One of my favorite things to do in the summer is pick berries. Give me a few large containers and a big floppy hat and you can find me alongside a backroad picking sweet little fruits for hours. There’s something cathartic about foraging in the sunshine; however, it’s imperative to only pick fruits that you can accurately identify as edible. Proper identification of berry-bearing plants will ensure a good (and safe) time all the way from picking to eating. Let’s take a look at some key identification characteristics for a few of our most common berry producing plants in western Oregon.
Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis)
Salmonberry is named for the (generally) salmon color of the berries. It has a few prickles, grows from rhizomes, and can reach 15 feet tall. It often forms dense thickets in damp woods, moist shady places, and along streams. It grows in both sun and shade, especially on sites that have experienced disturbance. The leaves are compound with three leaflets that are 1-3 inches long. The opposing lateral leaflets resemble a butterfly. The leaves are wrinkled on top and prickly on the bottom. Salmonberry fruits are aggregates of small yellow to red (often salmon) colored drupelets — similar to a mushy raspberry. The berries are deeply cupped, as the center core, or “torus,” stays attached to the plant when picked. The taste varies from plant to plant, so if you’re picking salmonberries, it might take a few tries to find the best berries. One tip to keep your berries in tip-top shape — don’t pile them more than a couple of inches deep when picking or they will turn to mush.
Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus)
Thimbleberry is widely distributed on moist, sunny sites. It moderately tolerates shade but prefers open, disturbed sites rather than shady forests. The name “thimble” refers to the shape of the fruit. Thimbleberry does not have prickles like other plants in this genus. It is a deciduous shrub that is 3 to 6 feet tall, often forming dense thickets where birds and mammals can easily enjoy the fruit. Leaves are simple, alternate, deciduous, and large (3-10 inches in diameter). They are palmately lobed, dark green, and velvety on both leaf surfaces creating a very soft texture. The flowers are large with white petals that feel like crinkled tissue paper. Thimbleberry fruits are aggregates of red drupelets in the shape of a flattened dome. Like the Salmonberry, the torus stays attached to the plant when the fruit is picked, making a hollow (thimble) inside. The taste varies from plant to plant, although in general, they are sweet and juicy. The fruits deteriorate very quickly after picking, so don’t pile them on top of each other, as they will turn to mush.
Trailing blackberry (Rubus ursinus)
This is our only native blackberry. Often found as a spreading or mounding shrub with running stems that can root at the tips, the berry commonly grows on sites where the soil has been disturbed. The characteristic blackberry prickles are rather straight and bristly. Trailing blackberry leaves are alternate, deciduous, and have three leaflets that are 1 to 3 inches long. Their flowers are large and white or pink, with male and female flowers borne on separate plants. The fruit is oblong, purple to black in color, about 1 inch long, and very sweet and tasty. One thing to note is that we do have two other blackberry species common in western Oregon (Himalayan and evergreen blackberry). Both are invasive to Oregon and common on disturbed sites. All three blackberry plants are often found near each other. All blackberries are edible, though they vary from juicy and delicious to dry and seedy. It is said that of all three, Himalayan has the least tasty berries, so identification is important if you’re after the best fruit.
Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium)
This shrub is an excellent food source for wildlife and humans, however, berry production isn’t typically heavy. Red huckleberry is an upright shrub that is finely branched. It is deciduous and commonly grows 4 to 12 feet tall. It will grow on a wide variety of sites, from full sun to full shade, but is often found on rotting logs and stumps, as the moisture helps them survive dry summer conditions. Leaves are simple, alternate, deciduous, small (less than 1.5 inches long) and elliptical to ovate in shape. Red huckleberry has small, quarter-inch flowers that are bell-shaped and green, white, or pink in color. The fruit is a small red berry with translucent skin. It is one of our more tart berries, but very delicious.
The next time you find yourself craving a fresh berry pie, head out to our local Oregon forests and pick some native berries. Bring along a few containers and a big floppy hat and you just might find yourself a new hobby.