Alpine Strawberries

Tiny alpine strawberry patch

Alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca), also known as wild strawberries or woodland strawberries, are charming, petite wild berries that pack a surprising amount of flavor in a tiny package.

How to identify alpine strawberries:

Wild strawberries grow on low perennial plants that typically reach a height of just 6 to 8 inches. The leaves consist of three leaflets with white flowers.

The fruit of alpine strawberries is notably smaller than garden strawberries, sometimes smaller than the nail on your pinky finger! They are red when ripe and have a glossy appearance.

Note that they do have a very close look alike, often referred to as mock or false strawberries. These plants are not poisonous, but they lack any real flavor. Some key differences include:

  • Mock strawberries have yellow flowers while alpine strawberries bear white blooms
  • The fruit on false strawberries tend to grow upwards, but they grow downwards on alpine strawberries
  • The seeds of mock berries are bumpy and outside of the fruit, whereas they're embedded in the fruit on alpine strawberries

Eating wild strawberries:

Alpine strawberries are highly prized for their exceptional flavor and juicy sweetness. They’re wonderful when they’re freshly picked, warmed by the sun. You can also add a handful to your water bottle to infuse your water with a delicate fruity flavor, a nice little pick-me-up on a summer hike.

6. Wild Blueberries

Stained hands holding wild blueberries

Wild blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium), also known as lowbush blueberries, are a type of blueberry species native to North America. They have a unique flavor, smaller size, and a host of health benefits, making them a sought-after fruit by foragers.

Identifying wild blueberries:

Wild blueberry bushes are low-growing, typically reaching heights of around 8 to 24 inches. The plants spread through underground rhizomes, forming clusters or colonies in open woodlands, fields, and along the edges of forests. Wild blueberry leaves are small, narrow, and have a bluish-green hue, with the edges often rolled under.

The berries are significantly smaller than cultivated blueberries. Despite their small size, they pack an intense flavor that is often described as sweeter and more complex than their cultivated counterparts. The deep blue or purple skin encases a slightly translucent flesh, and the berries are filled with numerous tiny seeds.

Eating wild blueberries:

Wild blueberries are versatile and can be used in various culinary applications, much like cultivated blueberries. Try them in your baked goods or smoothies for a nutritious and flavorful boost. Like cultivated blueberries, they’re rich in antioxidants, particularly anthocyanins, which give them their characteristic blue-purple color. They are also a good source of vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber.

Remember, only harvest and eat plants that you can positively identify! Be sure not to damage habitats and always practice sustainable wildcrafting practices. Never pick protected species or decimate any patches of wild food, always making sure to leave plenty for wildlife. Respecting Mother Nature's generosity means ensuring her gifts will continue to thrive for generations to come.

The beauty of wildcrafting lies not just in the delectable flavors it brings to our dishes but also in the connection it fosters with the natural world. Be mindful and have fun out there!

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