On my hikes through the mountains here in western North Carolina, I often pass all manner of trees and shrubs heavy with fruit and nuts, and wonder whether if I could be bringing home enough free local food to feed me and my husband for a week. Here, we have black raspberries, acorns and so many other things ripe for the picking. And whether you live in a rural area or in the middle of a big city, you do, too – the mulberry tree at the park, for example, or a neighbor’s ‘ornamental’ sour cherries.
The best way to forage for nuts and berries, whether in the woods or an urban environment, is simply to take a walk, armed with a good foraging guide relevant to your area. If you spot something tasty on a neighbor’s property, chances are, they’ll give you permission to take a bit for yourself.
The following six wild berries and nuts are easy to identify, commonly found all over the U.S. and easy to harvest. When picking edibles, whether wild or cultivated, avoid plants within 100 feet of a major road or highway and those that may have been sprayed with chemicals.
Mulberries – They look sort of like raspberries or blackberries, but instead of growing on thorny canes, they grow on trees. Mulberry trees are often found in public areas including parks, and are known for making black squishy messes on sidewalks and cars, so why not harvest some and make some mulberry cobbler? Pick the darkest ones for best flavor.
Rose Hips – You know those little red berries that appear on rose bushes once the blooms have withered? Best harvested after a frost when they become soft and ripe, rose hips are full of vitamin C and have a slightly sour flavor that’s reminiscent of roses without being floral. They’re often used for syrup, jam and tea.
Neighborhood Fruit Trading – Perhaps your neighbor has an orange tree so full it’s arching toward the ground, or you spotted unharvested pears dropping in a nearby park. Fruit trees on private property often produce more than the owners can handle, so it’s always worthwhile to ask if you can take some off their hands. And if you’ve got fruit growing in your yard and want to trade some of it for other varieties, share the love and reap the bounty through trading websites like neighborhoodfruit.com.
Nuts & Seeds
Walnuts – When growing on the tree, walnuts resemble tennis balls. Once they drop, break open that green hull and you’ll find the familiar textured shell you’re used to seeing in store-bought walnuts. Wear gloves when handling them – the shells contain natural dye (which can be harvested as well). To sort out the bad ones, drop them all in a bucket of water and discard the ones that float. Let them dry out for a few weeks in their shells before cracking.
Hickory Nuts – These tasty nuts might be present all around your neighborhood, but they’re rarely on grocery shelves due to the difficulty of cracking the shell. Ready for harvesting in early autumn, hickory nuts are rich and sweet and their shells can be used to impart a smoky flavor on barbecued meats. See Mother Earth News for tips on cracking them.
Pine Nuts – While many of the pine trees in America produce nuts that are too small to bother with, the Southwest is particularly populated with fine pine nut-producing trees like Pinyon, Ponderosa, Jeffrey and Stone Pines. Harvesting pine nuts is really easy, and they’re delicious in salads and of course, as a crucial element of pesto.