Deb Babcock: Know berries before you eat them

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Deb Babcock

Deb Babcock's gardening column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today.

Find more gardening columns here.

— Now that some shrubs and perennials are done blooming, many plants will soon be producing gorgeous berries in hues of white, orange, red, purple, blue and black. The beautiful berries on the shrubs we see on hiking trails and in gardens and parks around the Steamboat area are some of the most delicious you’ll ever taste, but beware: some are also the most deadly.

The toxicity of berries on plants in the mountains of Routt County span the full spectrum from safe to potentially fatal. Among the edible berries that grow well in our zone 3-4 garden environment are raspberries, currants, gooseberries, elderberries and sarvisberries. 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.

Sarvisberry (Amelanchier sp.) is a common shrub found throughout the Steamboat area. It goes by many names in the West. The berries, which ripen in mid-summer, are round like blueberries and are red when young and purple-black when mature. These are great for jams, jellies, sauces and beverages. Birds also adore sarvisberries and spend many hours in the dense foliage. Walking along the Yampa River Core Trail a few days ago, I noticed lots of ripe fruit on those shrubs.

Chokecherry (Purnus virginiana) shrubs enjoyed a fabulous bloom again this year, thanks to all the early moisture from heavy winter snows and our wet spring and summer. 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.

The pretty white berries on Red osier dogwood are edible for birds but taste bitter to humans. It’s best to leave these berries for the wildlife.

The berries of some plants are so enticing that 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 that look like little tomatoes, but they’ll cause paralysis and death.

Enjoy the berries of our beautiful mountain landscape, but know what you’re dealing with when picking and eating them.

Deb Babcock is a Master Gardener through the CSU Cooperative Extension Routt. Call 970-879-0825 or visit http://rcextension.colostate.edu.

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