Good Berry, Bad Berry: Book Review

– Posted in: Book reviews

My family picks wild strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, and elderberries. We pick what we know and leave everything else alone. I’ve always suspected there were more edible berries out there than we know about, so when I was asked to review Good Berry Bad Berry: Who’s Edible, Who’s Toxic, and How to Tell the Difference by Helen Yoest, I gladly accepted.

Wild strawberry

Wild strawberries are much tinier than cultivated ones.

Helen Yoest is an acquaintance of mine. I know she is passionate about sustainable landscaping and loves native plants, but I didn’t know she enjoyed foraging berries. I was curious to see what she could tell me.

She divides the book into three sections: Bad Berries; Good Berries; and Good Berry, Bad Idea. Each berry profile tells you what type of plant it is (vine, shrub, etc.), describes what the berry looks like, tastes like, what it’s used for, why it’s a bad or good idea, time of year you see the berries, what the flower looks like, what the leaf looks like, how big the plant gets, geographic origin, habitat type, hardiness zone, and further information. There’s also two pictures for each berry–one showing it on the plant, and a close-up. It’s pretty comprehensive and written as much as possible in plain English.

Not wild, just not from the grocery store

Here’s the thing that surprised me: although the subtitle says “Finding and Identifying the Most Common Wild Berries of North America”, I’d say 75% of the berries are found on common landscape plants. The plants that are rarely found in landscapes are extremely common wild plants. If you didn’t know them yourself, it would be pretty easy to find someone who did. Quite a few of the bad berry plants don’t even grow this far north, and one of them–Virginia creeper–does grow here, but I rarely see berries on it. (Well, I’ve never looked.)

This book taught me several landscape plants that had edible berries. Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa) has a berry-like fruit that tastes “sweet and creamy”. Who knew? I sure didn’t, and it makes me more inclined to plant a Kousa dogwood in my garden. If you like the idea of edible landscaping, this book will help you get an idea of common landscape plants you might want to include. You would then go to more detailed books to zero in on the best cultivar. For example, Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) has a berry that Helen describes as “sweet and unique.” Well, there are 150 species of Viburnum, and I would consult a field guide or a book exclusively on viburnums to be sure I had the right viburnum before I started sampling.

wild blackberries

We pick wild blackberries found at the edge of a neighbor’s field.

This book is just a beginning

Good Berry Bad Berry is a good introduction to wild berries, but should lead you to further research. If you are a parent concerned that some of your landscaping has poisonous berries, this book will let you know which plants are suspect. Then you should consult Cooperative Extension or another qualified expert to be sure you have correctly identified the plant. You would then evaluate how significant of a risk the plant actually poses.

If you are a trail hiker wondering if you could snack on the berries along the path, this book would be a start to figuring that out–but you should consult a field guide as well. And if you are on public land, there may be rules about harvesting from the vegetation. After all, these same berries are the way the plant perpetuates itself, and are often a food source for wild life. If the humans passing through ate all the fruit, there would be none to sprout and none to feed the animals.

As are the other books in this series (Good Bug, Bad Bug reviewed here), Good Berry Bad Berry is an excellent introduction to the topic for children and would make a good addition to a nature center library or a school with a nature education program. Once you find a name for the berry in question, you can show the children how to get more information.

wild blueberries

Wild blueberries are smaller than the cultivated ones, with a more intense flavor.

Just because you can eat it, doesn’t mean you should

Two quibbles: the Good Berry, Bad Idea section is rather confusing. Some of the berries in this section have an edible (although, with the exception of yew, not even good tasting) pulp but a poisonous seed. I’d just stick them in the poisonous section. Several others are not poisonous but don’t taste good. Why bother mentioning them? Perhaps a “good” berry has to be non-poisonous and taste good?

But that brings me to my second quibble. Most of the berries in the good berry section are too sour or astringent to eat fresh. They must be doctored up with sweetener and made into a drink or jam. Many of our cultivated berries can be prepared that way but can also be eaten fresh, out-of-hand. It wasn’t clear to me why I should bother with the “good berries” when there are plenty of cultivated berries that take less work and are more easily acquired.

Quibbles aside, this is a good introduction to edible berries that can be found outside the usual food channels. It’s a good beginner’s book that could be the start of a new hobby.

Posted for Wildflower Wednesday, created by Gail of Clay and Limestone, to share wildflowers/native plants no matter where you garden in the blogasphere. “It doesn’t matter if we sometimes show the same plants. How they grow and thrive in your garden is what matters most. It’s always the fourth Wednesday of the month!”

I was given a review copy of this book by St. Lynn’s Press. My thoughts on the book are my own.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

What differentiates a bulb from a perennial plant is that the nourishment for the flower is stored within the bulb itself.…There is something miraculous about the way that a little grenade of dried up tissue can explode into a complete flower.

~Monty Don in The Complete Gardener pp. 142

Comments on this entry are closed.

David Hamlin January 30, 2016, 10:34 am

I never realized there were so many edible berries out there! I always assumed they were pretty much all poisonous. I think I’ll probably still just stick to only eating wild blueberries and black berries though 🙂

commonweeder January 30, 2016, 9:21 am

I always appreciate your reviews that are so even handed about benefits – of books and tools. They are really useful to me.

Paul January 28, 2016, 1:09 pm

Thank you very much Kathy for your thoughtful and well-written review of Helen’s new book with us. Truly appreciated!

Lisa - Ontario January 28, 2016, 10:19 am

Nannyberries are delicious, a little like blueberries. We normally don’t get more than one or two because the birds are watching for them, but one year we had a bumper crop, and the birds had plenty to eat, and we actually got a bowl or two full.

DirectCompost January 27, 2016, 11:53 pm

Nice post Kathy.I have also tried cultivating berries.But didn’t succeeded.But i will give it a try again.Thanks to your blog.

Dee/reddirtramblings January 27, 2016, 2:03 pm

That was an interesting and thorough review. Thank you Kathy.~~Dee

Alana January 27, 2016, 1:15 pm

Years ago, when my husband and I lived on some rural acreage in Northwest Arkansas, we picked wild fruit – blackberries, elderberries, strawberries and even wild persimmons. But we learned our lesson when we saw what appeared to be wild grapes. But something didn’t seem right (the single seed in the middle) and we did not eat it. Took the fruit to the local extension service and found it was a poisonous fruit called common moonseed. Now, living in an upstate New York village, I get my fruit from local farmers or the grocery store. Still miss the foraging sometimes, though.

Kathy Purdy January 27, 2016, 2:44 pm

When in doubt–don’t, is a good rule of thumb for foraging. Also, Helen says in her tips section to assume all vines are poisonous until you’ve verified the identity.

Carol January 27, 2016, 12:41 pm

Good summary, thank you, Kathy. I’ve been added commonly cultivated berry producing plants to my garden. I know I have some others that might be edible, but would also be pretty sour. I’ll leave those to the birds!

Kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern January 27, 2016, 10:17 am

I tend you to agree with you Kathy! I’ll stick with the cultivated berries. I’ll also stick with store bought mushrooms after hearing a presentation on mushrooms – not worth the risk and potential harm even though a wild mushroom might taste a little better.