I love foraging for wild fruit. To take a walk in nature and stumble on food–how crazy is that? It’s growing wild, right there for the taking of anyone–human or animal–that wants it. It will continue to grow and produce even if no one picks it. Wild fruit truly is a gift of riches. It’s absolutely free and as natural as you can get.
For wild grapes are every man’s harvest, choosing their own trellis of boundary fences and stone walls along the roadsides. They yield their riches to those who know them best and who most desire them. If you have found them, then it is you only for whom they have ripened, a free gift of nature’s bounty.- 1917
Much of the wild fruit that you come across is unique. It’s typically not grown commercially, either, which makes it even more of a special treat. You’ve never seen mustang grapes, dewberries, or wild plums in the produce department at your grocery store. They add a special variety to your pantry.
Foraging for Fruit–the opportunities are abundant
There are a plentiful number of options to forage in the country. But don’t think you have to trek out into the wilderness in search of wild fruit.
The small town where I used to live offered an array of foraging options, all within the city limits. There were elderberries galore behind the skateboard park and wild grapes along the bike path. Black raspberries grew along the railroad, gooseberries in a vacant lot down the street. There were also wild grapes that grew on the fence along the drive-thru lane at Burger King. I never picked there–it felt awfully conspicuous and I had less obvious options.
My neighbors offered me as many black walnuts as I was willing to collect off their lawns–a great deal for both of us. All over town, people let the black walnuts from their trees roll onto the sidewalks and streets throughout the fall. Anyone could have collected bags of them.
Wild plums were the biggest treasure of all for me. They grew along the creek between Piggly Wiggly and Dollar General. Talk about conspicuous. The whole town shopped at those two stores. As it turned out, I’m brave, (or have very little dignity) because wild plum jam won out over fears of being caught.
Speaking of getting caught, I’ve never foraged aggressively, but if I happen to see a bonanza of ripe fruit (or soon-to-be ripe) in an obviously public space, I’ll take advantage of the opportunity. Just because you don’t see people foraging, doesn’t mean that you can’t.
It goes without saying that you can’t just walk into someone else’s property and start picking fruit. While I’ve never approached a property owner to ask permission, you certainly can and many people have good success asking for permission. There are a lot of public options and I’ve just stuck with those. In Wisconsin, for example, it’s legal to forage in state and county parks, as long as you aren’t digging anything up. Berries, fruit, and nuts are essentially perennials, so picking them won’t upset the balance of the ecosystem.
I have never once encountered another forager during my hunt, although I’ve seen the tamped down grass and picking pattern and knew that I wasn’t the only one interested in a particular black raspberry patch. Several times people have walked by. I always instinctively strike a casual pose as if I’m just admiring nature while standing in a patch of thorny berry bushes with a shopping bag. I realize that I am fooling absolutely no one. However, people rarely give me a second look so I must do a good impression of the local harmless kook. The few that have stopped have only reminisced about picking berries as a child and making jam.
Fruit Foraging in the City
When I moved to a big city, I didn’t know if foraging was feasible. With a bigger population, I expected competition to be fierce or at the least, people to be rude. As it turned out, I never had any issues at all. As I was picking dewberries near the railroad early last summer, an older man told me about a nearby spot (on public land) and told me to watch for a mother lode of mustang grapes. He was right and I only picked a fraction of the abundance. For my efforts, I canned 11 pints of mustang grape jam.
Passersby have “caught” me all three times I’ve foraged in the city. But as a result of each encounter, I’ve had a pleasant conversation with someone about their own childhood foraging adventures.
Just this weekend I noticed an elderberry bush blooming along a country roadside. The area wasn’t manicured and clearly no one is taking care of it or likely spraying so I felt safe in picking a handful of blossoms for a batch of my favorite early summer treat–elderberry “champagne.”
A Few Tips for Foraging
I do have a few pieces of advice, however. First of all, dress appropriately. That likely means wearing shoes (not sandals) and long pants and long sleeve shirts. It’s miserable in the summer but the alternative is worse–I know from experience on my black raspberry picking adventures. You’ll be nursing scratches and mosquito bites for weeks.
Secondly, for heaven’s sake, watch out for poison ivy. If there is poison ivy in Wisconsin, I never encountered it or knew to watch for it. I can confirm that it is most definitely abundant in Austin, Texas. I didn’t even realize it was a possibility. Days later when little blisters started to appear on my ankles, I mistook them for some strange Texas insect bite and treated my rash completely wrong. So instead of nursing a patch of blisters on my lower legs, I had rashes the entire length of both legs.
For a solid month I avoided exposing my legs (especially my ankles) in public because they looked so awful. Not fun in 100+ degree temperatures.
Foraging for Yourself
If you’re looking to do a little foraging for fruit beyond simply keeping an eye out in your area, try checking out the website fallingfruit.org. The site is by no means exhaustive, but you may find a treasure in your neighborhood.