Along greenways and sidewalks, bordering parks and parking lots, there are berries. They’re everywhere. The common wisdom is not to touch them. They could be poisonous, after all.
Or they could be safe to eat – tasty, even. Raleigh garden writer Helen Yoest’s new handbook, “Good Berry Bad Berry: Who’s Edible, Who’s Toxic, and How to Tell the Difference,” presents 40 common varieties – some safe, some edible with a degree of expertise or effort, and some flat-out toxic. The book is designed to help people know if they can eat the purple fruit they see every day on their morning walk, say.
“That’s one of the reasons I put blackberries in the book,” Yoest says. “Everybody knows that blackberries are edible, right? Too many people don’t connect that in the wild they grow freely.” They may not be on a grocery shelf, but they’re the same berry.
Granted, some of the plants in this book can be quite lethal: the flesh of the yew berry is quite sweet, while only two or three seeds can kill within hours, and Yoest places pokeweed solidly in the “bad berry” category. Still, with this book’s guidance Yoest believes people could grow their own edible plants or even discover a favorite mulberry bush growing wild.
“They may not have a consistent taste, but don’t give up,” she says. “If you find a sweet tree, don’t tell any of your friends about it. When you’re on the greenway and the mulberries are ripe and they’re good, take what you need and move along.”
We caught up with Yoest to talk berries.
Q: How did you pare it down to 40 berries?
A: We didn’t have a set number in mind, but we did have availability. We didn’t choose any obscure berries that, say, grow only in the (Upper Penisula of Michigan) or Canada, or that sort of thing. We wanted them to be widely available. I started researching it and making a list, so that’s how it played out.
Q: Some of these are ubiquitous because they’re foreign invasives. How did you feel about the balance between those and native plants?
A: I didn’t wear those glasses when I wrote the book. You probably saw some of my quips in there, where I say, “Don’t plant this.” I think being in the wild, instead of burning the bush, pun intended, why not eat the berries? It is a good, edible fruit. Along those same lines, you bring up a really good question. I’m a mostly native grower, but not completely. A lot of edibles aren’t. The kousa dogwood, which is an Asian variety, is very underused as an edible residential plant. It’s very commonly used in Europe for its edibility.
For me, I switched over in 2007 because our native dogwood was really hit. They’re highly susceptible to drought, and I lost all of mine, but my kousa did fine. You can go on and on about one versus the other, and it’s just about who you are at the time. It’s about feeding wildlife, but feeding me as well, and how can I balance that?
Q: We’re in the South, and there’s all the folk wisdom about poke, despite the fact it can be highly toxic. Did you put more thought about where you put it?
A: Poke is more interesting because there is a time in poke’s life when it is edible and it is a Southern delicacy – not one that I’ve eaten or tried. I do have it in my garden because it is such a great wildlife plant and birds spread it everywhere. The berry is probably the least poisonous part, but I wouldn’t put it in my mouth.
Q: How do you want people to use this handbook?
A: The publisher is invested in it being water-resistant so you can take it out on the trail. I consider it something like families would do – not the hardcore foragers, I don’t see it for them. I think of it as something cyclists would use or moms taking their kids out.
Along a greenway, in the parks, or even in your backyard, it’s a great way to teach your kids what is poisonous and what is not. When my kids were young, I just said everything is poisonous – don’t put anything in your mouth. There’s no reason to say this is and that isn’t (poisonous), because what if they get it wrong? What if I get it wrong?
Q: Do you think this could open the door for people who are curious about foraging? Could they go down that rabbit hole from here?
A: Kind of yes. I also think it’s probably going to be your more easily accessible ones like blackberries. I don’t grow blackberries because I know spots to go and forage them, and I don’t even have to go deep in the woods, they are so readily available. I’m also hoping people will grow them in their yards. Instead of, say, growing another Crepe myrtle, why not grow a serviceberry? It’s a beautiful plant, it’s going to give you fruit. I have Crepe myrtles, but I’ve been taking mine out and putting in edible plants that can serve multiple purposes beyond just being pretty.
Reach Hill at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meet the author
Raleigh garden writer Helen Yoest will talk about her book from 7:30-9 p.m. Feb. 11 at the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh.
Yoest will talk about how homeowners can identify which berries are safe to forage in their own backyards or local greenways. Signed copies of Yoest’s book will be available for sale before and after the lecture.
The arboretuem is at 4415 Beryl Road, Raleigh.