There are many native plants that are safe to eat but not all of them are tasty. I want to provide you with a list of my favorite native shrubs that produce edible berries. These are easy to identify, look great in a garden setting, and will provide you with nutritious treats.
My all-time favorite berry bush is the common deciduous Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) which is found throughout the Pacific Northwest. It grows well in part-shade on the rich humus from decaying logs and stumps. Although it can grow a few meters tall, you will generally see it top out at about 2 meters. It has lovely bell-shaped spring flowers with red, tart, and juicy berries ripening in late summer. Because the berries are quite small, they take a while to collect. If you have children, you can perhaps entice them to pick a bucket by promising to bake a cake or pie with what they bring you. My mother used to make a nice pound cake in which she would mix about 1/2 cup to 1 cup of the berries. Yum! They are also nice tossed in a pancake recipe instead of the traditional blueberry. The berries can also be made into jam or dried.
Red Deciduous Huckleberry
Very similar to the Red Huckleberry is the Black Huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum). It grows in very similar conditions but can tolerate total shade and higher elevations. I have found large swathes of these bushes high up on some of the mountains I hike. When I find I patch, I generally look about nervously until I am sure that I am not sharing the area with some bears, who also love these berries. Two of the beautiful attributes of these bushes are their glorious red and orange fall colors and their stunning winter silhouettes, especially when lightly dusted with fresh snow. These berries are extremely delicious and juicy and make a great hiking snack. Just be careful not to stain your clothes with the deep purple juice.
Alaska Blueberry (also called Early Blueberry, Oval-leaf Bilberry, Oval-leaf Blueberry, and Oval-leaf huckleberry, Latin name Vaccinium ovalifolium) looks very similar to the black huckleberry but the berries are a bright blue. Also juicy and delicious!
What would a list of native berry bushes be without our incredible Blueberry (Vaccinium Corymbosum)? This plant is actually native to eastern Canada, but has naturalized in the West (thankfully). There are so many cultivars of this bush that it would take a book to detail them all. So I will, instead, tell you about my many Blueberry bushes that I have personally planted and can vouch for. First of all, I should advise you to plant more than one to ensure prolific fruiting. You also need moist, acidic soil preferably in full sun to part sun. Water well in drought because their roots are quite shallow and they will suffer if allowed to dry out. The berries taste best if left on the bush until dark purple, but you will have to net them if you want to wait this long; the birds also love these berries. My all time favorite blueberry is the Vaccinium Corymbosum ‘Chandler’. This cultivar boasts that it produces the world’s largest blueberry. I am not sure about that, but I do know that the berries are extremely big and delicious. By the way, the picture below is not to scale (just in case you were wondering)!
Some other Vaccinium Corymbosum cultivars I have planted are: ‘Blue Gold’ which is very heavy fruiting, ‘Reka’ which is fast growing and tolerant of heavy wet soil, ‘Chippewa’ which is a lower and more compact variety, and ‘Blue Crop’ which was my first purchase and the bush that triggered my love for these outstanding, low- maintenance, and beautiful shrubs. I should add that even if these plants did not produce these delicious berries, they would still be valuable for their gorgeous white spring blossoms and their incredible red and orange fall foliage. Stunning!
Serviceberry or Saskatoon Berry (Amelanchier alnifolia) can grow to the size of a shrub or small tree. They like shorelines and rocky bluffs so you can find many of these bushes in Lighthouse Park, Whytecliff Park, and Horseshoe Bay. The flowers are a bright white and are stunning in early spring. By late summer, the berries are dark purple and ready to eat. They taste a lot like blueberries and are also high in antioxidants. I have noticed that you can buy the juice of these berries in the heath food section of your local supermarket. Nice!
The Salmonberry (Rubus Spectabilis) is a very common berry bush in the Lower Mainland of Vancouver. It is also one of British Columbia’s tallest native berry bushes, generally growing 2 to 4 meters high. The pretty pink flowers bloom in February to April, depending on spring weather and height above sea-level. As soon as the flowers open, the hummingbirds will arrive to the area. They love to sip the nectar from these blossoms. The fruit arrives in May or June and the plant is named from the colour and shape of these berries; they resemble salmon eggs. These berries are delicious right off the bush and are very delicate. This makes them difficult to add to a cake or muffin recipe; they taste so good they probably won’t make it all the way home, anyway.
Another favorite berry bush is the Aronia Melanocarpas (Autumn Magic Black Chokeberry). I have two of these in a swampy area of my yard where the soil is predominantly clay. These bushes also have lovely white spring flowers and, like the name says, magical fall colors. They will thrive on total neglect and need no pruning. Another nice attribute is that the berries are a bit unpleasant tasting so you will be able to harvest them before the birds. I have eaten them plain, but I will confess to making a face while I did so. They are much better being added to sweeter dishes, such as applesauce or a fruit smoothy. I have heard that these berries are much higher in antioxidants than even blueberries; but their flavor makes them inhospitable for commercial fruit production. Here is a picture of the bright red fall foliage and the deep black berries:
Autumn Magic Berries and Foliage in the Fall
The Trailing Blackberry (Rubus ursinus) is the only blackberry that is native to our area. The one you see most often on roadsides is the Himalayan blackberry (Rubus discolor) which was introduced from India and is now considered invasive. If you have ever had a neighbour let this plant grow rampant, you will know it can grow under, over, and through fences. It can also pop up from under the ground at least 2 meters from the parent. It is also terribly thorny, although I will say the berries are yummy. “Bramble” is a word that describes any impenetrable shrub and is now synonymous with the blackberry bush.
Our native blackberry is also somewhat invasive but controllable. It often grows on roadsides, recently burnt or logged sites, forest edges, and ditches. The berries are black and succulent and very high in antioxidants. Most of the blackberries you will buy in the supermarket are from Mexico and are the cultivar “Tupy”. I find these not nearly as sweet or juicy as our local native or naturalised bushes but I do enjoy berries in the middle of our winter so I will not complain.
Tall Oregon Grape (Mahonia Aquifolium) is a medium sized shrub with prickly evergreen leaves. It grows throughout the Pacific Northwest. Aquifolium means “holly-like” referring to the spiny leaves. These leaves are a deep dark green most of the year but some will turn a beautiful purple in the winter. In the spring there are pretty, fragrant yellow flowers that become deep purple edible berries later in the summer. I have taken this first photo from my garden in late April. The berries are very tart so you will want to mix them with sweeter fruit for consumption.
There are two other mahonias native to the area, also evergreen with blue-black berries. These are Mahonia Nervosa (Dwarf Oregon Grape) and Mahonia Repens (Creeping Mahonia). Both are fragrant and spreading.
Oregon Grape flowers in April
Oregon Grape berries in late summer
Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) is a dense shrub to 3 meters that tends to spread thickly. It grows quickly in waste areas, especially after a fire. It has large white flowers in early spring which become blood-red soft berries. These berries are incredibly delicious, but very soft. This makes them difficult to transport, so enjoy them where you find them. The leaves double as toilet paper or tissues in emergencies!
Red Elderberry (Sambucus Racemosa) This is one shrub that should be planted more often. I really don’t understand its lack of popularity especially considering it has huge sprays of creamy white spring blossoms, a reasonable height, a non-aggressive root system, and edible red berries that are loved by wildlife. I know it is a bit scraggly, but so are Butterfly Bushes and they are commonly planted. There have been recent introductions into gardening centers of the Sambucus Nigra cultivars, namely ‘Black Lace’ and ‘Black Beauty’. Our own native shrub is much more desirable in my opinion. I have planted two ‘Black Beauty’ shrubs and found them to be nice but extremely popular with aphids. Not so with the natives! The blossoms attract many nectar seeking insects and hummingbirds and the berries are eaten by over 50 species of birds. The berries need to be cooked for human consumption, but I have heard they are delicious in pies and jams or battered and fried. I have also heard that pouring boiling water over the berries and then letting them steep makes a refreshing tea. If the berries are not cooked, they may cause an upset stomach as they are slightly toxic when raw. I have also heard that the leaves and stems are poisonous (at least to humans) so refrain from eating them. These plants grow to be small airy “trees” about 4 meters tall and prefer part shade but with some sun to ripen the berries. They like moisture and can withstand occasional flooding if you have a low-lying shady area in your yard.
I have already written about Gaultheria shallon (Salal) in my Native Plant Page but I want to include it here because it is the ultimate low-maintenance shrub with delicious and nutritious edible purple-black berries. A word of caution - when I say low-maintenance, I mean that is only the case if you plant in a contained area. This shrub likes to spread. If you plant a couple of bushes in your border with little tender companions, you will find that it is not low-maintence. So please be warned. This bushy plant is a native evergreen sprawling shrub that belongs to the Ericaceae (or Heath) family. It grows 0.5 to 2 meters and prefers part-shade although it can tolerate sunnier sites. It has small pinky-white flowers in May and June that become deep purple berries (really sepals) late in the summer. These berries are quite tasty and high in antioxidants. The First Nations people used them extensively fresh or dried as a winter food source in their stews and meat cakes. The leaves are very tough, leathery, and thick; the young tender spring leaves, however, are supposed to be edible. Cuttings from Salal make a great addition to your indoor flower arrangements and are lovely added to a Christmas wreath, perhaps with Western Red Cedar boughs and holly sprigs.