If you’re into foraging, you probably know where your local stash of ramps or morels are hiding. You know which unclaimed apple trees are free for the picking. You know which neighbors have a giant rosemary bush—and don’t mind you stealing a few sprigs.
Today, we’re going to delve into the wild, colorful, occasionally prickly world of local fruits: where to find them, when to pick them, and what to do with them. Read this post, then take a walk around your neighborhood and see what you can find…
Typically found in southern coastal areas, as well as Northern California, these palm-fronded trees have huge, heavy clusters of yellow-orange fruit. The fruit, which has a hard-to-pin-down tropical flavor somewhere between mango and banana, ripens in the warm summer months, and is, naturally enough, typically used to make jelly and wine. The fruits can be gathered easily by hand or shaken down from the tree. Seeds of the fruit are used to make palm oil.
Native to Kentucky, American persimmons can be found throughout the South Atlantic and Gulf states. Like their Asian counterparts, they produce copious amounts of very sweet, almost jelly-like orange fruit. American persimmons ripen in autumn (and don’t pick them any earlier, as they are mouth-puckeringly astringent when immature), but the fruit will stay good on the tree through winter. A persimmon is ready for picking when its skin is wrinkled and the fruit comes free easily when tugged.
Mayhaws, the fruit of the thorny hawthorn tree, are found in wet areas throughout the southern United States. Their fruits ripen in late April and through May, hence the name: May-haw(thorn). The easiest way to harvest the small red mayhaw fruits is to lay a tarp or blanket down below the tree, shake it, and then gather the fallen bounty.
According to most Southerners, there’s really only one thing to do with mayhaw fruits: Make mayhaw jelly. Use extra juice to make a glaze for cooking meats and throw the pulp into mayhaw pound cake. Be sure to strain the fruit purée before storing it, since the skins can be bitter.
If you have any Opuntia cacti in your vicinity, you’re getting two foraged foods for the price of one: Both the green pads of the cactus (called nopales) and the vibrant red fruit (called the cactus fig or tunas) are edible. Found in hot, arid climates across the U.S., the vibrant purple tunas reach maturity in late spring through fall, depending on the species. The green pads of the cacti are good eating year-round. Try to harvest the younger, more tender pads.
Be sure to pick fruit and pads using gloves or tongs to avoid their prickly needles, or glochids. One online source recommends torching the fruit to burn off these spikes. If that sounds a little extreme, or you’ve misplaced your blowtorch, you can also wash the nopales or tunas thoroughly under fast-running cold water, or just prep them as-is, using a tea towel as hand protection.
To prepare the de-spiked tunas, slice the fruit in half and scoop out the flesh with a spoon. Blend and strain for an awesome, neon-purple juice, ready to add to lemonade, cocktails, or make into jelly. Warning: Like beets, prickly pears’ vibrant pink juice will stain everything—including your hands. Be sure to wear clothes you’re not fond of and slap on an apron before working with them.
To prepare the nopales, remove the tough exterior with a vegetable peeler, going with the grain of the needles, not against it. Grill the prepared pads and add them to tortas, quesadillas, or burritos.
Pawpaws have a long history in America: Lewis & Clark mentioned them in their journals; President Thomas Jefferson grew them at Monticello. Pawpaws grow across a large swath of middle America, from the Great Lakes down to Florida— in fact, there’s about a 50% chance that pawpaws are native to your state.
Their fruit ripens from September to early October, but start preparing for pawpaw season now. They might not look like much, but the pawpaw’s plain green exterior gives way to creamy, white flesh with a taste reminiscent of mango, guava, and peach. Most purists will tell you pawpaws are best eaten straight from the tree, but if you have your heart set on using them in the kitchen, we’ve got a few ideas.
Salmonberries, actually a member of the rose family, look like peach-colored raspberries. They’re found all along the West Coast, from Alaska to as far as California or Idaho, but they are particularly prominent in the Pacific Northwest. They ripen in late June and into July, and the berries are ready to pick when they’re large, tender, and have a dark sheen on their drupelets.
Surprisingly, salmonberries are not named for their rosy color. The First Nations people of the Pacific Northwest would eat the sprouts and berries of the plants with fresh salmon or dried salmon roe. The slightly sour berries can be eaten immediately, but they are also wonderful in jam, pie, or as a glaze for—you guessed it—salmon.
Mulberry trees are quite prominent, found in most temperate areas of the U.S. As Lindsay-Jean, our fruit and foraging expert, wrote, there is probably a tree growing in your yard—or down your street—right now. The berries ripen and begin to fall all over sidewalks, driveways, and pedestrians in late spring. The trees keep producing berries through the early summer months, so find your mulberry spot early on.
Use mulberries in any recipe you have for blackberries or raspberries, but be forewarned: They have a lot of seeds.
Perhaps the most well-known use for this plant is St. Germain, a liqueur infused with elderflowers. Elderberry plants begin to flower in the late spring/early summer, and their blooms give way to dark, wine-purple berries in August and September. High in vitamin C and antioxidants, the berries are often used in teas and tonics to promote health and treat the flu. They also lend themselves well to pies and jams, and can be used to infuse vinegars. Warning: Be sure to cook berries before consuming them! Raw berries contain cyanide.
What local fruit do you find (or hope to find) in your neighborhood? Share with us in the comments below!