The summer I turned 1 year old, I learned many interesting things. Three were about foraging for wild black raspberries, which grew in profusion around the edges of the paths and rough lawns of my country home. One, the red ones are still green, hard to pick, and taste nasty. Two, once dark purple, they taste REALLY good. And three, after a few weeks, there aren't any more.
During raspberry season, my mother and I would make our way around the edges, with me picking and eating the ones I could reach and she picking all the higher ones to feed her jelly-making habit. According to my mother, on the day after the last berry had been harvested, I'd crawl doggedly around the entire route, standing up at each bush to check for berries, and when I had inspected the last barren bush, I plopped down on my well-diapered behind and cried as if my little heart would break. As she said, how do you explain to a 1-year-old that next year there will be another crop to enjoy?
With the perspective of half a century of years behind me, I now understand and embrace that concept of seasonality and have expanded my foraging habits to other kinds of wild fruits and edibles. There is something eminently satisfying to my Nickel Pinching psyche to go for a walk and snack on, or even bring home, tasty free food! Fruits are still my favorite and are an easy entry into the joys of foraging for wild (and abandoned domesticated) edibles.
Here's what's ripe for the picking in my neck of the woods this time of year:
Strawberries. The first fruits of the wild season in my area are wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana), easy to recognize as they look just like small versions of those from the garden or supermarket and smell far stronger (you'll smell them before you see them). They have an intense strawberry flavor and are perfect for eating fresh or making into strawberry preserves—if you ever have a few cups of them to spare (I actually did one year, when I came upon a meadow absolutely studded with them). They grow 6 to 12 inches tall, have three leaves to a stem, and sport clusters of white five-petaled flowers. The strawberries themselves are pretty small, just ¾ inch long, and dangle from the stem. Look for them in meadows and clearings and along the edges of woods that get full to part sun. Berries are ripe when they are red, fragrant, and slightly soft to the touch.
Strawberries do have one look-alike, the "false" strawberry (Potentilla indica), a similar plant that bears solitary yellow five-petalled flowers followed by red berries that stand up rather than dangle. They are edible but tasteless and tend to grow in shadier areas.
Mulberries. Just behind the strawberries in terms of seasonality are the mulberries (Morus spp. and hybrids), small trees that bear inconspicuous flowers followed by ¾-inch long dark purple, or red, or whitish fruits that look somewhat like blackberries. The native eastern North American red mulberry (Morus rubra) has happily hybridized with the Asian white mulberry (M. alba) and black mulberry (M. nigra) and naturalized widely. Even botanists can't always tell which kind of mulberry a tree is, but luckily, they're all edible, so it doesn't really matter. I have dozens of trees on my farm, and the fruit ranges in color from yellowish-white or yellowish-white with an unattractive purplish blush, to dark red, to almost black-purple.
Taste varies widely from tree to tree. Some berries are bland and starchy, not worth giving the time of day; others are delicious with a good balance of acid, sweet, and fruit flavor. Once you find a tree producing tasty fruit, you'll remember to visit it every year. Mulberry trees are easiest to spot when their branches are heavy with ripe fruit. Look for them in hedgerows, fields, allies, and abandoned city lots, as birds spread the seeds widely (Do NOT hang your washing out to dry when the local mulberries are ripe!). Berries are ripe when the stem separates from the branch with a light touch. Enjoy them stems and all. To collect lots of them, spread a clean tarp or sheet under part of the tree and give the branches a good shake, or tap high branches with a stick or broom. The ripe fruits will come tumbling down. If you plan to cook with them or make jams or jellies, add some lemon juice to perk up the flavor.