Chris Rice has an eye for juneberries. The popular ornamental shrubs, so named because their berries ripen in June, are in more places than you might think, according to Rice. "Bent River (Brewing Company) has them; they were planted all along the one-way (streets) in downtown Rock Island, at least one on every block. They're even at the Davenport skate park," says the Rock Island resident, noting that whenever there is new construction, "the city puts in juneberries."|
The shrubs, also known as serviceberries, shadberries or saskatoons, make popular ornamental additions to yards and parks. But that's not why Rice thinks they are a landscape plant everybody should have. Juneberry fruits also are edible. "They're really common plants and are native to here. They're sweet, most often compared to a blueberry but sweeter. The seeds are like strawberry seeds, inconsequential, but they add an almond flavor," he explains.
According to renowned forager and author Steve Brill, juneberries easily are distinguished from other, nonedible berries because, like blueberries, they have a "crowned" opening opposite the place where the berry connects to the stem. "No poisonous berry has a crown," he writes in "Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places."
Like Brill, Rice has a passion for foraged foods. "I just always have been interested in foraging," he says. "Being a Boy Scout, I was really interested in that part, survival week." For him, availability is part of the appeal. "It's food that's there when you need it."
Foraging doesn't have to mean tromping through high weeds in a field in the middle of nowhere, says Rice. "The three easiest plants to forage are dandelions, violets and plantains; even kids can recognize them." These lawn staples are safe to eat as long as weed killers and other chemicals aren't used on them.
In addition, Rice keeps his eyes out for other food-producing trees and shrubs like paw-paws and American persimmons. "Paw paws taste like a banana-strawberry mix with mango," he says, while persimmons "have an interesting flavor, kind of like a Fig Newton with nutmeg. It's kind of hard to describe."
Surprisingly, a tree most think is a Southern staple is really a transplant from up North. "I like pecan trees, too. They're native to here but not native to Georgia. They've adapted to there but they don't have as much flavor as the native ones. Their native area is from the Mississippi River valley to the Gulf. They're not as common as they used to be because they're not good at re-establishing themselves after being cut."
When foraging, it's important to know exactly what plants are before you eat them. Tagging along with an expert forager is one of the best ways to ensure that only edible goodies are gathered. This is one reason Rice helped establish the QC Edible Landscapes group on Facebook, as a place for people with similar interests to trade information and compare notes.
For Rice, foraging isn't just a way to put food on the table. "It's relaxation, a hobby and survivalism, all in one. Even if you don't ever need it, it's a cool hobby."
To learn more about local foragers, visit facebook.com/groups/QC.EdibleLandscape.
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