No matter where you live in North America, there’s likely a tasty wild fruit available for picking sometime during the year. While Native Americans and early pioneers actively picked and ate wild fruit, few people bother to seek out and pick them today.
That’s a shame because many wild fruits have a flavor, unlike anything available in grocery stores or farmer’s markets. You can determine the fruits available where you live by studying guidebooks, or you can seek an expert’s advice.
Great sources for information include state fish and wildlife biologists, agriculture cooperative extension programs from state universities, and local historical and homesteading groups. If these don’t yield a mentor, chances are good they’ll at least point you toward one.
As with any wild food, make sure that you’re certain of what you’re harvesting. Depending on location, there can be some nasty lookalikes. While most will cause only stomach distress, some pose serious harm.
If an experienced local forager isn’t available, cross-check your find with at least two reliable guidebooks before you proceed.
Fruits and Uses
Once you locate and pick wild fruit, what can you do with it?
The most obvious is to enjoy it as you pick. Most wild fruit is extremely delicious without sugar or additives.
Other dishes that work well include pies, tarts, and cobblers, but don’t limit your harvest to desserts. Try a fruit reduction with a splash of balsamic vinegar over grilled venison or wild turkey for a main course.
Still, have extra fruit?
Try your hand at winemaking. Wild muscadines, mustang grapes, elderberries, and more make wonderful wine that you can proudly serve to your friends.
While the following list breaks down geographical areas, many of these wild fruits can be found in one variety or another throughout most of North America.
Wild fruit in the North
If you live along the northern border of the United States or in southern Canada, there are two wild fruits you might encounter.
Look for wild raspberries along forest edges and grassy areas. Raspberries flourish in recently disturbed areas like clear-cuts. Watch for them to ripen in late spring, turning from white to deep red when ready to pick. Ripe raspberries are perfect for eating as a snack or cooked in a pie or cobbler.
Found in locations similar to raspberries, but later in the season, wild blueberries will ripen around mid-summer. Look for them on sunny slopes at higher elevations. Wild blueberries grow in massive clumps of ground-hugging shrubs.
Wild blueberries excel in baked goods like muffins or when added to your morning pancake batter.
Wild fruit in the Midwest
Depending on where you live in the Midwest, you should be able to find a ripe berry or fruit of some sort just about all season long. A few of the more common include:
Like wild raspberries, blackberries grow in a tangled mass of thorny brambles along open fields, forest edges, and timber cutovers. Watch for blackberries to ripen mid-summer, turning from green to red to deep purple or even black.
A handy tip when picking blackberries is to wear long sleeves and heavy jeans despite the heat that usually accompanies their ripened state. Their thorns are nothing to mess with. Spray down with insect repellent before harvesting blackberries, or you’ll risk a nasty round of chigger bites.
Cook blackberries in a cobbler, a pie, or, my favorite, blackberries, and dumplings. Simply heat a couple cups of blackberries with a cup of sugar and a cup of water until the mixture comes to a simmer.
Drop in clumps of biscuit dough and keep simmering until they’re cooked through for a perfect summer dessert.
Along the upper Midwest and the northern U.S., wild strawberries ripen in late spring. Watch for them in sunny, open areas of dense forest and along forest edges.
Wild strawberries are worth watching closely. True wild strawberries will have a white bloom before setting fruit. If you crush a wild strawberry, you’ll smell a strong berry fragrance.
Watch for a similar fruit that grows in the same areas. Called “Indian strawberry” or “mock strawberry,” they’re nearly identical to wild strawberries. Mock strawberries have a yellow bloom instead of white. When their fruit is crushed, there’s little to no fragrance. While mock strawberries won’t cause digestive problems, they have little to no flavor.
Resembling blackberries and raspberries, mulberries grow on trees or small shrubs. Look for them to ripen in mid-summer along forest edges where they receive good sunlight.
Mulberry trees can have deeply lobed or almost round leaves, or even pointed leaves, often on the same tree. If you’re lucky enough to locate a mulberry tree loaded with ripening fruit, watch it closely. Birds and squirrels love ripe mulberries, and will often strip a tree clean within a day of ripening.
Like the mulberry, persimmons grow on small trees along forest edges. The fruits are slightly smaller than golf balls and will begin to ripen in late fall. The fruit of the persimmon tree won’t fully ripen until they’ve gone through cool temperatures. In my area, I prefer to pick them after the first light frost.
Persimmons that aren’t fully ripened are somewhat sweet, but are very astringent and have a serious pucker factor and mouthfeel when eaten. Try a few before you pick to make sure they’re ready.
Related reading: Wild Persimmons – A Fall Delight For Every Forager
As with mulberries, wildlife love ripe persimmons. Foxes, deer, coyotes, squirrels, and especially raccoons prize the fruit. The window between a persimmon ripening and an animal enjoying it is short. Pick fast.
Pawpaws have been described as the “best fruit you have never heard about.” They grow along creek bottoms and timber openings across the eastern Midwest and all along the Appalachian mountain range. Many mountain towns hold pawpaw festivals in the fall when the fruit ripens.
Pawpaws look strange. Egg-shaped and often up to 10 inches long or longer, their flesh is textured like a banana. Their flavor is often described as a mixture of banana and mango. Use them in any recipe where bananas would work. Pawpaw pudding is outstanding.
Wild fruit in the South
Two fruits to watch for in the southern U.S.:
Along the southern Gulf coast, the most common wild-grape variety is the mustang grape. Once you move away from the coast, throughout the southeastern U.S. muscadines are the wild grape of choice.
While both grow in similar habitats—along wooded edges and openings in the forest—the mustang has a three-lobed leaf, while the muscadine has a single-lobed, more pointed leaf. Both grape species are perfect for jams, jellies, and winemaking. Since wild grapes grow in bunches, it’s easy to pick several pounds at a crack.
Much like their cousins—the raspberry and blackberry—dewberries are found throughout the southern U.S. in thick growths of wild brambles. Use them as you would blackberries: in pies, desserts, wines, or in a reduction over grilled meat.
Wild fruit in the West
Yes, even the Wild West offers wild fruits. Here are some to hunt for:
Another compound berry that grows on thorny brambles, the salmonberry, is found mainly in the Pacific Northwest. Look for brambles along sunny hillsides and along stream openings through alder forests.
Depending on location, Salmonberries ripen from late May to July. Ripe Salmonberries can range from pinkish orange to deep red, depending on species and location.
Prickly Pear Cactus
The fruit of the prickly pear cactus resembles a small pear, hence the name. Native to the southwestern U.S., the entire plant is edible. To pick the fruit, use heavy leather gloves or metal grill tongs to avoid the sharp spines. Slice the ripened fruit down the center, and use a knife or spoon to scoop the flesh free from the prickly skin.
Avoid touching the fruit’s small, hair-like tufts as they consist of thousands of tiny spines that will embed into your skin.
The flesh of the prickly pear fruit can be eaten raw—seeds and all—although many prefer to pick out the seeds before eating the flesh. The fruit pulp can also be made into jellies or mixed with vinegar for salad dressing.
Making wild fruit freezer jam
Freezer jam is a great way to prepare excess wild fruit for long-term storage. This basic recipe works with just about any fruit species or type, and doesn’t require a pressure canner.
- 2 ½ cups cleaned fruit (berries work well; try a mixture if you have more than one type ripe at the same time in your area)
- 4 ½ cups white sugar
- ¾ cup of water
- 1 box Sure-Jell Fruit Pectin
- Mix fruit and sugar in a large bowl. In a small saucepan, heat the water and fruit pectin. Bring to a boil for one minute, then remove from heat. Stir the pectin mixture into the fruit. Continue stirring until the sugar has completely dissolved.
- Allow the jam to cool and spoon into clean plastic containers with tight-fitting lids. Store the jam in the freezer until ready for use.
Refrigerate after opening and thawing the jam.
Storing leftover wild fruit
The trouble with wild berries and fruits is that they all ripen in a very short period. While this is great for picking, it can be a problem when it comes to using and storing your harvest. Most wild fruits will keep on a counter or in the refrigerator up to a week after picking.
Much longer than that, and you’ll need to come up with another way to store it. One of the easiest ways to keep fruit on a long-term basis is freezing. To keep the fruit in individual portions instead of a solid lump, spread them on a baking sheet and freeze overnight. The next day, transfer the frozen fruit to freezer-weight, ziptop storage bags or vacuum seal.
Another way to prepare wild fruit for long-term storage is to dehydrate it. While the resulting fruit will be hard and condensed, it can be re-hydrated by soaking in warm water. Dried fruit also works well in snack mixes and pemmican.
Useful resources to check out: