Want to eat a wolfberry? How about some vaccinium jam? Some chokeberry wine? They don’t sound too appetizing, do they? Few people know it, but the fruits of these plants are not only edible, but delicious. They have unappealing names and don’t look familiar to most Americans, so if you incorporate them into your landscaping you will have a supply of fresh, nutritious fruit that your neighbors won’t recognize as food. This makes them ideal for people who must shelter in place in a small-town or suburban environment, where houses are close together and others can see what you have in your yard. In a worst-case scenario your vegetable garden may be raided and your apple tree might be picked clean, but the ravenous hordes will leave these fruits behind, assuming they are poisonous simply because they are unfamiliar.
Not everyone has a rural retreat with a spacious piece of land, so these berry bushes have the advantage of being relatively small and easy to fit into an ordinary yard. They all feature pretty flowers, shiny leaves, or other ornamental features that help them hide in plain sight, even in the most landscaped and manicured neighborhood.
All of these berries are sour, like cranberries, and like cranberries they become delicious once cooked or dried with sweetener. Their sourness comes from their high content of vitamin C, vitamin A, vitamin E, and other nutrients. Most of them have more vitamin C than the same weight of oranges. These berries will not sustain life in the same way that grains and beans will, but they will provide a refreshing change of pace and will help keep your family healthy during a crisis.
These plants will grow over a wide portion of the United States; some will even grow in Canada. If a plant is not native to your area, you can still grow it if you can provide the temperature range, soil type, and moisture level that it requires. Each plant will grow in specific “Zones” of temperatures described by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To determine what zone you live in and what you can grow, see the USDA’s climate zone map.
Black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa)
This pretty little shrub is a member of the Rose family. In spring, it’s covered with large white flower clusters that shine among its glossy, dark-green leaves. Later, the flowers develop into purple-black berries. The berries are quite sour, but with sweetening they can be used to make delicious jelly, juice, and even wine. They are nutritional powerhouses, extremely high in antioxidants and other healthful nutrients.
Aronia is native to the northeastern half of the United States and southeastern Canada, and will grow in Zones 3-8. It prefers moist, rich soil and full sunlight, but will grow in drier locations and part shade; it may not produce as many berries in these locations.
Although this plant is a North American native, it has become popular in Europe, where it is used to make juice and wine. Several European varieties have been cultivated to produce larger, sweeter fruit; these varieties include “Viking” and “Nero.” An American variety is called “Morton” or “Iroquois Beauty.”
Two recipes for aronia jam appear on the web site of Raintree Nursery, which also sells the plants.
Seaberry (Sea Buckthorn; Hipphophae rhamnoides)
This is a vigorous bush or small tree that produces masses of vivid orange berries. The berries, which have a bright citrus-like taste to go with their bright orange color, are filled with vitamin A, C, E, and omega-3 fatty acids. During the Cold War, they were used in East Germany as a substitute for orange juice, and the plant is still widely cultivated in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe.
Seaberry thrives in dry, sandy soil and full sun, and does not do well when shaded by other trees. It can grow in Zones 3-7. In order to produce fruit, you must plant at least two plants, one male and one female; male plants do not produce fruit, but feature brownish clusters of flowers. One male can pollinate up to eight female plants.
Seaberry is extremely thorny, so it can be used to create intruder-repelling hedges. Once established, the seaberry plant sends up vigorous shoots that will make a hedge even thicker and more impenetrable. The thorns make picking the berries somewhat difficult; one way around this is to cut off berry-filled branches and freeze them. Once frozen, the berries can easily be shaken off and used for juice or jam. When you extract juice from the berries, if you let the liquid settle it will separate into three layers: a creamy layer on top, oil in the middle, and juice and sediment on the bottom. Strain the juice through a coffee filter to remove the sediment and mix it with 6 parts water to one part juice, sweetened to taste.
A recipe for seaberry jelly appears on this web site.
For a recipe for seaberry schnapps, a drink that’s popular in Europe, go to this web site.
Lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea)
This unassuming plant only grows to about 8 inches high, and it makes a beautiful edible ground cover. It is evergreen, holding its shiny, deep green leaves all year. It prefers shaded, moist, acidic soil, and will grow in Zones 2-8, although it doesn’t do well in long, hot summers. It produces its crop of tangy, cranberry-like berries in the fall.
Lingonberry is native to the northern parts of Europe and North America and is closely related to cranberries and blueberries; it shares their refreshing tartness, and can be used just like cranberries, using the same recipes, to make a delicious sauce. It can also be used in muffins or to make jam. The berries are high in Vitamin C and Vitamin A, and the seeds contain omega-3 fatty acids.
Goji (Wolfberry, Chinese Matrimony Vine; Lycium Barbarum)
Goji or wolfberry, is native to China, and has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries. In recent years, the dried berries have become available at health food stores, at very high prices. Goji is a bushy vine, or viney bush, that can grow to 12 feet high and 8 feet wide; pruning will make it more of a bush than a vine. Goji has beautiful light-purple flowers that eventually become bright-red berries, which hang among the leaves like little coral earrings. The berries, which can be eaten fresh or dried, have a sweet/sour, tangy taste that is somewhat like a mix of plum, tomato, carrot, raspberry, and other flavors.
Goji is relatively trouble-free to grow and does not mind poor soil or fairly cold winters, growing in Zones 5-9. It prefers a sunny location but will grow in light shade.
You can order goji plants from nurseries, but you can also grow your own plants from seed using the dried berries. The pulp of the berries has a chemical in it that prevents the seed from sprouting, so first soak the berries in water for a couple of days. When they’re soft and mushy, carefully cut them open and scrape out the seeds. Put the seeds in a very fine strainer, like a tea strainer, and wash off all the pulp until the seeds are clean. Let them dry on a coffee filter or paper towel. Once they’re dry, you can plant them by putting them on top of the soil in a prepared pot and then lightly sprinkling a thin layer of soil over them. Keep the soil moist and when they sprout, place them in the sun or under a bright fluorescent light bulb. When the plants are a few inches high, you can transplant them outside.
Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum)
Evergreen huckleberry is native to the western half of North America, growing from Alaska to California, but it can be grown in other parts of the country as well. The berries, which ripen in late fall, are similar to blueberries and can be dried, made into jam, juice, or pancake sauce, or cooked into delicious pies.
Because this bush keeps its glossy, dark-green leaves all year (except in the colder parts of its range), it’s an excellent landscaping bush for plantings around a home. In spring it’s covered in small white flowers. Evergreen huckleberry likes well-drained, acid soil and is one of the few fruits that actually thrives in shade. In shade, it can grow up to 6 feet high, whereas in sun it will only grow to about 3 feet high. It will grow in Zones 4-8.
Huckleberry can be used in any recipe for blueberries, but here is a recipe for huckleberry jam.
Black Elderberry (Sambucus nigra)
Black elderberry is an attractive, vigorous bush with feathery leaves; it can grow up to 12 feet high in a graceful fountain shape. The flowers are large, flat clusters, similar to Queen Anne’s Lace, making the bush very pretty when they appear in June. The flowers are edible; dipped into batter and then fried, they make delicious fritters. If left on the bush, the flowers will eventually develop into clusters of BB-sized purple-black berries that hang down heavily when they ripen in September or October.
The berries are tiny and very tedious to pick one at a time, so to speed things up, it’s best to pick the entire berry cluster, take it home, and then relax at the kitchen table while you “comb” the berries off their stems with a fork. Don’t wear clothes you care about because they will become stained with purple. Elderberry likes to grow in moist, well-drained, sunny locations, and will grow in Zones 3-10.
Elderberry fruit doesn’t taste very good fresh, and it gives many people a stomachache, but when the berries are cooked and the seeds strained out, they makes excellent syrup and jelly. Some people also make elderberry pie, leaving the berries whole; the pie is mildly crunchy from all the small seeds.
Elderberry syrup is said to help the immune system fight off viruses by preventing viruses from attaching to cell walls in the body. It’s also an excellent source of Vitamin C. Health food stores sell elderberry syrup, but it’s much more cost-effective to make your own.
One caution about elderberry: all parts of the bush except the flowers and the ripe fruit are poisonous. For safety, eat only the flowers and the fully ripe, cooked fruit. Do not eat “red” elderberry varieties, as they are poisonous. Only black varieties are safely edible.
A recipe for elderberry jelly appears on this web site.
If you make the recipe without the pectin, what you have is elderberry syrup; it will keep, once canned, for a long time.
This web site has recipes for elderflower fritters, elderflower juice drink, and elderberry soap.
Currants and Gooseberries (Ribes family species)
The plants in the Ribes family include currants, gooseberries, and jostaberries (a cross between the two). They all have juicy, tangy fruit that makes excellent juice, wine, and pies; black currant has a particularly rich, musky flavor. They grow in moist, well-drained soil, and unlike many fruiting plants, they enjoy shade and do very well when planted along the shaded north side of a house. In addition, gooseberries tend to be very thorny, so they can be an excellent intruder-repellent when planted under a ground-floor window.
These fruits are widely used in Europe, but are unfamiliar to most Americans because their cultivation was outlawed in the United States for most of the 20th century. This was because currants are a host for a virus that attacks white pine trees and other pines that bear their needles in clusters of five; they were banned to prevent the destruction of valuable timber. The federal law has since been repealed, but several states still prohibit growing these fruits. However, in many cases even these states will allow people to plant varieties of black currant that are resistant to the virus. These varieties include “Consort,” “Titania,” “Crusader,” and “Coronet” black currants. There are no resistant varieties of red currants, gooseberries, or jostaberries, so if you’re concerned about the laws or if you have pines growing in your area, check with your local agricultural extension office before planting them.
This web site has seven pages of recipes using currants.
Where to Get Unusual Berries and Learn How to Grow Them
The following nurseries, as well as many others, sell some, or all, of these plants:
Nurseries will generally provide detailed growing information, but you can also find information at the following sites:
The recipes given here are only a tiny sample of what’s available on the internet. If you grow any of these plants, take time to find and print out the recipes you like so you will have them when you need them.
All of these plants have many varieties that have been bred for different characteristics. Some varieties may have larger or sweeter fruit, may have larger or smaller growth, may ripen earlier or later, or may be adapted to unusual climates or specific soils. It’s best to check with several nurseries to see what varieties are available before buying a particular plant, because through research, you may find one that will be especially strong and productive in your area. If you live in a very cold or very warm zone, nurseries that are located within your zone are your best bet for finding plants that are especially adapted to your conditions.