The berries are Autumn Olive (no relation to actual olives). Look tasty, don’t they?

Berries are one of the most mysterious and alluring wild foods to the average forager. There are usually plenty of these eye-catching foods (and some harmful look-a-likes) that ripen during the fall season. To help you out, here are some quick guidelines, “rules” and shortcuts to help you discern which berries are edible.

At the end of the day, the best policy for dealing with berries is to learn each genus and species for its own benefits and dangers. This means no shortcuts; you have to do the homework.

About three quarters of the purple-, blue- and black-colored berries are harmless or actually have some nutritional value to a human. From there, the statistics take a bad turn. Only half of the red-colored berries are non-toxic, and fewer than one-tenth of the whitish berries can be consumed by a person with no harm done.

I don’t like any of those odds, and I certainly wouldn’t advise any berry picking from unknown trees, shrubs, vines and plants. I’m also pretty sour on the “Universal Edibility Test” that I hear about in some training courses and books. This test requires you to expose yourself to mystery plants in an increasingly dangerous fashion to find out if you will have an adverse reaction to that plant part. My general problem with a “cause and effect” test like this is the fact that you could fail to have a negative reaction until you have actually eaten the plant food, and with a deadly plant like Hemlock, you could actually die from eating a tiny bite.

Are you more nervous about berry picking now? Good, that little bit of nervousness is healthy.

So what are the good things you should be on the lookout for this fall?

Depending on where you are in the US, the menu is pretty nice. You can enjoy berries and berry-like fruits such as wild grapes, autumn olive berries, elderberries, wintergreen berries, rose hips, cranberries, chokecherries and hawthorn fruit, to name just a few. And a lot of them can be eaten right off the bush. A good field guide will tell you which berries taste better after drying or cooking. You can even turn them into jam, jelly, wine, tea, barbeque sauce and whatever else you can dream up.

Just remember to identify and avoid the bad berries like dogwood, buckthorn, pokeberry, Canada moonseed, nightshade and any other bad guys indigenous to your region.

And don’t forget that we aren’t the only critters drawn to the different berries and fruits. Adapt your trapping and hunting strategies to the animal traffic through berry patches and under fruiting trees.

Got a favorite fall berry or recipe? Let us know about it in the comments.