Hiking along the North Fork of the Elk River last week, I couldn't help but sample the ripe raspberries lining the river side of the trail. Yum.
Now that some shrubs and perennials are done blooming, many plants are producing gorgeous berries in hues of white, orange, red, purple, blue and black. 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 eaten.
The toxicity of berries on plants in the mountains of Routt County include berries that are safe and healthful, those that will make you sick and some that can be fatal if eaten.
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 them while not quite ripe can cause a stomachache similar to eating too many green apples or other immature fruit.
Serviceberry (Amelanchier sp.) is a common shrub found throughout the Steamboat area. It goes by many names in the West; most people here call it sarvisberry. 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. The birds also adore serviceberries and spend many hours in the dense foliage.
Chokecherry (Purnus virginiana) shrubs enjoyed a fabulous bloom this year, thanks to all the early moisture from heavy winter snows. 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.
Mountain ash (Sorbus sp.),with its bright orange berries, is an important source of nourishment for birds and small mammals. Its berries are quite sour until after the first frost.
Some use the berries for wine-making while others dry the berries for craft projects, and most leave the berries for our forest friends.
The pretty white berries on red osier dogwood are edible for birds, but taste bitter to humans.
Best to leave these berries for the wildlife.
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:
Mistletoe (Phoradendron flavescnes) berries have toxins that have caused deaths of humans and livestock.
Holly (Aquifoliaceae) berries contain a toxin that causes vomiting and diarrhea.
The popular landscape plant, Lantana (Verbenaceae) has green berries that are very toxic.
Ligustrum (Oleaceae), also known as privet, has black berries that have caused the death of several people known to have eaten them.
All parts of the chinaberry (Melia azedarach), also called baneberry, are poisonous.
Nightshade (Solanum nigrum) has pea-sized fruits which look like little tomatoes, which 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 e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org