Foraging for red and blue fruit gems in NE Minnesota: what you need to knowAug 01, 2022 12:29PM ● By Laura Durenberger
By Mike Kwasniewicz - Boreal Community Media Exclusive - August 1, 2022
Foraging is an activity that most folks are familiar with in one form or another. Whether casually picking berries while hiking, or more seriously searching out large patches to preserve for use in winter months, people have been seeking out wild edibles since time immemorial and this enduring activity continues on into our modern era.
A family secret
Many of the best patches are closely held family or community secrets and being invited out into one of these sought-after spots is a treat to be held in high esteem. Be aware that the keepers of this cryptic knowledge may swear you to secrecy, and the consequences are often dire for divulging the locations to others or the general public.
The tale of two berries
In the northlands of Minnesota, we are blessed with a few options for wild food in the summer months. Among these few scrumptious and highly sought-after treats are the wild strawberry and the wild blueberry, which are familiar to just about everyone due to the cultivated varieties found in grocery stores. The wild counterparts of these more refined species are somewhat smaller in terms of fruiting size, but often pack a much mightier punch in flavor.
Photo: Mike Kwasniewicz
The wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca) is a perennial that grows abundantly throughout northern Minnesota, though it is often overlooked due to its diminutive size and somewhat lackluster form. The plants are generally short in stature and measure only a few inches from the ground to their peaks. Their green leaves grow from long central stalks which terminate in clusters of three. The leaves are also broad and serrated, radiating from a central point with a fine coating of hair on their undersides. When in bloom, the strawberry plant displays a small yet distinct white flower with yellow centers (pistils).
As the name implies “straw”-berries can be found by pushing back the straw, or taller grasses, that grow around them. The easiest way to locate patches is to look for a grouping of three leaves and the runners that the stems will shoot out from in order to establish new plants. Strawberries are almost never solitary and generally can be found in clusters running along the length of gravel roads. The best place to look is in recently disturbed areas or along gravel roadsides.
Once one has found a patch worth digging into, the process of picking these fragile and generally small fruits can be a bit frustrating to the uninitiated. The ideal technique is to brush any leaves back from the ground so as to expose the lowest 2-4 inches above the soil where fruit resides. There one will find the greenish-yellow crown or “calyx” that covers the fruit from above. Lightly grasp this crown with your index finger and thumb from the top while cradling a hand underneath. Then, squeeze while gently twisting until the berry is freed. Ideally, the berry will fall into your other hand or a collection dish in order to keep it out of the dirt. Cleaning these berries can be difficult because they are extremely fragile so keeping them free of debris in the field is extremely helpful.
Photo: Mike Kwasniewicz
Strawberry picking can be a tedious task but the rewards are great. Once a few quarts are gathered it is a relatively easy transition from fruit on the vine to preserves in the pantry. Often jam and jelly recipes will call for an abundance of sugar to sweeten the concoction. It is recommended that when dealing with these wild fruits, preserves are made to taste since an overabundance of sugar can overshadow the berries' flavor. It may be wise to make a number of test batches to see which sugar ratio suits you best before settling on a recipe.
Rest assured that these little berries are a wonderful treat during the darkest days of winter if one can exercise the willpower needed to keep their jars around that long. The flavor acts as a reminder of the warm days past and the hours spent out in the field under the radiant sun picking.
Aside from amazing jams, jellies, and various baked goods, strawberries can be utilized in a number of medicinal treatments (and the use of various parts of the plant has been documented for thousands of years). However, the most common medical use of this plant is not related to its berries at all. Most folk remedies related to strawberries focus on the use of their aromatic leaves, which are either picked fresh or allowed to dry for tea. Tea preparation should contain one teaspoon of dried leaves (or 2-3 teaspoons of fresh leaves) added to one cup of boiling water. Allow them to soak for ten to fifteen minutes before straining and drinking.
The tea made from strawberry leaves is mildly astringent, a diuretic, and is believed to have purifying properties that directly affect the blood. Numerous maladies including diarrhea, gastroenteritis, and urinary tract infections have been treated with strawberry tea for many generations. The tea has also been used as a gargle to relieve inflammation, halitosis, and ulcers, as well as topically to treat minor burns, cuts, and scrapes.Editor's note: consult with your doctor before trying any type of new medical treatment.
Photo: Nathan Raikman
While strawberries may be a delicious find, the true superstar of the Northwoods berry world is the iconic blueberry. These unmistakable bushes can be found in many locations, but tend to prefer recently burned or disturbed areas, and thrive in the highly acidic soils that are pervasive throughout the Northland. They can tolerate a number of light and temperature regimes but seem to prefer open sunny areas with well-drained soils.
The blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) grows on a short woody stemmed bush that rarely rises above the average person's waistline. The plant itself is a low-spreading deciduous shrub that utilizes rhizomes, or underground runners, which can lay dormant for many years. When given the necessary amount of sunlight, soil moisture, and oxygen content they will sprout again and new bushes will seemingly appear from nowhere.
The flowers are usually white or light pink and bell-shaped. Numerous buds may all extend from one healthy stem, and each bud can open up and have several blossoms. The lowbush blueberry plant is fire-tolerant, and its population often booms in areas following a forest fire. Traditionally, blueberry growers burn their fields every few years to eliminate shrubs and fertilize the soil, but in wild settings foragers often search for areas that have experienced wildfires in the past 2 to 5 years.
The most distinctive characteristic of these plants is by far the fruits which start as white clusters and transition from a pinkish hue to purple. Eventually, they turn sky blue or dark violet in color upon ripening, depending on the specific subspecies and the location they are found. All true blueberry fruits have a five-pointed crown on the underside of the berry. These fruits are significantly smaller than their cultivated cousins and pack much more flavor.
Photo: Nicole Logan
The berries are rich in antioxidants and have been utilized as a staple food by Indigenous populations for many generations. Blueberries lend themselves well to storage and are often either dried or frozen after harvest to extend their useful life. Many foragers also can preserves or brew large amounts of these berries into sparkling or traditional wines.
The health benefits of blueberries are numerous and directly related to their high antioxidant content. This feature of the berries is directly related to the cold temperatures they endure and generally speaking, the cooler the environment they are found in the richer they are in the flavonoid anthocyanin (which provides most of their health benefits). In a USDA study, wild blueberries were found to have the highest level of antioxidants out of 40 fruits and vegetables due to their high anthocyanin levels. Additionally, blueberries contain tannins, which are abundant in the fruit skin. Tannins may help prevent the bacteria that cause urinary tract infections.
Photo: Pete Nuij
Foraging and animals
These highly sought-after gems of the northland are usually harvested from the end of July through the beginning of August. If out foraging, be aware that humans are not the only creatures that find these treats irresistible.
Almost all animals in the wilderness, especially black bears, have been documented eating blueberries as a primary food source while they are abundant (source). Recent evidence has shown that even wild wolf populations will abandon hunting behaviors while blueberries are ripe, as they can accrue just as many calories foraging these fields as they could in a successful hunt (source).
Photo: Mike Kwasniewicz
While foraging it is important to remember that you are likely not alone, and the use of bear bells and carrying bear spray is recommended so that your presence does not startle any wildlife (many local outfitters sell these items).
Avid pickers will often travel in groups and converse loudly or even sing songs while picking to mark themselves and ward off any unwanted wildlife encounters. If you do venture out into the wilderness to forage, please practice safe exploration tactics and let others know where you intend to go and when you intend to return.
Finally, don’t forget to protect yourself from mosquitos, biting flies, gnats, and ticks. This post has tips from local experts on how to best manage insects while you’re out and about.
Safe travels and happy foraging!