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Omaha Magazine

Harvest: Wild Gooseberry Chase

Apr 28, 2022 05:11PM ● By Sara Locke
gooseberries ready for harvest

Photo via iStock.

Nebraska is known for the food it can grow, and berries are no exception. From tart to sweet, tender to crisp, each berry brings its own  resumé of delicious vitamins, nutrients, and antioxidants to entice and delight. Fresh-from-the-vine foragers and put-it-in-a-pie guys alike will find a sweet treat growing wild all across the state.

Andrew Tonnies and wife Kate are growing their own expertise in the field via Hideaway Farms, an acreage they bought near North Bend, Nebraska, and built up over the last decade. The pair had their first farmer’s market season in 2021 at Village Pointe in West Omaha, and plan to add to their offerings this season.

“We planted so many different things, and they’re just really starting to get going,” Andrew said of his crop’s maturity. “We raise berries and make value-added jams and jellies. We forage wild choke cherries that grow on our land, and elderberries. We use lilacs, dandelions, marigolds, and lemon verbena in our jams to create really interesting combinations.”

Tyler Glesne of Omaha is an amateur grower who makes foraging a family affair.

“I actually make elderberry jelly with my mother-in-law every year, in addition to elderberry liquor,” he said. “It’s the kids’ job to pick them and wash them. They actually really enjoy it. It’s a good bonding time every fall.”

Nebraska’s wild berries tend to be of the hardiest stock, thriving anywhere they can find full sun and be left to ripen without danger of being mowed down. Bushes can be found flourishing along the edges of wooded areas, vines climbing fences, even trees taking root in overgrown ditches and meadows. In fact, growers beware—some berry plants are invasive, spreading extremely fast and quickly taking over a habitat!

Before heading out to harvest, be sure to consider the following three questions.

Should I Eat Wild Fruits? 

While many of Nebraska’s wild fruits are not only safe to eat, but wildly delicious, several berries bear the burden of toxins that can cause anything from mild itchiness to paralysis. Foragers should bring a reliable field guide, or download a berry identification app, to positively identify the plant before picking. Wild Berries and Herbs LITE is free on the App Store. 

Seeing an animal snacking on a few fallen fruits might lead a person to believe the same would be safe for humans, but don’t be fooled. Many fruits that are toxic to people are a delicious, nutritious snack to birds and deer. Even the elderberry, popular for its medicinal qualities and immune-boosting properties, is dangerous to eat raw or unripe. The entire plant is poisonous to humans, and uncooked berries can react in one’s gut to create a deadly hydrogen cyanide cocktail. 

May I Pick Wild Fruit in Nebraska? 

Any berry picking needs to be done safely and with permission. While a bush growing along a favorite walk might be tempting, picking fruit may mean risking more than the social faux pas of stealing. Pesticides, herbicides, or ground toxins may have leeched their way into the fruit, and a pilfered handful gobbled down might result intestinal distress and abdominal pain.

Permission to forage from state parks and forests can be attained be reaching out to the park’s superintendent, while farmland and acreages often allow individuals or small groups to forage by contacting the property owner directly. 

When are Wild Fruits Ripe in Nebraska?

 Nebraska’s many fruits each come into season in their own time. Mulberries, strawberries, and raspberries ripen from mid-June to mid-July. Choke cherries and currants are best from mid-July to mid-August. Sand cherries, blackberries, and gooseberries should be harvested from early July to mid-August. And ground cherries and buffalo berries can be enjoyed between July and September. Elderberries can be harvested (only the ripe fruits, and cook before eating) from mid-August to mid-September. 

A day of adventure and the sweet fruits of your labor are still green and wild on the vine, and just a sun-drenched summer day away from being ripe and ready to be plucked.   

Learn more about foraging from state parks by visiting OutdoorNebraska.Gov/Parks/.

This article originally appeared in the May 2022 issue of Omaha Home. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.