The other day... as I fought a blackberry and multiflora rose briar patch in short sleeves and too thin pants, after painstakingly (e...

Plant Walk: Elderberries, Sumac & Wild Grapes


The other day... as I fought a blackberry and multiflora rose briar patch in short sleeves and too thin pants, after painstakingly (emphasis on the "pain") making my way across the river, sliding on slimy rocks, against the current, pants rolled up to my knees, boots and basket (holding pruners and leather gloves) balanced precariously, daughter complaining from across the river because it's too cold to swim and I banished her laptop contraband, all so I could forage wild grapes... I wondered, "Is it all worth it?"

I was harvesting for my family and for a chef. The irony that I would be sending them 400 miles away to a restaurant I couldn't really afford to eat at, was not even a thought at that moment (though similar ones have come up before and since). Mostly my thoughts ran more along the lines of, "Most people would say I'm crazy and never want to do this themselves. So why, why do it?"

What is truly the difference between picking them yourself or just going to the store and buying something similar? We all probably know the obvious reasons: fresher, healthier, the unique taste of wild grapes that you can't get at the grocery store. In the end, for me, it comes down to personal preference. Would I rather work a "job" and have more secure income and the ease of going to the store or this adventure with no security, lots of freedom, and plenty of time in nature. But this is just my choice, I don't judge anyone for choosing the former. Though there are plenty of stories and some glamor, there's often a lack of romance, plenty of deeply buried thorns, sprained ankles, numb fingers, and monotony. When it comes down to it, though, I wouldn't trade it for the world. In return, I have learned to live more simply with less, to "afford" the life I love, so that my passion is my work and my work is my passion (my motto).

Enough about me, on to the foraging lesson:
  • Proper tools: A well-sharpened pair of pruners, at least, and often loppers (if you don't have to carry them far) are essential to keep in your pack/basket for cutting your way through situations like this or harvesting. 
  • Fashion sense: Leather gloves are a must when it comes to battling thorny prickly plants, along with thick long sleeves and pants, like denim. These will also protect you from pests like mosquitoes and poison ivy or stinging nettle.
  • A little about the plants:

    Elderberries(Sambucus spp.)

    Several species are native, just don't go for the red ones (toxic depending on who you talk to). They contain cyanide, so cook them and avoid consuming them raw. The berries contain super high amounts of vitamin C and have been historically worked with for immune boosting, fighting colds, coughs, and fevers, and they bind with the flu virus to prevent it from attacking your cells. Pretty awesome, right?!

    smooth sumac
    winged sumac berries

    winged sumac (see the wings?)

    Sumac (Rhus app.) 

    Several species as well, including smooth, staghorn (the really fuzzy ones), and winged. Also high in vitamin C. Can be steeped in water in the fridge overnight for a tasty "pink lemonade" drink with a little sweetener added, grated as part of the za'atar middle eastern spice blend (recipe here and then, what to do with it). Usually, though, I add it to my elderberry syrup for a super high C tonic. And, yes, they are related to poison ivy and poison sumac. The edible sumacs have red berries. The toxic ones have white berries and only grow in very marshy areas.

    Wild Grapes (Vitis spp.)

    And many of these species, too, depending where you live. Some are large and some are small, some sweeter and some more tart, some with skin you can slip off, and all with seeds. I eat the seeds; my friend told me she thinks they scrape your intestines (like in a good way). 

    I'd love to hear your comments and questions about what I've said or your favorite (or least favorite) things about foraging or how you like to work with these plants. Thanks for reading and go outside and enjoy this most bountiful time for harvesting wild foods!

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    1. Great info! Love the descriptions and pics. I will be keeping my eye out for all of these! I just made my first batch of elderberry syrup a few months back, it's a must have! I also infused witch hazel with elder flowers recently along with calendula, lavender and chamomile for a herbal face toner and sun burn healer. I discovered a large patch of wild grapes in my back yard. I've been tasting them and they are very bitter, I hope they sweeten for some eating!

      I totally get you on the happiness/job thing. Lots of people are still searching for that passion you have. I'm on the other end of the spectrum where I have a great job that gives me a cushy life but on the other hand it comes with lots of stress and bleeds into my personal time. My lunch time hikes in the woods are the only thing that keeps me sane! Your living the dream! Love reading about all your adventures, I learn something new every time.

    2. Abby, thank you so much for this blog and for sharing your knowledge! This is good stuff to know and is really interesting. I especially loved the information on foraging the elderberries. Thank you also for being such an inspiration to live our lives in a way that we love and that is in harmony with life around us. Have a great day and happy foraging!