Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
September, 2009
Regional Report

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These nightshade berries look good but they can make you quite sick!

I was riding my local bike trail the other day and saw two people walking and tasting berries all along the way. I admire anyone who is willing to try wild foods, but it is extremely important that you know what you are tasting before taking a chance.

Although generally the subject of great murder mysteries, the deadly amanita mushrooms cause a few deaths of foragers every year. They do grow throughout the Midwest, by the way. Most things that cause digestive problems are not as deadly, but they can cause problems, especially in people who are sensitive.

Some of the berries that are ripening right now are absolutely beautiful, and many are okay for birds and wildlife but not for humans. Honeysuckle berries, for example, are savored by birds, but can make people sick. These paired berries come in all shades of red, pink, and orange.

Blue Berries
Wild grapes are abundant right now and are okay to eat, but are usually too sour to stomach. They also leave odd grainy crystals of oxalic acid in your mouth, so aren't so pleasant to eat raw. You may also see blue-black fruits on Virginia creeper and Boston ivy, but these are not edible. In fact, they are poisonous. It's important to know the difference in the leaves. Boston ivy can look a lot like wild grape.

Red Berries
Cranberry viburnum berries, translucent red and in clusters, are edible, but they have a very strong odor that many people cannot get past. However, purple nightshade also has clear red berries that hang in clusters, and this plant is poisonous.

Black Berries
Black cherries are natives that grow almost everywhere in the Midwest, and are actually quite tasty. These trees have black shiny berries that hang in strings. The counterparts, buckthorn berries, look very much the same although they don't hang in strings. Buckthorn is called Rhamnus cathartica; this second word says it all -- the berries will make you vomit.

Apples and Elderberries
Crabapples, apples, and hawthorns are in full fruit right now and these are all edible, even if the hawthorns don't taste very good. Elderberries are in full fruit throughout the Midwest, but these can give you gastric distress if not cooked first.

Most nut trees are beginning to shed their nuts, and many of these are edible. Hickory and black walnuts are tasty if you can get them out of the shell, but they might give you a stomach ache unless you let them cure for a couple of months before eating them.

Acorns are also edible, but they need to be boiled before eating because they, too, will give you gastric distress. It's best to leave them to the squirrels.

So, let your adventuresome nature shine in plant combinations or big tomatoes, not in risky plant sampling. Make absolutely certain that you can identify the plant before you taste any part of it.

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