Helen Yoest is a wildlife habitat gardener who shares her berries with the birds. Helen is an award-winning garden journalist whose work has appeared in Martha Stewart, Better Homes and Gardens, Country Gardens, and many more. Her #gardengoals are to educate others about the wonders of nature and foraging. Catch-up with Helen on her blog, Gardening With Confidence, or connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.
1. Where did your interest in berries develop?
As a curious gardener and naturalist, I have always been intrigued by flashy berries hanging from branches of trees and shrubs.
There was a field next to our house where I grew up, and behind the field on one side of my elementary school was a small tributary. Along the water’s edge were Aronia melanocarpa. I knew them as chokeberries. On crips fall days as I walked to school, I would check the plants for ripe fruit.
In hindsight, eating an unknown berry from a small tree wasn’t the smartest thing a nine-year-old could do. I never go sick, but I had no idea if the berries were edible. They were somewhat tasty, yet a bit astringent, and I learned to spit seeds to great distances. I figure the fruit from the big old mulberry tree in my backyard was edible, so why not chokeberries. I really lucked out.
The berries of my childhood were my springboard for learning about berries and foraging wherever I go. Learning about cultivated plants with edible fruit has become even more interesting to me. This started a new journey and ignited some big and delightful surprises.
2. Have you had personal experience with every berry featured in your book?
Yes, each of the good ones, and a couple of the bad lol. Lucky for me the bads were not as bad as they could have been!
3. What are some berries off the beaten path that you highly recommend we try if we encounter them?
The first that comes to mind are the Amelanchier arborea, Serviceberries aka as June Berries and Shad berries. If you don’t grow serviceberry at home, you needn’t miss out on these delicious treats, but you’re not likely to find them at the market. Here’s what you do. On a pretty spring day, go for a walk along a greenway, in the woods, or along a riverbank. Spot the trees by looking for them in flower. They are easier to spot this way. Now, remember where they are. In a month or so, return to the same spot and check on your berries. If ripe, pick all the berries you want. It can be difficult to find a serviceberry if you do not look for it while the flowers are in bloom. You may be lucky enough to bump into one, but if you do that, it is likely that the berries will have been picked clean by an earlier visitor.
Next would be Elaeagnus spp.. This isn’t a plant, in good conscience, I would recommend planting at home. Elaeagnus are highly invasive in many areas. Yet, you can take advantage of this and do some environmental good by picking the berries along trails and country fencerows. One less seed to escape into the wild. right? Autumn olive, Elaeagnus umbellata, is our most common wild fruit, even though the suburban gardener often leaves it along.
Recommend just a few’s like choosing your favorite children…but here goes: Aronia melacocarpa, or chokeberry. Aronia has become an it food, and if you’ve every had Chokeberry jelly you’d know why. The Aronia genus has three species, all similar, except for the color of their fruit—black, red, or purple.
4. What are some standout content features of this book that make it the definitive resource for berry identification?
Each berry, whether good, bad, or bad idea, gives a berry description of each plant, along with season, both flower and berry, size of plant, and a description of the leaf arrangement. More importantly, the book describes symptoms, toxic principle, and the severity from minimal such as Nandina to the deadly yew.
5. How has this book been designed to be easily taken on the go for an outdoor adventure?
The publisher at St. Lynn’s Press packaged Good Berry Bad Berry with heavy matte-laminated pages and concealed-wire binding for handy, water-resistant use outside. Take it with you while walking the greenway, cycling the parks, or even foraging your own back yard.
6. What is your best advice for those interested in foraging for berries in the wild?
When in doubt, spit it out..or better yet, never put into your mouth. Ewell Gibbons was quoted as saying, “There are no poisonous plants that taste good; nature does not want to kill you.” For the most part this is true, but there is at least one deadly exception to that rule. Yew. Although most people have learned that the yew berry (actually a drupe) is poisonous, it’s really the seed that is the toxic. In fact the berry is very sweet and tasty. I have this berry listed under the section of Good Berry Bad Idea. You have to really know what you are doing to eat a yew berry. NEVER eat the seed. Yew seed is so toxic, eating 3-4 will kill you in 3-4 hours with no symptoms.
To enter, simply leave a comment on this blog post by midnight on Thursday, March 31, 2016 (be sure to provide a valid e-mail address) in answer to the following question:
What is your favorite berry?
Be sure to include a valid e-mail address. The winner will be drawn at random from all qualified entrants, and notified via e-mail. (See Rules for more information.)
UPDATE 4/16/2016: Congratulations to Kristi Schwandt, the winner of Good Berry, Bad Berry!