We have wild black raspberries growing in our yard (yes, we are very lucky). There is one good-sized patch near the front door and another one buried in the hillside that leads down to the driveway with a few canes scattered here and there in the woods. None of these areas produce large amounts of berries, as they are not managed by us at all; they are overgrown, must compete with weeds, opportunistic vines, other brambly-type bushes (that’s the technical term), and it is not the easiest foraging (the amount above took over an hour to harvest), as there are sharp thorns on raspberry bushes and some of the bushes are buried so deeply in a thicket of brambles that I just can’t access them. But still… wild black raspberries. I can literally pop out the door in my bathrobe and slippers, walk 10 feet, and forage for my breakfast. That just rocks.
According to Steve Brill, in his forager’s guide Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants, the black raspberry (Rubus occidentalis) plant consists of arching thorny canes, sometimes 10 feet in length, with three-parted palmate compound leaves which are sharply double-toothed and have white-hairy undersides. Raspberries grow in a variety of landscapes: in dense, wooded thickets, along roadsides, in disturbed soil (the edge of a forest, alongside railroad tracks, abandoned lots), and near fresh water (and in our back yard!).
Black raspberries can be distinguished from blackberries by the cone that is left behind (and the resulting hollow in the raspberry) when you harvest the berry; blackberries do not have this cone/hollow. Also, around here, blackberries are not even close to ripe yet; they will ripen in August, but now are tight, green clusters of berries. The tiny alpine strawberries are the first berries we see each summer, then the black raspberries, then the wild red raspberries, then the blackberries. Both black raspberries and blackberries start out as red berries yet are only ripe when they turn a deep purple black, and are easily removed from the bush (if you have to pull, they are not ripe enough yet). So how can you tell an unripe black raspberry from a ripe red raspberry? Well, if you look carefully you will almost always see a couple of black raspberries scattered amongst the unripe red black raspberries; all the berries do not ripen at the same time. Also, you could just eat one; unripe black raspberries are very sour; ripe red raspberries are sweet.
Also noted in Steve Brill’s guide is that the Goldenseal berry is the only close lookalike (to a red raspberry), however the plant part looks completely different, with single-lobed leaves, no thorns and no woody canes. Goldenseal berries can be poisonous in large quantities, so always be sure of your plant ID before eating foraged food.
In the last week, I’ve been able to forage about a handful of berries a day; I eat some fresh and individually quick freeze some for later in the year. So far, I’ve got not quite a quart of berries. Not much, some would say, for a week’s worth of effort; but the berries are so good – they bear absolutely no resemblance to the bland, soggy, tasteless fruit packed into plastic clamshells and sold in the supermarket. And in February, when I thaw some of these berries to make muffins, or pancakes, or a tart, I will be transported back to these warm summer days, the sun shining on my shoulders, bees buzzing, the deer and I, contentedly foraging from the same thicket of berries. It will be like magic.