Food for Free: How to Identify Edible Berries on the Hills
Late summer in the hills means one thing - the start of the free food season. For anyone who knows where to look, and is willing to spend a bit of time on their hands and knees in a bog, there is a real abundance of free fruit, just there for the taking. Some are tastier than others, and most are quite small so require a bit of patience if you want to pick more than a juicy mouthful, but for many hillwalkers, the wild fruit season is one of the best times of the year. What better way to have a great day in the hills than to spend it in splendid relaxation filling your empty lunchbox with a selection of sumptuous berries?
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)
Probably the best known berry plant of our uplands, the bilberry is gorgeously juicy and can be found on moorland, hills and mountains on acidic soils. The plant is quite low growing, and is often hidden by dense heather. On grouse moors where burning has taken place the regrowth from bilberries take a couple of years to bear fruit, so look for older plants to make the most of a picking session. In Scotland the bilberry is known as blaeberry, while in other parts it gets called whorlberry, whortleberry, or huckleberry.
Where to find it: On heaths and moors throughout the UK, except in the south and east of England. It tends to grow best on acidic soils that aren't too boggy, so look for heathery slopes rather than mossy or rushy ground.
Season: Find the fruits from July through to September.
What's it taste like? Juicy and slightly sharp in flavour. Wait until they are fully ripe before picking. Can be used in cooking, and they go well in pies and crumbles.
Confusion species? The berries look similar to those of crowberry, but the plants are quite different. Both are edible though, so no problems there!
Conservation: Bilberries are plentiful in the right habitat, but over-picking should be avoided as they form an important food plant of birds and some mammals.
Blackberry (Rubus fruticosus)
Another very well-known berry throughout the UK, and one not often associated with the uplands. However, there are many places in the high hills were blackberries grown, often in remote and ancient woodlands on the flanks of the hills, or around long abandoned croft houses in the Highlands.
The blackberry fruit, or bramble, really needs no introduction. It has been picked by people across the world for hundreds of years, and its seeds were even once discovered in the belly of a Neolithic man dug up in the south-east of England!
Where to find it: Woodlands, hedges, heaths, throughout the UK.
Season: August through to October.
What's it taste like? Delicious when ripe. Wait for it to turn dark purple before picking, but don't wait too long or the insects and birds will get there before you!
Confusion species? Other members of the Rubus family (Raspberry, Dewberry) can be confused with the Blackberry, but they're all good to eat.
Conservation: No conservation issues.
Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus)
Also known as the King Berry, because they were once prized by the Monarchy for the royal table. Throughout northern countries the Cloudberry has long been used for making jams and pies, but unfortunately the plants do not often bear fruit in the UK. In Scandinavia the fruits are more common. The plants are low growing and are more usually spotted during the flowering period in May and June as the large white flower is easy to see in among heather.
Where to find it: Found in dense heather on damp acidic ground. In the UK the Berwyn mountain range in Wales is the southern limit for this plant, and it is the County Flower of Peeblesshire!
Season: August through to October.
What's it taste like? A slightly sharp, marmalade flavour.
Confusion species? None other than other Rubus species, but they are all more shrubby.
Conservation: A relatively rare plant of the uplands, so avoid over-picking if you're lucky enough to find any fruits.
Cowberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea)
A dwarf evergreen shrub which looks a little like a leathery-leaved bilberry. The flowers are white or pink and are bell-shaped. The fruit is a red berry, which is enough to put some people off, but the berries are nevertheless edible. The cowberry is closely related to the cranberry, and one of its common names is the 'mountain cranberry'.
Where to find it: Found on moors and heaths, coniferous forests, and gravelly areas in the higher hills in the northern parts of the UK.
Season: August to October.
What's it taste like? Sharp to taste, and many people consider the cowberry to be inedible when raw. They do make a good jelly though.
Confusion species? There is a closely related species known as the Bearberry, but that too is edible. Cranberries, which look a little bit similar, are also good to eat, so no worries about being poisoned!
Conservation: No special cause for conservation concern.
Cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccus)
Generally considered inedible when raw (though they are not actually poisonous, just very bitter!) the wild cranberry of the UK is a close relative of the commercially grown ones of America. Cranberries where once common throughout the UK, but the draining of the bogs and marshes caused it to retreat to the remaining wetter areas of the west and north. The plant itself is tiny, and often goes unnoticed, although you've got your eye in, you'll start to spot them on suitably boggy ground all over the hills.
Where to find it: Boggy ground in particular. Often found growing through sphagnum mosses, and purple moor grass. Found in most of the upland areas of the UK. Common in the Pennines, Mid Wales, the Berwyn, and throughout the Scottish Highlands.
Season: August through to October.
What's it taste like? Unpalatable raw, but if you can find enough to make into cranberry sauce you'll love eating it with your Christmas turkey!
Confusion species? Cowberry and bearberry.
Conservation: No species cause for conservation concern, other than further draining of peat bogs!
Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum)
One of those plants that many mountain walkers have heard of (Crowberry Ridge and Crowberry Tower on Buachaille Etive Mor!) long before they ever see it. However, it is a very common plant in the right habitat, and is actually quite abundant on most moors and heaths. The plant itself looks a little like a pale green heather, until you spot the occasional berry, and then you realise that this is something special.
Where to find it: Northern moors in the UK.
Season: August through to December.
What's it taste like? The fruits are high in vitamin C, and are picked throughout the Arctic regions. The fruit is a little tasteless at first, but can be eaten raw. If you can find enough they also make a nice jelly and jam.
Confusion species? The plants are often mistaken for heather, which does not bear fruits, while the berries are often mistaken for bilberries, which are of course also edible.
Conservation: No species cause for conservation concern
Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)
The only tree in this feature, but one that is a common sight in the uplands of the UK. The tree grows mainly on dry or rocky slopes, crags, and even on isolated boulders. It's quite a small tree with smooth grey bark, and toothed leaves. The flowers are formed in a spray of white petals, while the berries vary in colour and can be yellow, orange, or more usually, bright red.
It's also very common in towns and parks, so the berries can be gathered in most parts of the UK.
Where to find it: Often seen on crags and rocky ground, and many old ruined croft houses in the Scottish Highlands while still have a rowan growing by the front door! Found throughout the UK.
Season: August to November.
What's it taste like? Not great to eat raw, but made into jelly and served with venison the rowan gives one of the best flavoured that you can gather from the hills! It's a sharp, marmalade flavour, and is also superb with lamb or game.
Confusion species? Could be confused with wild rose, or Viburnum species.
Conservation: Not of any particular conservation concern, but the berries are a major food source for over-wintering birds, so don't pick them all!
About Graham Uney
Graham has worked as a Mountain Leader for over 20 years in all of the mountain regions of the UK. He runs skills courses for walkers under www.grahamuneymountaineering.co.uk and guided hill walks under www.lakesandpennineswalking.co.uk.