Even though the deciduous trees have shed their leaves and the herbaceous plants have died back to their roots and/or sent out their hopes and dreams for future generations in the form of seeds, the conifers are evergreening. Growing among our needle and cone-bearing trees, such as the spruces, we may find red berries clinging on vine, cane, and shrub. There are several red berries that can persist into and through the winter: multiflora rose, bittersweet, staghorn sumac, Japanese barberry, and American holly. And a few of these berries are even edible – rosehips, staghorn sumac, and barberry – bringing our taste buds cheer as we suck on the sweet-tart flavors of winter.
Both multiflora rose (Rosa multiflora) in Rosaceae or rose family and Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus) in Celastraceae or the bittersweet family, were brought into the USA as ornamentals for their beautiful bright berries. The problem with decorating with invasive berries is that berries contain seeds and seeds grow into new plants that can spread widely. Having no major predators in their new environment they can thereby get out of control.
“If you can’t beat it, eat it.” – Blanche Cybele Derby
The invasive multiflora rose has persistent red hips that you can nibble on all winter long. Rosehips are the original chewable vitamin C. Pop them in your mouth and they will taste just like those sweet-tart chewable vitamin C tablets. If you decide not to swallow the seeds, do not spit them on the ground because then you would only be helping to spread this aggressive invasive. Instead swallow or spit seeds into a tissue or baggie and throw those seeds away into the trash. There will be 7 or more yellow seeds per tiny hip. This shrub has a rambling appearance and can stand up to 15 feet tall. Canes have stout, curved thorns. New growth is green. In the summer notice small white fragrant flowers – which are also edible. Be sure not to confuse the rosehips with another invasive berry – bittersweet, which can grow alongside each other. Oriental bittersweet is a non-thorny woody vine with orange to red berries. Look for the yellow papery hull peeling back from these berries – which are not edible.
Another red berry that dangles enticingly is Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii) in Berberidaceae – the barberry family. This is also an invasive flora. Barberry forms dense, squat shrubs that have become 8-legged tick (aka deer tick) havens. Similar to the multiflora rose, they can be a challenge to remove as they also have thorns. Barberry thorns are small but you can still tangle yourself up in them if you are not careful. Red berries, containing 3 dark brown seeds, are oval, and hang singularly along the thin thorny stem. The older branches are grooved. This is another red berry you can eat raw or cooked. Admittedly, I find these berries a bit bitter to eat as a trailside nibble. But I have found recipes for their inclusion, such as rice pilaf, which I will have to report back on as I am new to learning about this particular wild edible.
A native red berry that is also edible is staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) in Anacardiaceae, the cashew/sumac family. These berries are fuzzy and grow in erect clusters on this mid-size shrub growing along edges. Notice the newer growth is fuzzy, hence its name – staghorn – for the male deer’s velvety antlers in the summer. Though eating fuzzy berries is not my idea of a grand culinary experience, you can make a sun-tea with the berries by letting them sit in a glass container of water in the sun. Do not boil or steep in hot water as that will leach tannins into the water and make your tea bitter.
According to wild edibles expert Arthur Haines, the leaves, inner bark, and budding flower arrays of staghorn sumac have antimicrobial properties for cleansing wounds and can be made into a strong tea or tincture to treat staph infections. Additionally, Haines states that the yellow barberry roots can serve as a substitute for our native and threatened goldenseal plant (Hydrastis canadensis) as an effective antibacterial for staph.
Why eat these wild berries in winter? Rosehips, staghorn sumac, and barberry all contain vitamin C – that is that sweet-tart ascorbic acid flavor in your mouth. The benefits of vitamin C include protection against immune system deficiencies, cardiovascular disease, eye problems, and skin wrinkling. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps your body’s healing process. So get yourself into the outside this winter and nibble on some healthy vitamin C berries.
Into the Outside is a bi-monthly feature in the Ashfield News. This article appeared in the January 2021 edition of The Ashfield News.
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