Guess there’s a bit of Euell Gibbons in me. Gibbons was famous as a gourmand of any wild-growing edible he could find. As a fellow outdoorsman, when we moved to our acre-and-a-half property about twenty years ago, I was happy to find a number of wild edibles growing there. It wasn’t surprising, considering that prior to its residential development, the land had been a private wildlife sanctuary, rife with animal-disseminated plants. I had to remove a lot of excess plants and trees, but many remain. Some of the edible fruits have disappointing flavors; in any case, most feed the local critters before I can get to them. Here’s a culinary roundup:

Ripe mulberries (shown at top) are very sweet and so prolific that they’re one of the few wild fruits that we’ve been able to enjoy. (Actually, they’re not a true berry.) When they were young, my grandkids, who live nearby, would come over and gorge themselves on the mulberries, to the consternation of my daughter who had to clean purple stains off the kids’ skin and clothing. The easiest way to pick a quantity of mulberries is to place a sheet on the ground under the tree and hit the branches with a long pole. This unleashes a shower of ripe berries. I’ve made mulberry jam, which requires only a small amount of sugar thanks to the fruit’s natural sweetness. To be sure, mulberries are often regarded as weedy trees, with an aggressive spread. But in a good fruiting year, birds, raccoons, and chipmunks favor the tasty and easy to grab mulberries instead of continually raiding our produce gardens.

Wild grapes
Numerous coiling tendrils allow wild grape vines to climb into almost anything, which is  especially annoying when they wind through desirable trees and shrubs. Clusters of tiny fruit ripen to a dark blue color with a whitish “bloom” about the time of first frost. Individual fruits containing two to four seeds may be as much as a half inch in diameter under favorable conditions; I’ve found that generally they’re only about ¼” in diameter. Native Americans and pioneers used this fruit extensively, but I find it too tart and am happy to let the birds have it.

Gooseberry bushes have wicked thorns, which makes picking the berries a thankless chore. The ¼” wild berries are tart, but less so when they turn dark purple. However, the berries usually disappear quickly, thanks to birds and chipmunks. I wanted gooseberries, but soon realized that cultivated varieties are larger and more flavorful. In any event, the wild ones grow prolifically. I even found a wild gooseberry plant happily growing eight feet up in the rotting crotch of a box elder tree, nurtured by whatever water collected up there. Guess you can figure how that one was planted!

Wild black raspberries
Smaller in size than their domesticated counterparts, these have a good flavor. I also grow domestic varieties and—since the two types ripen at about the same time—I usually mix the two together when picking. But here again, the birds usually beat me to most of them, seemingly preferring the wild ones. I’ve read that wild raspberries should not be allowed to grow with domestic varieties nearby, but thus far have seen no ill effects.

Choke cherries
The fruit is a very dark red drupe, about ½” in diameter, growing in open clusters. The flavor is harsh and astringent; choke cherry jam is sometimes seen for sale, but the fruit requires considerable sweetening to make it palatable. I’ve considered giving it a try, but the birds always get there first. It’s a small tree and, in fall, the leaves turn an attractive orange-red, depending somewhat on weather conditions. We’re resigned to enjoying the fall color.

False strawberries
False strawberries have foliage and fruit similar to true wild strawberries, though they’re classified in a different genus (Potentilla indica), and have yellow flowers, unlike the white blossoms of true strawberries. The fruit is edible, but virtually tasteless. The plants make a good ground cover, but spread so aggressively that I count them as weeds.

Black walnuts
These large, handsome trees produce an abundance of green-husked nuts about 2” in diameter. I’m amazed how squirrels are able to crack these things open; the best I’ve accomplished is a few tiny shards of nutmeat after taking a hammer to the nut buried inside the husk. The squirrels bury large quantities of the nuts, thus assuring a plethora of little black walnut trees all over the property. And how did some black walnuts end up nestled among the flowers in planters on our deck? Another aspect of black walnut trees: they produce a chemical called “juglone” which has been used as a dark brown dye and is toxic to certain other plants growing nearby. And black walnut wood is highly prized by furniture makers.

Are these wild edibles a bonus or a nuisance? Your call—but our local wildlife appreciates them without equivocation.