Like the rest of the Pacific Northwest, Idaho is teeming with many types of wild edible berries. The key to taking advantage of these delicious berries is to learn everything you can about properly identifying which berries you can eat, and which are poisonous berries. Of course, even just learning to identify wild berries or other native plants in the outdoors is a fun adventure all its own for many of us.
Wild Berries in Idaho
Some of the most popular wild berries in Idaho include huckleberries of many varieties, blackberries, chokecherries, elderberries, blueberries, wild strawberries, wild raspberries, currants, serviceberries, thimbleberries, black raspberries, and Oregon grape. Clearly, this is a long list. Some of the wild berries prefer higher elevations, so anyone hiking up into the rocky mountains may be noticing different types of berries than they are used to seeing at lower elevations in the state.
One of the best ways Idaho residents can begin learning about wild berries in the state is to visit their local u-pick farm. There are plenty of these around, and while many of them include a lot of the more traditional grocery store offerings since these are easy to grow commercially, there are u-pick farms where you can find huckleberries. The growers there are also likely to be knowledgeable about what else you may find in the woods and where.
With that being said, let’s dive into some of the more popular berries you may find while exploring Idaho’s state parks and trails. Keep in mind that before you ever try eating anything you find, you want to be very confident that it’s edible. This means correctly identifying the berry with at least two trusted sources and taking precautions like eating one berry and waiting an hour before trying another.
If you were to take a look around a fruit stand in Idaho, you may come to assume that huckleberries are the only fruit native to the state. Huckleberries are important to Idaho. Why? For one thing, they don’t really grow well in a commercial environment. This means you don’t often find them in grocery stores, making them more of a rare and special treat. In Idaho, you can find huckleberry shrubs as native plants growing out in the wild, and in the modern world where so much of what we eat comes prepackaged, wild fruits are special. So special, in fact, that the huckleberry is Idaho’s state fruit.
Idaho has several different kinds of huckleberry plants. The most common ones you’ll see are the black huckleberries or Vaccinium membranaceum. This species also goes by the common name of mountain huckleberry, tall huckleberry, big huckleberry, and thin leaf huckleberry. The black huckleberry plants grow between one and six feet tall. They don’t reach full maturity for 15 years. Though they can often appear black, they’re also commonly a blue or dark purple. They are sometimes confused with blueberries.
As one of its common names suggests, mountain huckleberries grow in higher elevations. You’ll find them at elevations above 2,000 feet. Humans are competing with bears, birds, and deer for the tart treats.
Mostly, when people are picking dark purple huckleberries in Idaho, they’re looking at the mountain huckleberry. There are others, though, including the evergreen huckleberry. This type tends to have fewer fruits on the shrub. It grows up to 12 feet tall. The evergreen variety prefers the coast. You’ll find it in Idaho, sometimes along roadsides and in moist canyons. It’s particularly high in vitamin C and antioxidants. Evergreen huckleberry plants have serrated leaves that are stiff to the touch.
Another variety of huckleberry in Idaho is the red huckleberry. This type is rare in general, mostly growing in the Cascades. It’s easiest to identify the red huckleberry when it’s ripe. It has fine stems that are often bright green, though sometimes the stems are red. The leaves are small with smooth edges. The red huckleberry shrub or small tree grows between three to six feet tall, but can reach 12 feet.
After harvesting huckleberries, Idahoans have a lot of options. Many people eat them freshly picked. Others make huckleberry butters, huckleberry pies, cakes, crumbles, and other baked treats. Since the berries are sweet and tart, there’s a lot of variety there. You can definitely find savory recipes with huckleberries as the star ingredient. For example, salmon and pork dishes often use huckleberry sauces, jams, and glazes for a unique dish.
When is huckleberry season in Idaho? You can find huckleberry plants ripening in June through August or early September. The ideal time to look for huckleberries is in early August. Note that this is also a great time to look for wild blueberries and wild blackberries as well.
The Himalayan blackberry is an invasive species that can be found along the west coast of the United States from California up through British Columbia and as far east as Idaho. The wild blackberries are an evergreen shrub that goes up to ten feet tall. White flowers bloom on this plant for approximately three weeks, typically in July but sometimes in June or even early August. Like the blackberries seen in grocery stores, the wild berries are shiny, black, and soft.
It’s easy to confuse the Himalayan blackberry with native varieties. If you have both plants in front of you, you’ll notice that the Himalayan variety has leaves that are more heart shaped and have more finely serrated edges. It also has more thorns.
Foragers seeking out Himalayan blackberries will want to do so in August for the peak picking time. Blackberry season runs from late summer through the early fall.
Most people picture himalayan blackberries when they think of wild blackberries, but in Idaho, the trailing blackberry is another prime option. These berries grow closer to the ground on sprawling vines, as the name suggests. The vines are thinner and more flexible than what you’ll see on the himalayans. The trailing blackberry, sometimes called pacific blackberry, grows anywhere from two to five feet in height. This makes the plant itself much smaller than what you’ll see with himalayans. The vines usually sport three leaflets.
The berries themselves as a bit smaller than the himalayan berries. They are also firmer and have a little less juice. While less juicy, many people say they taste better more consistently. Of course, this is a personal taste.
You’ll start seeing ripe trailing blackberries in July.
Prunus Virginiana Demissa, common name chokecherry, grows as a small tree or shrub in Idaho. Chokecherry is a member of the rose family. In the spring, you’ll see white flowers blooming among its green leaves. The edible fruits will begin to appear in June, but foragers are better off waiting until August or September. Chokecherries of both the western and eastern varieties have an astringent flavor. This is more intense when the fruit is not actually ripe yet. You want to pick chokecherries when they are such a dark red that they are nearly black.
The fruit of the chokecherry is edible, but the seed of the fruit and the leaves are not edible. Like most stone fruits, the seed of the chokecherry has amygdalin. If a seed is swallowed whole and never digested, you may be fine. However, if a seed cracks, the amygdalin inside the chokecherry pit is converted into cyanide, which is very dangerous. Do not eat the chokecherry pits, and never crack them in your mouth. The chokecherry leaves have prussic acid, which is also harmful.
Foragers in Idaho can harvest chokecherries in August or September when the fruits are dark red or purple. Because the fruit is so astringent, many people may prefer to mix these with a sweeter fruit or use them to make a jam, syrup, or wine.
There are many different kinds of currants. Some of them don’t actually taste great, so outdoor enthusiasts in Idaho may want to keep that in mind if they’re looking for something edible they can enjoy. One of the most popular currants in Idaho that tastes great is the Golden Currant. In the spring, these currants have yellow trumpet-shaped flowers blooming along the trail sides. They have a distinct and lovely smell that draws the attention of hikers. The nectar is so sweet that some people eat the golden flowers themselves. When they become edible fruits, the currants are yellow, orange, black, and commonly in Idaho, red. They are shaped like globes and grow in clusters of ten.
Foragers will find currants in Idaho at the end of August or early September.
Oregon grape is yet another example of the delicious berries found growing wild in Idaho. The name may be confusing, but these are, in fact, berries, not grapes. When ripe, they are often a dark purple, though they can be dark blue. The berries appear to have a white coating on them, the way that grapes or juniper berries often do. The berries have large seeds inside and taste quite tart, which turns some people away from them. Most people don’t enjoy eating these freshly picked. Instead, foragers bring Oregon grape berries home to make a jam, or mix them with other fresh fruits.
It’s important to note that the Oregon grape contains berberine, which is considered safe for most people to consume except those who are currently pregnant. If pregnant, consult your doctor before eating Oregon grape or anything with berberine.
The Oregon grape plant has yellow flowers in the spring. Some people actually harvest the edible flowers and use those to make tea or add to lemonade.
Native people in Idaho found many uses for Oregon grape plants. They found that the root was particularly useful for treating stomach problems when used as a tea or topically to treat skin conditions. Native Americans also used the bright yellow flowers to make dyes.
The dark blue berries can be harvested in Idaho during July and August.
Thimbleberries make for great foraging since they grow in dense thickets with many berries on the plant. Like the chokecherry and serviceberry, thimbleberries are a member of the rose family. They have bright red edible berries. The berries can be very sweet, but they can also be more bland. You will have better luck finding sweet ones on thimbleberry plants that have grown in the full sun. They look a lot like a raspberry in color and texture, except the fruit is thinner and more flat looking. When harvested, thimbleberries leave behind a core on the plant that looks like a thimble. This is the source of the name thimbleberry.
Thimbleberries can be harvested in Idaho in July. They don’t stay ripe for very long, so it’s rare to see any by the end of August.
Another edible berry in Idaho is the serviceberry. The white flowers on these plants appear in early spring, April, and May. In June, you may still be seeing white flowers, or the bright red berries may begin to appear. You want to wait until they are a dark red or dark purple before eating them though.
Serviceberries are very high in antioxidants and vitamin C, offering a variety of health benefits. They have a sweet flavor that makes them very popular. While they can be eaten fresh, they are often enjoyed in jams, pies, juices, or mixed with other less flavorful berries.
Serviceberries may ripen as early as June, but your best bet for these is in July. Some may still be around in August as well.
Poisonous Berries Of The Pacific Northwest
There are toxic berries across the United States, including Idaho.
One of the likely culprits you may find are snowberries. While these white berries are very pretty and a popular food source for bears, they are poisonous to humans.
You may also come across red elderberries, which cannot be consumed by a human raw. You can eat them when properly cooked and made into a pie or a jam, and then they are just as tasty as the dark elderberries that many are more familiar with.
If you ever believe you may have eaten a poisonous berry, be sure to call poison control and a medical professional immediately. If hiking with children, have a talk with them before you head outside. Make sure they understand that they have to ask an adult before eating anything they find. Then, keep a careful eye on them. Children’s stomachs are more sensitive to poisonous berries than adults.
The Many Wild Berries Of Idaho
As a state, Idaho is often overlooked. The people who live there know just how amazing this quiet state is, especially when it comes to opportunities for hiking, swimming, experiencing all four seasons, and finding wild edible foods in nature. There are so many wild berries to be found in Idaho, and its residents would do well to take the time to learn how to identify them.