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Very Berry Bananza

Minnesota, as well as most of the Midwest provides amazing, year round opportunities for those itching for quiet adventures in the wilderness. Of course there are the obvious and well traveled paths such as the countless angling opportunities throughout the year as well as the pursuit of various furred and feathered species during the fall and winter.  Often overlooked by many of those people itching for some time in the wild are the endless delectably forageable species available all over; we're talking berries, lots of berries. We're not talking store produce here, or picking farm rows, we're talking pure, wild, beyond flavorful varieties that will put anything you can find in a farmer's market to shame.  Red, pink, blue, black, and purple, they come in all shapes and colors at different times of the summer and fall.  We'll walk through a quick 'timeline of the berry'.

July 4th is an important date on my calendar, it marks the start of the berry season - oh yeah and the whole Independence thing! Starting in early July, the berries start to show themselves.  Wild strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, black berries, and grapes color the afternoons of summer and guide it through its close. Most berries can be found with a little dedication, walking, and driving.  You will be rewarded with some of the most delicious produce you can acquire, and as you accumulate a handful of spots, you should be able to turn them into gallons of berries.  Oh yeah, and what better way to scout some new ruffed grouse areas, or a nice deer funnel than while filling up some buckets, not that an excuse is necessary!

Raspberries are one of my favorite berries, and they are probably one of the easier berries to find.  They grow all over: edges of roads, logged areas, logging roads, and cabin yards.  Pretty much, you can find them all over, but they can be difficult to get in larger quantities because the berries don't usually cover thickly.  Mostly though, they have a very long season and continue to ripen their berries all throughout the season.  A small spot may produce gallons of berries, but you might have to go out and pick a pint or quart many many times throughout July and August. They're a more fragile berry so when you hit the mother lode, use shallow containers so as to minimize squished berries. You will likely find raspberries while you're picking any other forageable which is always a nice bonus.

I hate blueberries. Well, I hate store bought blueberries and farmer's market blueberries, but WILD blueberries... I'm not sure that they are even the same berry. They're much smaller than their domestic partner, but they pack a punch. Blueberries can be a tricky one to get dialed in on because they are more picky in regards to where they prefer to grow.  You will not commonly find them in larger quantities throughout large mature hardwoods, nor in brushy logged areas.  I've always done better in spruce and jackpine stands where you'll find moss and grasses.  It is always a strange thing stumbling into the light shade of a jackpine stand and seeing a blue haze throughout the grass and realizing it is just blueberries. Once you figure out some good spots, blueberries are probably the easiest to find in larger quantities.  If you're in the zone, they cover the ground, and you'll often find plants so loaded with berries that they are lying on the ground unable to support their payload.  The blueberry season usually lasts a couple weeks, and that normally falls in mid July to early August depending on the year.  Get them early if you can as they'll start to soften as the season wears on. Large quantities of wild blueberries need to be picked to fill an icecream bucket, but they're worth every pluck.

Blackberries are the king of berries (at least for me).  They usually start ripening towards the mid/end of the blueberry season and continue on for another week or two.  Scattered blackberry plants produce a berry here and there, but keep looking for a 'blackberry patch' because they're out there.  Tangles of blackberry plants can make for quick picking because they're concentrated, and you can find huge berries.  Again, the key is to get them early before they're too ripe so you can pick them without smashing the berry. While blueberry and raspberry picking, keep an eye out for raspberry type plants with huge thorns, and you'll usually see green bulbs (unripe blackberries); keep checking in on them and snag them when they're ripe. I've always been able to get a couple pickings out of a patch, but most of the berries ripen at the same time for blackberry patches.  The best part is that you can see the green berries coming so you know if it is worth going back.  They seem to grow randomly, as I've found them in all sorts of terrain like you will find raspberry plants.  The biggest patches I've found were on the edges of my blueberry patches and in 3-4 year old logged areas that were taken over by raspberries and blackberries  Nothing like a handful of wild blackberries - once you try one you'll never buy a 'blackberry' again.

Wild Grapes
Wild grapes are another one that is easy to stumble on, but they aren't quite as flexible in their uses.  Good wild grape jelly is hard to beat, and it is easy to get enough wild grapes to make a handful of jars.  Keep your eyes open while you're driving around and you're sure to see a tree covered in a mass of leaves and vines.  Grape leaves are very large and are hard to miss when they're covering a tree.  Once you know what you're looking for you'll find them everywhere. Keep checking the grapes as they ripen, and once they get purple go ahead and clip them into a bucket.  They ripen slowly, and at different times so keep watching and you'll get a few jars of wild grape jelly for yourself!

Wild Blueberry, Raspberry, and Blackberry pie... Seriously? Yep.

Berry foraging can be a great way to get into the woods in the off-season, and there always seems to be something you can find to pick.  Wild plums aren't uncommon, choke cherries, antler sheds, and future hunting spots will certainly make appearances.  Watch out for bees! Yellow jackets and hornets love to make nests around dead logs, thickets, and trees.  Just move slowly while you're picking and keep your eyes and ears peeled, usually you'll see bee activity to indicate a nest and just give a wide birth.  Whatever you do, don't drop your berry bucket whilst running from a swarm of disturbed bees! Run like the wind, but don't drop that bucket; this is a lesson learned from my younger brother having dropped his half full blueberry bucket next to a hole in the ground that proceeded to spew agitated yellow jackets after having been stepped on...

Also, stay tuned for a few simple recipes to use your newly foraged berries on!

-Aaron Regier

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