Written by Stephen Leckie
Late June is mulberry season in Canada. These juicy black berries grow in great abundance on trees in Toronto and many other cities.
Saskatoon berries are also available at this time of year. You can find these purple berries in parks growing on bushes or slender trees.
Foraging for wild fruit is one of the best ways to eat local. It not only helps you get fresh, exotic and unsprayed fruit at no cost but also reduces the energy and resources necessary to grow, transport and store farmed food.
Season– Late June to late July.
Identifying – There are two main varieties: red mulberries (althrough the fruit is black when fully ripe) and the less common Asian Mulberry with white or pinkish fruit. Red mulberry trees are easy to find when the fruit is ripe – look for dark purple stains on the sidewalk. [Note: true native red mulberries are actually endangered. The majority of dark berry trees are hybrids of Asian and native trees.]
In Toronto, mulberry trees are very common. The trick is to find ones with low branches. The best trees that I know of are at the northwest corner of Avenue Road and Edmund Ave (south of St. Clair), the northwest corner of Bathurst and Herrick St, midway down Collahie St, and in the lane just north of Christie Subway station (pictured right).
Taste – When dark black, the fruit is very sweet and juicy – similar in flavour to very ripe blackberries. When red, the berries are firmer, with less flavour and sweetness. White mulberry trees produce fruits that are very sweet but may taste a little watery.
Harvesting – There are three ways to collect the berries:
- Pick them directly. Use a wide plastic container in one hand and knock the berries into the container with your other hand. Ripe berries easily fall off.
- Place a sheet or piece of plastic under the tree. Shake the tree and the ripe berries will fall onto the sheet.
- Collect recently fallen berries from the ground. At home, rinse well and cook them right away. Caution: the fruit can be very messy and will stain your hands and clothes (if you climb into the tree).
Eating – Best eaten very soon after harvesting. They do not keep long due to their thin fragile skins. You can make a delicious simple jam by placing the berries into an uncovered pot without water. As you bring them to a boil, crush them with a potato masher to create juice to boil them in. Sweeten to taste. After they come to a boil, turn off the heat. I sometimes don’t use any sweetener as the berries are naturally sweet.
Saskatoon berries or Juneberries
Season – Mid June to early July.
Identifying – Also called Juneberries, these are a kind of serviceberry native to Canada and northern United States. The name Saskatoon derives from the Cree word misâskwatômina. The city of Saskatoon is named after these berries. They grow on small shrubs or slender trees. Look for dark red or purple round berries that have crowns. See links below for more detailed information.
In Toronto, these berries can be found in parks. The best locations that I know of are Bickford Park and the west side of Roy Thompson Hall where there are several trees with easy-to-reach branches.
Taste – Similar to blueberries, but with slightly crunchy tiny almond-flavoured seeds inside.
Harvesting – Pick the berries that are most purple. These are the ripest and sweetest. The branches bend down allowing one to reach higher berries.
Foraging for other fruits
Other berries that can be found growing wild include: blackberries, blueberries, logan-berries, currents, gooseberries, huckleberries, raspberries, black raspberries, strawberries, shadberries, sour cherries, and choke cherries.
If your neighbours have a pear, apple or cherry tree, you can ask them about harvesting the fruit. Many people either don’t want to eat such fruit, or they have an abundance.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is there a risk of eating poisonous berries?
According to How to Survive in the Woods for 3 Days: “white and yellow berries are poisonous 90% of the time, blue and black berries are good to eat 90% of the time (however, deadly nightshade berries [see photo to the right] are dark blue or black and they taste sweet, but a couple can kill you fairly quickly), and red berries are a 50/50 shot. Aggregate berries (bumpy ones like raspberries, strawberries, etc.) are almost 100% good to eat. The only exception to that rule is a white berry that grows only in Alaska.” Mulberries are aggregate berries. As for Saskatoon berries, Steve Brill (see link below) says: “There are no poisonous look-alikes, since no poisonous berry has a crown.” You may wish to consult an accurate, detailed field guide prior to consuming berries in the wild. Or check with someone who knows berries.
Do you need to ask permission before picking wild berries?
If the bush or tree is clearly on private property, the answer is yes. If they are growing near the sidewalk, it is less clear since the city owns the first several feet of land next to sidewalks. Most tree owners will be happy to have you pick the berries, as few people eat them and they can create a mess when they fall.
What about air-borne pollution landing on the fruit?
Pollution and fine particulate matter can be washed off. Even if berries are eaten unwashed, I believe that it will not be a major problem since everyone breathes the same air that is coming into contact with the fruit. And rain will help to clean the berries. You also avoid any chemical residues caused by commercial farming with pesticides and herbicides. Wild berry trees are not sprayed since they have no commercial value.
See Steve Brill’s detailed pages on Mulberries and Juneberries under “Wild Plants”. He includes several photos, identifying information, recipes, and more.
Berried… or Buried! This page shows lots of pictures of edible and toxic berries.
Urban foraging – Ethical? Legal?
Justin Rowlatt, Ethical Man at the BBC, raises the issue on his blog. The entry includes a funny video, and plenty of comments. Nov. 8, 2006.
“We hear a great deal about how we should buy food locally as a way of reducing “food miles”, that is, the distance our food has to travel before it reaches our plates. So what could be more ethical than picking fruit from trees on the streets around my house?
… And if you’re a neighbour who recognizes their fig tree, medlar bush or grape vine do feel free to pop round for a cup of tea or a glass of wine when you serve me with your writ.”