The Pinelands of New Jersey offer a cornucopia of berries. To the knowledgeable, the berry season runs from July to December.
It never occurred to me, in writing this page, that someone might eat the wrong berries and poison themselves. But, to cover myself, I point out that this page describes berries. It does not recommend eating them. Eating them is your decision.
I also point out that any time wild blueberries are in season, cultivated blueberries are sold around the Pinelands.
Summer is blueberry season in the Pinelands. The edible blueberries growing are, technically, a mixture of species. They’re several varieties of blueberries and huckleberries. To me, they are all blueberries. And they all taste good.
It’s hard to believe that hundreds of acres of perfectly edible berries grow wild and untouched. But, there they are! You’ll see lots of them during most of July and August. In fact, they grow so heavily that even the birds and animals can’t eat them all. Eventually, these juicy, nutritious berries just shrivel up and disappear. (You’ll notice one or two of the berries in the photo above have shriveled a bit.)
As a bonus, blueberry plants put on a spectacular show when their leaves turn a bright wine red in October.
Blueberries grow randomly along the roads and trails of the Pinelands. I’ve not noticed any sure way to predict where to find them, although, the best berries seem to occur on dry banks a few inches above ponds and streams. Berries grow best if spring and early summer have a lot of rain. So, 2010 was a good year. The berries pictured above were growing about a foot above a seasonal stream.
If you want to try wild blueberries just keep an eye out for them in July or August.
Mixed with the blueberries is a foul tasting creature – the chokeberry. Chokeberries look a lot like blueberries but they are a dark, purple color – like ink. Chokeberries are extremly nutritious but they taste terrible. If you’re not sure which you have, just sample about half a berry. Chokeberries are foul tasting, astringent, bitter and leave a lingering unpleasant aftertaste. After one test you’ll have the distinction down pat for life. Wild blueberries don’t have a strong taste but they have a pleasant, blueberry aftertaste – which, by the way, will remove the chokeberry taste.
I understand chokeberries can be cooked into a fine, nutritious jam – if enough sugar is added.
A bit later in the season, a vine called greenbriar produces berries that look a lot like blueberries. It’s easy to distinguish between greenbriar berries and blueberries. The greenbriar berries grow on a thorny vine – not on a bush. Greenbriar berries are not poisonous. But, they are not edible, either.
The taste of greenbriar improves after a hard freeze but they are, still, mostly pits and peel.
Cranberries ripen in late summer. You can see the plants growing in abandoned cranberry bogs. I’ve never tried to pick them because I don’t want to enter the bogs.
Bearberries ripen in late summer. These small, red berries taste a bit like crab apple. If you try them, don’t eat too many. Bearberries are a potent medicine. They are used to treat urinary tract problems. And they can turn your urine green. The leaves can be made into a potent medicinal tea.
I was surprised to read that the bearberries last until spring. In the pine barrens they’re gone before December.
Astonishingly the Pinelands offer rich berry picking in early December. A plant called Wintergreen, or Teaberry grows widely throughout the area. Wintergreen is an attractive, low growing, green shrub. It’s only 6 or 8 inches tall, has bright green leaves and bright red berries. The berries are edible in limited quantities but they have strong medicinal properties. They behave like aspirin, relieving pain. A few berries can show a nice effect on sore joints.
Wintergreen leaves can be made into a tea which, also, has pain relieving propeties. (Here is alink to a recipe’.) (A warning! The same website gives a recipe’ for sassafras tea. Do not make the sassafras tea! Sassafras root is a well known carcinogen!)
Wintergreen oil (the source of the minty flavor) is used in liniments. The oil has a definite and, well known, toxic limit. So, don’t eat more than a few berries.
Another word of warning. If you are taking any other medications, don’t sample wintergreen. Who knows what kinds of interactions might occur?
Unlike Blueberries, Wintergreen berries are completely consumed by wildlife. By late December, they are, pretty much, gone.
In early winter, greenbriar remains uneaten. The taste is, slightly, improved by a hard frost, but the berries are all seed and skin.
Blueberries, chokeberries, bearberries and wintergreen are attractive plants that can be grown in a garden. Seeing the plants growing wild will give you a good idea of how they can be used in landscaping. Plants can be purchased on the internet.
Some advice is in order.
First; DO NOT REMOVE NATIVE PLANTS FROM THE PINE BARRENS! This is both illegal and unwise. Better looking and better fruiting hybrids of blueberries and chokeberries can be purchased. Transplants from the pine barrens are unlikely to work, anyway, because the sandy soil just falls from the roots and leaves the plants to dry out and die.
Second; do notice the way the plants grow in the wild. All these plants require sandy, acid soil. If you don’t have this soil, don’t waste your time. All these plants tolerate shade. Wild blueberries appear to actually prefer some shade although, commercially, they are grown in full sun. Blueberries love organic, sandy soil a few inches above permanent water. Wintergreen appears to grow best in fairly deep shade under pines.