Washington state has foraging opportunities year-round, but if you’ve got your heart set on picking wild berries, your best bet will be to venture out sometime between July and September. The abundance of the natural foods in this state is astounding, the list of berries alone is seemingly endless. Fruit-bearing plants in Washington range from commonly known berries like blueberries, huckleberries and strawberries to ones you might not immediately think to harvest like the Oregon grape, juniper and elderberry. No matter where you are in Washington you won’t have to travel far to find berries, and you don’t need to be an intrepid explorer to enjoy foraging here.
When To Go Berry Foraging
In spring, there is an array of blossoms at every elevation. The elegant blooms of wild roses start to unfurl and clusters of white elderflowers sag from fragile limbs. By mid-season the flower petals have fallen, making way for developing fruits. In the height of summer there are ripe berries across the entire state. When fall and winter set in, you can still gather scarlet wild rose hips that have grown sweeter after the first frost.
Where To Find Berries
The Washington coastline is plentiful with natural foods. The southern sandy dunes of the coast are home to wild beach strawberries and the northern Puget Sound hosts fragrant maritime juniper. At lower elevations in the coastal forests you can find red huckleberries sprouting up from rotten wood while salmonberries emerge in an array of warm hues. Thickets of invasive Himalayan blackberries can be found in the western woods with their delicate native counterparts creeping along the forest floor. Prickly currant and buffaloberry can be found near bodies of water while the bright red wax currant is often found in dry rocky fields. At higher elevations in the Olympic Mountains and up into the Cascades, black mountain huckleberries cling to dry scree slopes alongside cascade blueberries. In Central Washington and into the shrub-steppe of the Columbia River Basin you can find Saskatoon berry, rowan berry and blue elderberry. Dense shrubs of common juniper are strung between mountain ridge lines and petite bilberries root themselves in the rocky tundra of high peaks. The more edible plants you learn to identify in the wild, the fewer steps you will take on the trails before encountering others.
When heading out to gather, you first need to know who governs the land that you are hoping to harvest from and adhere to their rules. The National Forests of our state issue personal use permits for foraging edible plants, and you can find other regulations for public land use through the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, Bureau of Land Management and Department of Natural Resources. Be sure you check with private landowners before entering their property or harvesting on private lands.
How To Enjoy Berries
While blueberries, strawberries and huckleberries are delectable treats while out trekking, there are a few varieties that taste better when used in recipes at home rather than enjoyed as a trailside snack. The fruits of Oregon grape are quite tart and slightly bitter, and the berries contain a handful of seeds that hang in clusters from a flowering vine sent out in spring. The round fruits of juniper are actually small cones from the evergreen shrub rather than berries and have a pungent herbal taste. Blue elderberries are not palatable to eat straight from the bush, but are easy to harvest and can be made into a flavorful, antioxidant-packed tincture. Below are some simple recipes you can make at home with wild berries that aren’t quite as tasty to eat straight from the bush.
Oregon Grape Jam:
- Equal parts berries, water and sugar.
- Bring water and berries to a boil for about 10 minutes.
- Let cool and strain seeds, keeping as much skin and pulp as you are able.
- Bring seedless mixture back to a boil and add sugar, reduce to simmer.
- Cook until jam slides off your metal spoon in sheets rather than drips, and transfer to canning jars.
- Use a safe canning method to seal or refrigerate for immediate use.
- Most Oregon grape crops typically contain enough natural pectin that it’s not necessary to add any to the recipe. If you find that you are getting a syrup instead of a jam you can forage crab apple to add natural pectin or use commercial pectin to firm it up.
Juniper Simple Syrup:
- Crush up a handful of juniper “berries.”
- Add to mixture of equal parts water and sugar.
- Bring mixture to a boil then remove from heat.
- Transfer to a glass container and let steep for at least 4 hours.
- Strain mashed juniper from the liquid.
- Transfer to a glass jar and refrigerate for immediate use.
- Juniper can also be dehydrated and added to meals or you can grind it with other herbs to create your own foraged spice blend.
- Bring 1lb fresh elderberries to a boil with 3 cups of water for about 30 minutes.
- Strain the seeds from the mixture through a jelly bag or layered cheesecloth.
- Bring liquid back to a boil and add ¼ cup of local honey.
- Add warming spices such as cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, clove or anise.
- Let simmer until mixture thickens to a syrup and strain any added spices.
- Transfer to canning jars and seal with a safe canning method, refrigerate for immediate use or freeze for up to six months.
- The stems and leaves contain mildly toxic organic compounds and can be tedious to separate from the berries. A good trick is to freeze the berries when you get them home, and once frozen the berries will fall from the stems much more readily.
Rose Hip Jelly:
- Bring 8 cups whole rose hips to a boil with 6 cups of water and then reduce to a simmer.
- Cook until rose hips are softened and then blend the mixture into a puree.
- Strain mixtures through jelly bag until you have extracted all the juice.
- Add 3 & ½ cups sugar and 1 packet of pectin.
- Bring to a hard boil for 1 minute then remove from heat.
- Transfer jelly to canning jars and seal with a safe canning method or refrigerate for immediate use.
- You can also remove the seeds and small fibers from the rose hips, dice them up, then dehydrate to make a natural tea packed with vitamin C.
Helpful Tips to Get Started:
- Bring a reusable harvesting bag or pail, preferably one with sturdy walls that’s easy to carry and fill.
- Pack a reliable plant identification guide with you so you can easily identify species while out in the field.
- Wear appropriate shoes and clothes, many berries are known for their brilliant colors and are used as natural dyes so be sure to wear clothing that you don’t mind getting a splash of color on.
- Bring gardening gloves with you, some of the plants you might want to harvest have thorny stems and you may want the extra layer of protection.
- Don’t forget to bring a map and GPS so you can mark where you find edible plants along the way.
Forage Wild Foods Sustainably And Respectfully:
- Gather only what you will consume and do not harvest any single bush or area until it’s bare, leave some in nature.
- Do your best to preserve the integrity of the plant you are foraging.
- Harvest with intention and be aware of your impact on the plants beneath your feet.
- Be mindful when gathering in highly trafficked recreation areas. It’s best to avoid harvesting in places that suffer destruction from human use, in order to give the land space and time to recover. Instead, if you see a berry on a busy trail that you want to harvest, take note of where you saw the plant then try to find it again in a similar environment with less human disturbance and gather there.
There is a whole world of edible berries to explore throughout the state, this article hardly begins to scratch the surface. If you are interested in learning more about edible plants in Washington, check out books like “Pacific Northwest Foraging” by Douglas Deur or reference Erna Gunther’s “Ethnobotany of Western Washington: The Knowledge and Use of Indigenous Plants by Native Americans.” I would like to acknowledge the Indigenous peoples of these lands, their profound knowledge of the natural world has laid the foundation to much of what I have learned about foraging here.
Never consume a berry unless you are certain of the species and variety. Some plants have varieties that contain mild toxins that can upset digestion, and there are many berries in this state that are not edible. Do your research before eating wild foods. Test your sensitivities when trying new berries to make sure you don’t have an intolerance. Don’t put yourself or others in danger to forage berries. Be prepared for the conditions where you will be harvesting and know that the weather can change in an instant. Wear sun protection and bring plenty of water with you. Be sure to keep an eye out for wildlife that may be grazing the same fields you are, they have the right of way so do your best to not disturb them as they feed. For your safety, when adventuring in the wild please let others know where you are going and your anticipated return.