The Enthusiast!: Berry Picking for Beginners

“Picking fresh berries is a privilege we Newfoundlanders take for granted,” says Todd Boland, horticulturist for the MUN Botanical Garden. “We have so much Crown land we can avail of for berry picking. Such is not the case in much of Canada.”

With a little know-how, you too can be part of Newfoundland’s long tradition of berry pickers. “Newfoundland is blessed with an abundant variety of edible berries,” says Boland. ”While many beginners are familiar with blueberries, raspberries, wild strawberries, and partridgeberries, there are many other, lesser known berries that are equally desirable.”

“Serviceberry, locally known as chuckley pears, produce a large purple-blue berry on medium to large shrubs,” says Boland. “They will ripen by the end of August. On the barrens are crowberry, low matted evergreens with black berries.  In bogs are marshberry, a cranberry relative. Many people think they are poisonous, but they are very edible and make good jam, especially when mixed with other barren berries such as blueberries and partridgeberry.”

Sarah Ferber of Food First NL, a food security non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring access to adequate, healthy food for all, recommends creeping snowberries, Gaultheria hispidula, which has a minty wintergreen flavour and is found on shaded forest floors. “They’re ripe in August, and they’re the berries that Raymonds’ Chef Ross Larkin recently used to help him win Top Chef Canada.”

There are a few local books to help you make accurate identifications when trying new berries, like Todd Boland’s Trees and Shrubs of NL: Field Guide. “It notes edible varieties with a fork symbol, and is also fun for plant nerds that like to know exactly what variety of the many types of blueberries, for example, they’re picking, says Ferber, who also recommends Peter Scott’s classic Edible Plants of NL: Field Guide.“MUN Botanical Garden sells those books and others like it, and is a great place for an edible plant newbie to see things in person clearly identified, before hitting the trails solo, if they don’t have a Nan or Pop to show them the ropes.”

Aside from poison berries, there are two main risks in berry picking: aggressive wildlife, and getting lost. Cell service is not reliable in rural and remote areas (nor is your phone’s battery life), so tell someone where you’re going before you head out, and let them know when you plan on returning.

As for equipment, berrypicking gear is the same as hiking gear: weather-appropriate clothing, comfortable shoes, and water. No need for a special berry picking rake. Used incorrectly, you’ll mostly gather crushed berries, berry juice, and a whole lot of plant matter. Worse, if you’re impatient and aggressive, you’ll certainly harm the bush for years to come.

If woodland foraging isn’t your thing, there’s always the Lester’s Farm strawberry U-Pick. At the Brookfield Road location, you can take a wagon ride to the field, and pick strawberries for $3.05 per pound.

When all else fails, there’s always someone selling berries by the beef bucket on the side of the highway.

Learn more about edible berries and other plant life in NL at the MUN Botanical Garden (306 Mount Scio Road).

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