Posted August 12, 2022.
Some you may not have heard of
By Rachel Coale
Communications Officer, Forest Resources Division
Michigan Department of Natural Resources
Following your steps down a wooded trail can lead you to a wealth of wild treats – tiny sweet strawberries, tart blueberries and juicy black raspberries – but looking up into the forest canopy can also reveal unusual or overlooked fruit. that you can’t find in a grocery store.
Read on to discover some of these forest fruits found on portions of Michigan’s 4 million acres of forest land.
Chokecherry – Prunus virginiana
Crack up! True to its name, the reddish-black fruit of the chokecherry (which typically grows like a large bush) has a tart, astringent flavor that will make you cringe if you don’t expect its assertive taste.
However, many foragers know that this mega-tart fruit can be tamed with the addition of sugar or honey and makes a tasty jelly or syrup.
Choke cherries grow in thickets and typically reach 10 to 20 feet tall. They have white flowers in the spring that attract butterflies, followed by small fruits in mid-summer.
The oval leaves are serrated and come to a point. Young trees have reddish-brown bark that darkens with age. Choke cherries can be found in many different soil and growing conditions throughout Michigan, but they are especially common at the edges of woods and along roads and trails.
Do not eat the leaves or pits of chokecherries, which can make people and animals sick. Always eat chokecherries cooked and not raw.
American Elderberry – Sambucus canadensis
American elderberries are a late-summer forest treat, with juicy, purple fruits packed with flavor and healthy antioxidants.
This small tree or large shrub is 5 to 12 feet tall and grows in thickets. Clusters of cream-colored, star-shaped flowers open in early summer, benefiting bees and butterflies, followed by brilliant purple berries in August or September.
Try using them in baked goods, preserves, and pies. They can also be used as a dye or to make ink. Do not eat uncooked elderberries, which can lead to stomach upset. The flowers can also be used to make fragrant elderflower syrup.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service, American elderberry is typically found in a moist forest edge habitat in full or light shade. It often grows near the shores of lakes and ponds, in low areas along roads or in abandoned fields.
Juneberry – several species of the genus Amelanchier
Depending on where you live in North America, juneberry varieties have a plethora of colorful names – juneberry, serviceberry, sarvisberry, shadbush, sugarplum and saskatoon are just a few.
Whatever you call them, these small, multi-stemmed trees or shrubs produce delicious dark purplish fruit similar in size and taste to a blueberry. The fruits have a fringe-like crown at the end.
They can be used much the same way as blueberries, eaten fresh or cooked in pies, muffins, pancakes or preserves. True to their common name, you can find the fruits ripening from June to July.
You can find blueberries growing back in open spaces after a wildfire or prescribed burn, or at the edge of woods. Juneberries are native to the Upper Midwest and Canada, preferring cold climates and fire-adapted ecosystems.
Blueberries are recognizable by their small white flowers that bloom in early spring and their finely toothed oval leaves that turn reddish in the fall.
Mulberry – Morus alba
Most of us are familiar with the nursery rhyme “all around the mulberry tree”, but have you ever tasted a mulberry tree?
Although trees that bear these purple berries are widespread, white mulberry is actually a non-native fruit brought to the United States in colonial times – and not for its berries!
Initially, settlers imported them in hopes of establishing a silk industry. The preferred diet of the silkworm is mulberry leaves.
With its aggressive growth, the white mulberry has become naturalized in the landscape and is even invasive in some habitats. Known as the “messy tree”, for its abundant, staining berries, foragers can take a similar approach to lemons – when life hands you blackberries, bake a pie!
The mulberry has lobed leaves and orange-brown bark. The fruit ripens from white to purple in mid-summer and resembles an elongated blackberry. It can be harvested by laying a sheet or tarp under the tree and gently shaking the branches to dislodge ripe berries.
Michigan is also home to a native species of mulberry, the rare red mulberry (Morus rubra), found in forested floodplains and swamps in the southern part of the state.
“The red mulberry is a state protected and endangered species,” said Jennifer Kleitch, endangered species specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “If you find one, help protect this species by leaving it intact and do not pick fruit from the plants.”
Help scientists gather information about Red Mulberry distribution by reporting it to the Michigan Natural Features Inventory.
Papaya – Asimina triloba
With a taste described as a savory cross between a banana and a mango, the papaya, also known as the prairie banana, is a little-known native tree with a taste of the tropics.
This small, deciduous understory tree has unusual three-petalled purple flowers. It produces a large, funky bean-shaped fruit 3-6 inches long with creamy custard-like flesh.
They are the only member of their family in North America; its closest relatives are trees native to Asia and include custard apples and ylang-ylang.
But why aren’t they more popular? The simple answer is that papaya fruits have a short shelf life and are too soft to ship well, so commercial production has not taken off.
To taste this fascinating fruit, you’ll have to go straight to the source, although the pulp can be frozen for future cooking. Look for patches of these umbrella-shaped trees in shady areas near the banks of streams and floodplains on the Lower Peninsula and follow your nose; the large leaves of this plant can smell slightly of gasoline!
On the road: preparation is key
Michigan farmers’ market stalls are full of tasty treats like peaches, pears and plums. But if you head into the forest, you might be able to find something a little wilder.
Before you go foraging, make sure you’ve done your homework. Be able to correctly identify any wild plant you plan to harvest and know the methods to prepare it safely. Be aware of your surroundings – avoid picking plants near roads and ditches that collect runoff.
Also know what you can and cannot choose depending on where you are. In a state forest, the harvesting of fruits, berries, nuts and mushrooms is allowed. Activities that damage or kill a plant during harvest are not permitted.
If you can your spoils, always use a safe and tested recipe. Academic publications such as those from Michigan State University Extension and the National Center for Home Food Preservation are good sources for up-to-date recipes for jam, jelly, and syrup.
Blogs and social media creators are not required to meet tested security standards and may contain dangerous recipes.
Learn more about foraging and wild foods at Michigan.gov/Foraging.