There is a bounty of wild fruit out there if you know where to look. Here in Southern Indiana, there are wild berries (blackberries, raspberries, dewberries), native tree fruit(paw paw, persimmons, native plums), and feral fruit trees (escapees from long since gone orchards).
They're out there for the taking. All you need to know is where and when to look, and what to do with it after you find it.
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When I was a kid, my parents and I collected wild fruit including: persimmons to make persimmon pudding, wild blackberries to make pies, and wild plums to make jelly. I learned at an early age that nature provides lots of good edible foods free for the taking. All you have to do is go get it.
We used these resources to help supplement our food budget, and also because food collected from the wild tasted better than domestic grown, and definitely better than store bought. I've learned since then about more wild fruit, and how to use it. Here's some information on some of my favorites.
Before you get started - there are a few foraging rules that I firmly believe in following:
First - Always ask permission before collecting on private property - even if it's on the edge of a public road. Think how you'd feel or what you'd do if the tables were turned.
Second - Don't take more than you can use. Remember that other people may want to collect some as well, and that wild fruit is an important food source for wildlife. If you're sure you're going to use it - take what you'll use, but don't collect food that you might let spoil or go to waste.
Third - If you aren't fairly confident at identifying the plant or tree that you are wanting to find, I suggest getting a good quality field guide. The Audubon Society publishes an entire series of very good field identification guides. Their "Field Guide to North American Trees" has photos of trees including leaves, bark, blooms and fruit, as well as detailed information on where they grow, and many defining characteristics. My copy is well worn and has gone with me on many foraging expeditions.
Finally - If you have never tasted a particular kind of fruit before, try a little before you collect a bunch. There's no point in collecting something that you don't like the flavor of and that will go to waste.
Wild bramble berries - blackberries, raspberries and dewberries are common across most of North America. They grow in thick colonies of thorny canes called brambles - hence the name. Brambles are close relatives to roses, and if you have ever seen a wild rose in bloom, you'll immediately see the similarities in the appearance of the blossoms.
Raspberries are common to woodland edges and fence rows. Cane stems have a blue cast to them, and berries ripen in late spring. When you pick raspberries, they will be hollow in the center like a sewing thimble, where blackberries and dewberries have a solid core. You will find that wild raspberries are smaller than domestic varieties, but that the flavor is more intense. Black Raspberries are most common in the wild in the Mid-West, but Red Raspberries are more common in other parts of North America. Occasionally, wild yellow raspberries can be found. Yellow raspberries are more closely related to red than black raspberries.
Between Raspberry season and Blackberry season are Dewberries. Dewberries grow on low creeping brambles. Instead of upright canes, they tend to creep along the ground. Dewberries look like, and are closely related to blackberries and are generally larger, and sweeter than blackberries, but are less common. You aren't going to fill your freezer with wild dewberries, but you can find enough to for fresh eating, and they ARE good!
Blackberries are most common and most easy to find, and produce the heaviest of the three. Blackberries grow in open meadows and edges of woodlands, and in overgrown fields and pastures. They grow into dense impenetrable thickets of brambles, sometimes 50 or more feet across. They ripen in early summer, and can be picked by the bucket full.
Wild bramble berries can be eaten fresh, made into pies and cobblers, jellies and jams, cooked into juice, and can be fermented into very good wines.
When I was in my teens, I spent most of every summer working at a Boy Scout Summer Camp in southwest Mississippi. In the backwoods parts of the camp there were wild huckleberries growing everywhere in the open Loblolly and Long-Leaf Pine forests. One of the most amazing things I recall ever having eaten was a wild fruit cobbler that had mixed huckleberries and blackberries. It was cooked in a cast iron dutch oven over an open campfire. WOW!!!
Later on, while I was in college, I worked a couple of summers at a youth camp in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania. There were wild blueberries bushes growing all over that camp. I picked and ate them by the hand full every day.
Huckleberries and blueberries are very closely related, have similar growth patterns (woody shrubs) and and similar flavors. Huckleberries are common in the deep south in the pine woodlands and wild blueberries are common in the Northeastern part of the US. Neither are native to the part of Southern Indiana where I live today (and I really miss them). The reason for this is soil conditions. Blueberries and Huckleberries require acidic soils to thrive. In Mississippi, decomposing pine needles kept the soil acidic. In Pennsylvania the native rock is granite, which acidified the soils as it breaks down. We don't have pine forests in southern Indiana and our bedrock is mostly limestone, so our soils tend to be neutral to slightly alkaline - hence no wild blueberries or huckleberries.
If you have access to either of these wild berries, be sure to take advantage of this wonderful resource.
One of the most common wild fruit trees in my part of the world is the persimmon As common as they are, I'm constantly amazed at how many people don't know about this wild fruit.
Persimmons ripen in early fall. Fruit are sweet and have a unique and pleasant flavor. They can be eaten fresh (if you can work your way around the seeds), but my favorite way to eat them is baked into persimmon pudding. I've also made some pretty respectable persimmon wine.
Persimmon trees are most commonly found in transition areas between woods and open fields, hedgerows and fence rows, roadsides, and abandoned fields slowly transitioning back to woods. Many people (myself included) also cultivate their own persimmon trees in their back yard.
Paw Paws (Asimina Triloba) are also known as Indiana Banana or Custard Apple seem so out of place growing upland hardwood forests of Southern Indiana. Their over sized leaves, and strange looking fruit look more like they belong in a rain forest somewhere on the equator. The trees have an exotic look and the fruit have an exotic flavor and aroma.
Paw paws grow in colonies of small trees that grow from underground runners or root sprouts, so if you can find one, you can normally find several trees in close vicinity. Individual trees can reach 30 feet, but are generally much smaller. They grow in the understory of moist hardwood forests in most of the eastern US.
If you come across a grove of these small wild fruit trees, tuck it away in your memory, and in early fall go back and look for fruit. These green oblong fruit are about 2 inches in diameter and anywhere between 2 to 6 inches long. They will continue to ripen after you pick them, and in a couple of days (like bananas) will develop dark spots and then turn a very dark brown all over (almost black). Somewhere in that ripening process, cut one open and look inside. There will be huge black seeds and a yellowish pulp between the seeds that is entirely edible. I use a spoon to dig the pulp out of the skin and separate the seeds away from the pulp. The flavor (and aroma) is somewhere between a banana and a very ripe cantaloupe.
Paw paw's can be eaten raw, the pulp can be used to replace persimmon pulp to make paw paw pudding, or any other baked recipe that calls for fruit or fruit pulp. I've even heard that Paw paw ice cream is really tasty. Just remember, they keep about as well and as long as fresh bananas do. If you plan to keep them for long term, extract the pulp and freeze it.
There are several varieties of Wild plums growing in the eastern and central US. The most common variety is the American Plum (Prunus Americana). This tree is the great-great-grand parent of many cultivated plum varieties. They grow in moist wooded areas and often form thickets. Look for smallish trees or big bushy shrubs with large (1") white blooms in the early spring. Blooms are similar to apple, blackberry or rose (they are all related)
These trees aren't common where I live, but I see one occasionally. When I do, I remember it and come back when the fruit is ripe (late summer into early fall.
Wild plums are about an inch in diameter and usually a mix of sweet and sour. The skin is red and the flesh is yellow. They can be eaten fresh, but tend to be pretty "puckery" as grandma used to say. It depends on your tastes. They do make fantastic preserves and jellies.
You'd think as big as black cherry trees grow, they'd grow big fruit as well. It's odd to see these huge trees with these tiny (1/4")berry like clusters of cherries. What the trees lack in size of fruit, they make up in volume. They are usually heavy producers.
Other than in constantly wet swamps, black cherries aren't too particular about where they grow. You can find them growing in stands of hardwoods, along fence rows and hedges, they'll even grow in the midst of southern pine forests. Pretty much anywhere trees grow in the eastern US, you can find wild black cherries.
American black cherry trees can grow enormous, and the dark wood is valued for making furniture, paneling, lathe turnings (bowls, handles, etc), as well as other uses. The bark has historically been used to make cough syrup. The cherries ripen early to mid summer, are very sour and are mostly seed. However, if you take the time to collect enough cherries, they can be made into an exceptional jelly, or if you're a wine maker, they make a fantastic wine.
I remember that my first experience with mulberries as a small kid playing in a park in my grandparent's home town. There was a huge red mulberry that was absolutely covered with berries that to me looked like blackberries (the DO have a similar appearance). Berries were all over the ground, and the tree was full of Robins, Blue jays, and other birds eating the berries. I figured, if they looked like blackberries and the birds were eating them, they HAD to be OK for me to eat (maybe not the soundest logic, but I was six at the time). I tried them and loved them.
Mulberries can be eaten fresh, baked into pies and cobblers, made into jelly and jam, and fermented into wine. They ripen in early summer, and I often find trees by looking for squashed berries under trees lining blacktop roads.
There are two main varieties red (native) and white (introduced from Asia). Both are equally edible. Be careful eating under-ripe fruit though - they have a mild hallucinogen in them that breaks down as the fruit ripens.
Mulberry trees can grow huge. They're tough and can grow just about anywhere there's a bit of soil. They are common on fence rows and in hedges. Mulberries are a "pioneer" species, and among the first tree species to colonize untended fields.
White mulberries were introduced to the US in the early 20th century because silk worm caterpillars fed on the leaves. People had grand plans of developing an American silk industry. It didn't work out, but White mulberries are now common all over the eastern half of the US.
Crab apples are the small, wild and generally sour ancestors to modern domestic apples. There are crab apple varieties all over the world. Many have been introduced as ornamental trees.
Crab apples can be found along woodland borders, and in overgrown fence rows. Fruit can be as small as 1/4 inch up to 2 inches depending on the variety. They ripen in the late summer to fall.
Crab apples can be made into preserves, apple butter and sauce, and pressed into cider. One of my favorite uses is crab apple jelly. Larger varieties can be peeled and cored and made into pies and cobblers. Most recipes using crab apples require a lot more sweetening than if you used domesticated apples for them to be edible.
Before there was refrigerated rail and truck transport, practically every farm and small community had fruit orchards. There were only two options back then - grow your own or buy it from a local farmer. Fresh fruit could not be easily transported over distances. Most of these small to medium sized orchards are long since gone - victims of industrialization, improved shipping techniques, and huge scale commercial farming.
These old orchards have left us left a legacy. Drive through the country at the right time of year and you can find the feral descendants of long ago cultivated trees. These don't strictly classify as wild fruit, but...close enough. Apples and Pears are most common, but you can find cherries, peaches, and plums as well - depending on where you live and search.
Look for old abandoned farms, as well as overgrown fence rows. Sometimes you will find feral fruit trees in pretty surprising places. There is a stretch of Interstate 65 between Indianapolis and Louisville Kentucky, where I have spotted hundreds of feral apple trees growing along the service road. A little reconnaissance work in advance is a good idea. Look in the early spring for heavily blooming trees. Watch them through the summer, and get ready for an abundant fall harvest.
Nature's bounty of wild fruit is amazingly diverse, and good tasting. If you know where to find it, you can enjoy some unusual and amazing flavors. You can also find a source of free (and healthy) food to supplement your food budget. Good luck and happy collecting!!!