In Mother Nature's Garden

Free Berries From Mother Nature’s Garden

Who doesn’t love berries? In Canada, we’re lucky enough to have several (really several) varieties that we often don’t even know about. Saskatoon berries, hasp, currants, etc.

But for this “Mother Nature’s Garden Berry Special”, I suggest we stick to the fruits we know best. Strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. These are the same fruits that cost a fortune in the grocery store for imported varieties, even in season.

Photo: Nicola Barts

Grocery Stores vs Local Markets vs Mother Nature

Who do you think wins the battle? In my opinion, it depends on what’s important to you: price, quality or availability. Let’s take a closer look…

Grocery Stores

Prix: 7/10. Qualité: 1 À 5/10. Disponibilité: 10/10.

Our first instinct is often to buy everything in one place. The list includes bread, eggs, flour, broccoli and strawberries: it’s as simple as that! However, grocery stores are far from having access to top-quality fresh berries (not to mention bananas and pineapples).

Most large chains have agreements with distributors that require them to buy a certain quantity of produce consistently throughout the year. That’s why, when the good Canadian strawberries are finally available, you can still find Mexican strawberries on the shelves.

Photo: Pixabay

I know that some large grocery stores can afford to display local strawberries (sometimes more expensive than imported ones), but this is not the norm. What’s more, in my personal experience, these strawberries tend to lose their freshness.

Still, there are upsides to grocery shopping. There’s a consensus: local strawberries really are better than those from the South, but they’re also rarer. January is not the time to make strawberry shortcake. But if you’re so inclined, you’ll find strawberries in grocery stores all year round. What’s more, because of the volume, you may even be lucky enough to find a good discount.

Photo: Marjan Sadeghi 

Choose Fruits and Vegetables in Season

I’m going off topic for a moment to share this advice with you: eat fruit and vegetables in season. Reread the sentence in bold. Again, just to be sure…
Why should I? It’s less expensive, it comes from a shorter distance, it’s easier to grow , it’s better for the environment and it tastes better.
This doesn’t mean eating only apples and potatoes in winter. Eating local food in Canada in winter is fine, but it may not offer much variety. Citrus is in season in winter; berries are in season in summer. See you in January for your marmalade party!

Markets, Local Grocery Stores and Producers

Price: 5/10. Quality: 9/10. Availability: 3 to 7/10.

Don’t throw your delicious tomatoes at me, growers, but… it’s true that your gorgeous fresh produce is often more expensive than wholesale.

I have several stands in my area, but my preference is for our weekly public market (covered and absolutely pleasant to visit), which offers splendid fruits and vegetables (in addition to eggs, meats, pastries, bakeries, etc.).

However, when the fruit basket that spent the day in the sun on the side of a dusty road costs $8, you can’t say it’s cheap or accessible to everyone. (I love visiting you anyway, don’t get me wrong!)

Once again: I know your fruit tastes better! I know that’s what it’s worth, given the work involved – we’re all gardeners here, after all!

I’m lucky enough to have a little fruit store in my neck of the woods. I find quality, local, in-season produce at lower prices, and it’s honestly the best compromise I’ve found. They have imported products too (pineapple, etc.), it’s open all year round (with Mexican strawberries in winter for people with shortcake addiction problems), and they have discounts like the big chains. The secret is to find the right spot… and not buy everything in one place!

In Nature

Price: 10/10. Quality: 10/10. Availability: …I have to give it a 1/10

Nothing’s perfect, but here we are at last (after this longer-than-expected intro): what do you find in Mother Nature’s free, maintenance-free garden? Absolutely gorgeous produce, better than anything you’ll see on the shelves, first-rate freshness, free… and only available for a week, which you’ll have to harvest yourself by the sweat of your brow!

Conclusion: where does your preference lie? What’s most important to you?

Personally, I opt for quality first and price second. And that’s just as well: I have a number of wild berries at home for the few days when it’s possible to pick them during the season. When it’s too hot or Mother Nature is less generous: hop! To the market!

It Looks Like a Raspberry, but Can You Eat It?

Answer: yes!

As far as I know, nothing poisonous can be mistaken for a raspberry in Canada. Whether it’s big or small, has a few little balls or lots of them, is red, blue, black or yellow, you can eat it!

All these raspberries (including blackberries) come from the same genus: Rubus. There are almost 1,000 species, subspecies or hybrids in this genus, and not a single one has been declared toxic.

If you’re in any doubt, you can identify them as follows: the leaves come in groups of three, they form bushes and they’re full of bloody thorns. Now you’ve got brambles!

It’s a plant that spreads at breakneck speed. At the edge of my forest, I let them go and harvest fruit for about a month, since I have different varieties. I suspect that the previous owners controlled their evolution, because when I moved in five years ago, I had a small handful of fruit that I had to compete with the birds for. Now it grows everywhere. I pick bunches full of them, I don’t quarrel with the animals and I even have the luxury of being able to choose only the most beautiful fruit!

It Looks Like a Strawberry, but Can You Eat It?

Answer: in Canada, yes!

Beware: in Europe, the United States and South America, there’s a look-alike called the Indian strawberry (Potentilla indica). It is only mildly toxic and can even be eaten in survival situations, with some digestive problems. It can be recognized by its spherical fruit and yellow flowers. If you try it, you’ll be disappointed, as it’s not very tasty, not to say insipid (if the Internet is anything to go by). So don’t eat it, but if you do, there’s no need to run to the hospital for a little berry.

Indian strawberry. Photo: ruizo

Otherwise, wild strawberries are very common in Canada (and elsewhere!). The genus Fragaria refers to strawberry plants. There are species, hybrids, cultivars… in short, we have strawberries all summer long! However, and this is my biggest disappointment in Mother Nature’s garden, wild strawberries are TINY! Er… sorry:


They’re a ground cover plant, so you need tiny, delicate fingers to pick them without crushing them. And if you want to make jam… you’ve got a few hours of picking ahead of you.

Being my favorite fruit, I overcame this disappointment by planting non-wild strawberries in my garden. The cultivated varieties are mostly crosses with wild strawberries and the fruit is larger, but still a little less sweet than the wild ones.

You have to make choices in life, don’t you? Wild strawberry picking is not for the lazy…

It Looks Like a Blueberry, but Can You Eat It?

Answer: No.

Watch out for blueberry look-alikes… And get your Latin out for this section.

First, let’s make it clear that bilberries are not blueberries. That’s another species in the same genus: Vaccinium.

“So if Rubus are brambles and Fragaria are strawberries… Vaccinium are blueberries, it’s all the same!”

I’d love to say yes (biology would be more accessible), but NO! Unfortunately, it’s not always that simple. In the genus Vaccinium, there are some 450 species. These include the lingonberry and the cranberry, which are no more blueberries than the bilberry (European blueberry). 

So here it is: common blueberry (that’s its real common name… it’s getting complicated, I agree!): Vaccinium myrtilloides.

Billberry (European blueberry): Vaccinium myrtillus.

(I’ll spare you the hybrids and subspecies, but I’ll also mention the lowbush blueberry: Vaccinium angustifolium).

Wild bilberry.Photo: Myrabella 
Wild lowbush blueberry. Photo: nhaperkins
Common blueberry. Photo: hydrophilus

Back to Blueberries

Back to my blueberries. Once again, they’re much better in Canada than imported. In fact, to survive transportation, this fruit, like many others, is picked before ripening, which prevents it from developing its full flavor.

That’s why buying Mexican blueberries is often disappointing…

(I have nothing against Mexican products, by the way! I like tequila and tacos… just not imported berries and since it’s one of the main suppliers in winter…Voilà.)

There are several kinds of wild blueberries in Canada. If you’re from the Saguenay or the Côte-Nord region, you’ll understand this memory of beautiful moments spent under Hydro lines picking berries while being eaten by flies. It’s the food chain! But it’s worth it: those little blueberries are DELICIOUS!

On a more serious note, I haven’t found any wild blueberries in my less northerly region and have to fall back on cultivated ones… but if I ever find a stray plant, I promise to do it proud. In Europe, however, beware of confusing blueberries with belladonna also known as deadly nightshade.

What? They really exist? Did Tim Burton do his research before making Wednesday? Yes, he did!

“But it’s not true that we’re going to die from it, is it?

10 to 15 berries could kill a healthy adult. If you’re from Europe, learn how to identify it. If you’re from North America, you can buy it as an ornamental plant… but honestly, considering the danger to animals and children, I don’t recommend it.

Medicinal Properties

Fruit is good for you. I don’t think I’m teaching you anything. Eat lots of it and it will help your body and even your mind to feel better.

Bramble leaves are also used to treat mild diarrhoea, to lower blood sugar levels and to relieve and regulate the menstrual cycle.

A Personal Anecdote

Allow me to share a personal anecdote: my menstrual cycle (yes, that’s how intimate we’ve become!) is absolutely hellish. I’ll spare you the details, but I’d like to share my experience with bramble tea in an attempt to “cure” these difficult periods.

Fact 1: you need to take it a lot and often (2 to 3 cups of bramble tea – it tastes like green tea – a day for months before you see any effect, according to studies).

Finding 2: I wasn’t as rigorous in my consumption as science recommends.

Finding 3: it worked anyway: my cycle was more stable and less painful physically and emotionally. We’re all made differently, sometimes we react well to Tylenol and not to Advil: it’s all the same in Mother Nature’s pharmacy. You just have to find the plant that suits you and the dosage that’s right for you.

Observation 4: I get sick of drinking bramble tea! But when I’m having a hard time, I take a cup and the placebo effect takes over!

So much for my personal experience!

Photo: Anna Pou

Its traditional uses are many and varied: for light wounds, the mouth, the pancreas, hemorrhoids, heavy legs and inflammations of all kinds.

As for the belladonna, its medicinal effects and historical uses are truly fascinating, but that’s not today’s topic… Maybe I’ll do a “poisoned plants” special for Halloween!

Happy picking!

Audrey Martel is a biologist who graduated from the University of Montreal. After more than ten years in the field of scientific animation, notably for Parks Canada and the Granby Zoo, she joined Nature Conservancy of Canada to take up new challenges in scientific writing. She then moved into marketing and joined Leo Studio. Full of life and always up for a giggle, or the discovery of a new edible plant, she never abandoned her love for nature and writes articles for both Nature sauvage and the Laidback Gardener.

2 comments on “Free Berries From Mother Nature’s Garden

  1. ingerknudsen

    I harvest a lot of chamomile in the spring to use for tea
    But it is very bitter Do you know why that is?
    I harvest the flower buds
    Chamomile in tea bags from the store is much milder

  2. Christine Lemieux

    Great article! I eat farmed “wild” blueberries every day.

Leave a Reply

Sign up for the Laidback Gardener blog and receive articles in your inbox every morning!