It’s finally berry picking season! That’s right, the time of year has come when we can discover the sparkling sweet gems our varied plants have provided this season. Nothing awakens the primordial spirit like foraging for berries along one of your favorite hiking trails. Some of the delicious berries you may find throughout Eagle County include thimbleberries, service berries, raspberries, currants, strawberries, and huckleberries.
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But what makes these berries so sweet and appealing is a history that takes us back millions of years. Flowering plants coevolved to thrive in the Rocky Mountains over 1 million years ago, with pollinators such as birds, bees, and bats. They have a mutually beneficial relationship that allows pollinators to find food in the form of nectar, and for flowers to be pollinated, creating the seeds to carry on the new generation. All fruits come from flowers, and they contain the seeds, including the species’ DNA, that the plant needs to propagate and thrive in their environment. This seed, surrounded by the sweet juicy flesh of the berry, becomes the basis of the plant’s fruit and the delicious berries we find around August.
Now to one of the most important questions: Why are berries so sweet and tasty?
Fruit tastes sweet because they are full of sugar. The plant uses a high sugar content as a tool to allure animals into eating them. Humans included. As the berry develops, a chemical called amylase breaks down the starch of the fruit flesh into sugar, during a process known as ripening. Once eaten, the seeds of the berry will pass through the body unharmed by digestion, and sometimes far away from the parent plant. This is called seed dispersal, and helps to further the range of the plant species. Growing directly underneath the parent plant would not allow enough sunlight and moisture to help it grow strong and healthy.
Many animals are drawn to brightly colored berries, the berry shape, and the berry’s sweetness. In the summertime, many wildlife species switch their eating habits from eating some meat and plant material to mostly berries. Bears, deer, birds, and rabbits, just to name a few, love to forage for berries during this time of year, just as humans do. Before the dawn of agriculture, berries were one of human’s largest food sources, and they continue to be a main food source for many primates.
Here in Colorado, much knowledge about poisonous, edible, and medicinal berries came from the Ute Native Americans. Historically, the Utes are believed to be the oldest residents of our state. Living a hunter gatherer lifestyle, berries formed a large foundation of the Ute diet. Later, berries were mixed with fat and meat to provide a more hearty meal. They shared this knowledge with early pioneer settlers and today we have a wealth of expertise about local berries.
Be sure to properly identify your berries in the wild before picking some to eat. There are plenty of guidebooks and information available to ensure happy berry foraging. Edible berries can be eaten raw, made into jams, preserves, pies, and even cakes. So don’t wait until it’s too late; get outside and find the sweet treat you’ve been looking for this August.
Rachel Swanwick is a naturalist and sustainability intern at Walking Mountains Science Center in Avon, and avid berry picker throughout the county!