There are a few different berries that persist on shrubs during the winter months. Some of these edible winter berries are an essential food source for wildlife, especially birds.
In fact, the main reason why most plants don’t have fruits after the fall, is that they get eaten by animals. There are only so many wild food choices for animals and humans in the woods.
Many of these berries are also edible by humans, even if they can sometimes be very bitter. In this case, it might be preferable to use them for nutritious pies or jams.
As always, be very careful when foraging for wild berries, and make sure you have correctly identified the plant before harvesting.
Let’s take a look at the 7 of the most popular edible berries in the winter.
1. Barberries (Berberis species)
Barberries look similar to wild roses. They are shrubs that can be found in abandoned fields and forests. They are native to Europe, but there are several species of barberries that grow in the eastern part of North America.
The most common species is the American barberry (Berberis canadensis). The red fruits of this plant are an essential source of food for many small birds during the winter.
Barberries are edible raw, but be careful not to ingest the seeds. The skin and pulp taste very sharp and acidic and can be very refreshing. These fruits are particularly suited to be made into jam, as they are rich in pectin. They are also perfect for making hot tea during the cold winter months.
They contain high amounts of vitamin C and berberine, a compound that is beneficial to the immune system.
2. Rose Hips (Rosa species)
Rose hips are some of the most common shrubs that bear fruits throughout the winter. In the US, there are many different species of wild roses, as well as cultivated varieties.
They are all edible, but the wild ones are safer to eat, as you can be sure they weren’t treated with pesticides or other chemicals. Birds feed from the rose hips and sometimes the seeds. Dogs also often eat these fruits as they enjoy the fresh taste.
Rose hips are red and contain hairs that are best discarded before eating. They are traditionally used to make jams, teas, and syrups, but also bread and pies.
They are very rich in vitamin C, and also contain good amounts of beta-carotene and malic acid. They are common in shaded areas.
3. Cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon)
Cranberries are common in northern America, especially in the colder states up North. They prefer acidic, wet soil and can be found growing near lakes, as well as in bogs and swamps.
The fruits usually persist from September to January. Cranberries are eaten by birds, but also small mammals, such as rabbits and squirrels.
Cranberries can be eaten fresh, but they are quite hard. They can taste bitter and sour. Therefore, they are best enjoyed dried or in the form of juices or sauces.
They have good amounts of vitamin C, manganese, and antioxidants. When fresh, these aren’t normally considered sweet berries. But in dried form, they are sweeter and will lose some of the vitamin C content.
4. Chokeberries (Aronia species)
Chokeberries occur in the eastern part of the United States and Canada, where they can be found growing in wet areas. The two main species of chokeberries are Aronia melanocarpa, with black fruits, and Aronia arbutifolia, with red ones.
Chokeberries are essential for wildlife, as they provide not only food for many birds, mammals, and rodents, but also cover and a nesting habitat for birds.
Chokeberries are tart in flavor and can be eaten fresh or made into jams, juices, wine, and tea. If you can find them, always prefer the red ones, as they are tastier and juicier.
These fruits have an excellent content of antioxidants, which has made them popular as a “superfood”.
5. Elderberry (Sambucus canadensis)
Elderberries grow in eastern North America and thrive in moist, shady areas. They can be found in forests, old fields, and along roads.
They are an important food source for moose, deer, and elk, which feed on the leaves and stems, but also for birds, squirrels, and even bears, which prefer the fruits. Elderberries will ripen and mature in late summer, and highly sought after by the animals.
Elderberries are very small and grow in clusters. They can be quite tart and tangy if eaten fresh, which should not be done anyways, as they can cause nausea.
Some alkaloid compounds contained in the pulp are responsible for this effect, but they are inactivated if the berries are cooked. It’s common to use them for juices, jams, syrups, and wine.
Elderberries are a healthy addition to your diet, as they are rich in vitamins C and B6, as well as antioxidants.
6. Virginia Creeper Berries (Parthenocissus quinquefolia)
The Virginia creeper berry is common in North America, especially in the eastern and central areas. It is often cultivated as a decorative plant, as it grows quickly and is very beautiful.
It looks similar to poison ivy, but touching it doesn’t cause irritation. The difference is that poison ivy is covered in an irritating oil. Despite this, handle this plant with caution, as the sap of the Virginia creeper can cause skin rashes in some people.
The two plants can be identified by the number of leaves: Virginia creepers grow in groups of five, while poison ivy grows in groups of three.
Virginia creeper isn’t poisonous, but both the berries and the leaves can cause swelling and irritation of the mouth, lips, and tongue if eaten. Stronger reactions can rarely occur in some people, such as difficulty swallowing, diarrhea, and vomiting.
This plant is bad for humans, but very good for other animals, as it doesn’t cause any problems for insects and birds. Over 35 kinds of birds feed on its berries and leaves, while mammals also eat the stems.
7. Mountain Ash (Sorbus americana)
The mountain ash plant grows as a tree or shrub in the northeastern part of North America. It thrives near forests and on rocky grounds in the mountains.
Mountain ash prefers full sun and moist, rich soils. It produces bright orange-red fruits in the fall, very beautiful but sometimes dangerous to humans.
The seeds of the berries contain cyanide compounds, which can potentially cause death. Nevertheless, it is possible to eat them after cooking, taking care of discarding the seeds.
Mountain ash berries should be picked after several frosts, since freezing greatly improves the taste. These fruits give their best as jams and sauces.
On the other hand, many animals feed on the raw berries without problems, such as bears, moose, deer, squirrels, and rabbits.
Edible Winter Berries Final Thoughts
All in all, winter berries have a lot of benefits for humans, animals, and our environment. Not only do they provide nutrition, but they also help clean up the air we breathe and protect wildlife from predators.
Also check out our articles on other berries and plants that are edible: