Get Wild: Summertime berries galore
This summer has provided spectacular flower displays and exceptionally abundant mushroom forays, and now the Summit County plants are showing off with their fabulous fruits. The ripe berries seen along the once flower-filled trail sides are great food for wildlife and eye candy for hikers. Some berries are edible and delicious, and some are bitter and poisonous. Many plants have evolved bitter or poisonous berries to protect their seeds for reproduction next year, and some have evolved tasty berries so wildlife can disperse them for planting.
A couple of the most spectacular berries this year include the baneberry (Actaea rubra) and twisted stalk lily (Streptopus amplexifolius), which are both found in wet locations. These bright red berries are beautiful to admire but can be deadly poisonous. Streptopus means twisted foot, referring to the twisted look of the leaves off the stem. Some references say the berries can be eaten, and taste like cucumber or watermelon, while others state that the berries are toxic, causing nausea and even heart failure. Baneberry is known to be very poisonous as the name “bane” (a cause of great distress or annoyance) indicates.
Because a berry is known to be edible in one place doesn’t mean it is always edible. Elderberry syrup, pies and wine are known in other parts of the country. The Colorado variety is bitter (often a clue that it is toxic) and is known to contain cyanogenic glycosides causing cyanide poisoning. I have enjoyed the Oregon grape in Oregon, but our Colorado Oregon grape is not so sweet tasting.
The rose family includes many berries people know to be delectable and nutritious. They are ripe and ready now, including serviceberry, wild strawberry and raspberry. Rose hips, the berry of the rose bush, is easy to identify, known for its vitamin C and tasty as a tea or cooked up with sugar for a delicious jam. Our wild red raspberry (Rubus idaeus) is delicious when ripe, whereas the lower-elevation Boulder raspberry (Rubus deliciosus) with purple fruit is ironically known for not being so delicious. Serviceberry (Amalanchier alnifolia), a very common shrub in the rose family with purple berries in Summit County, is a favorite for many birds and other wildlife and is known for its edibility. Native Americans used the plant for food, medicine and tools.
Our native wildlife naturally know which berries and plants are good to eat and which ones are toxic. Our domestic animals, horses, cattle and dogs do not have that natural instinct and can be easily poisoned. Similarly, the native Utes, who lived here for thousands of years, knew which plants were good to harvest and which were poisonous. If you want to taste our wild berries, be sure to research facts carefully to know the berry you are viewing.
Black bears in our midst are heading into hyperphagia, the gorging, excessive eating behavior that allows them to fatten up for hibernation. They may be eating nonstop, increasing their body weight by about 30%. They enjoy our berries for the calories and nutrition. Berries are an important food for them and other wildlife, so be sure to take only a few and leave berries for our wildlife.
Just to observe the berry colors is a treat for us this year. Some are bright red, like baneberry, twisted stalk, raspberries, strawberries and currants. Red is often a sign of poison, but not always. There are many purple berries: Oregon grape, vaccinium, elderberry, serviceberry, buffaloberry and twinberry. A few are bright white, like the snowberry and white baneberry.
Enjoy this berry nice end to summer!
“Get Wild” publishes on Fridays in the Summit Daily News. Karn Stiegelmeier is a board member of Eagle Summit Wilderness Alliance, an all-volunteer nonprofit that helps the U.S. Forest Service protect and preserve the wilderness areas in Eagle and Summit counties. For more information, visit EagleSummitWilderness.org.
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