Mountain berries can be delicious or deadly

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The beautiful berries on the shrubs we see on hiking trails, in gardens and in parks around the Steamboat area are some of the most delicious you'll ever taste, but beware: some are also the most deadly if ever eaten.

The berries growing in Routt County range from those that are safe and healthful to those that will make you sick to some that are deadly.

Among the edible berries that grow well in our Zone 3-4 garden environment are raspberries, currants, gooseberries, elderberries and serviceberries. Also edible are thimbleberries, chokecherries, Oregon grape berries, kinnikinnic berries and huckleberries. Of course, eating too many or eating not-quite-ripe berries produces the same results as eating too many green apples or other immature fruit: a stomachache.

n Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.) is a shrub found throughout the Steamboat area. It goes by many names in the West; here, most people call it "sarvisberry." It grows 6 to 20 feet tall and sports white blossoms in the spring. The berries, which ripen in mid-summer, are round like blueberries, red when young and purple-black when mature. They are great for jams, jellies, sauces and beverages. Birds also adore serviceberries and spend many hours in the dense foliage.

n Chokecherry (Purnus virginiana) shrubs enjoyed a fabulous bloom this year, thanks to all the cool weather and precipitation in May and June. Grape-like clusters of blooms morph into round, dark-purple berries that are very astringent when fresh. The only edible part of this fruit is the fleshy outer part of the cherry; toss the pits. The fruit ripens in late summer and can be used in jams, jellies, syrup, pies and wine.

n Mountain ash (Sorbus sp.), one of my favorite fall shrubs with its bright orange berries, is an important source of nourishment for birds and small mammals. It's berries are quite sour until after the first frost. Some use the berries for wine-making while others dry the berries for craft projects. Most leave the berries for our forest friends.

The berries of some plants are so enticing, you're tempted to try a taste. Don't, unless you're certain they're edible.

Here are some berries you'll want to avoid:

n Mistletoe (Phoradendron flavescnes) berries have toxins that have caused deaths of humans and livestock.

n Holly (Aquifoliaceae) berries contain a toxin that causes vomiting and diarrhea.

n Lantana (Verbenaceae), a popular landscape plant, has green berries that are very toxic.

n Ligustrum (Oleaceae), also known as privet, has black berries that have caused the death of several people known to have eaten them.

n Chinaberry (Melia azedarach), also commonly called baneberry, is also poisonous.

n Nightshade (Solanum nigrum) with its pea-sized fruits that look like little tomatoes that will cause paralysis and death.

Enjoy the berries of our beautiful mountain landscape, but be berry careful when picking and eating them.

Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or: gardeners@co.routt.co.us

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