How to forage for native Ohio fruit this fall

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Pawpaw
Pawpaw by Melissa McMasters (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)], via Flickr

Fall is a great time of year to get into foraging. Just as it’s harvest time for farmers, it’s the time of year when nature turns out its biggest bounty. In Ohio, native fruits, nuts and roots are especially abundant.

My daughter and I love collecting blackberries and crabapples during fall, but there are so many more options. Below I list eight fruits to keep an eye out for this fall. Learn how to find and identify these fruits to enjoy some of Ohio’s most delicious wild treats.

Pawpaw

Pawpaw fruits are present throughout the summer, but won’t ripen until fall.

Where they grow. Pawpaws grow in areas with deep, rich soil such as stream and river banks, floodplains, ravines and ditches. Although they produce more fruit in the sun, pawpaws will also grow in shady areas.

What they look like. The pawpaw is typically a short tree, but it can reach up to 40 feet tall. Its bark is smooth and light brown with light splotches. Its thick and bright green leaves grow alternately on short stemlets, tending to cluster towards the ends of branches. The leaves are oblong with tapered bases and pointed tips, stretching about 11 inches long. Pawpaw fruits grow singly or in clusters on the short stemlets. They are easily identified with green smooth skin, usually oblong and irregular in shape, ranging from 2 to 6 inches long. Riper fruits may be a paler yellow-green with brown spots and softer to touch.

American persimmonpersimmons in tree

Throughout the summer, the persimmon’s fruit is hard and green. It’s not until late fall that it ripens and turns deep orange.

Where they grow. The American persimmon grows in moist, well-drained locations, including river bottoms, stream banks and mixed-wood and hardwood forests. While it tolerates shade, it produces more fruit in the sun.

What they look like. Although this tree can grow up to 50 feet tall, it is usually much shorter. Its bark is dark grey with raised rocky patches. Its leaves grow alternately on 1-inch stemlets. In appearance, they are oval, measuring about 6 inches long, with untoothed edges and a slight fold along the midvein. When ripe, the fruit is deep orange, soft, wrinkly and delicious. It measures about 1 to 1 1/2 inches across and has a crown that resembles a strawberry cap.

Common elderberryelderberry

Elderberries ripen in late summer to early fall.

Where they grow. Elderberry shrubs grow in wet areas including river and stream banks, woodland edges, thickets, fields, roadsides, meadows and ditches. They prefer full sun to partial shade.

What they look like. Elderberries are shrubs ranging from 5 to 12 feet tall with a broad, rounded crown. Its branches are a yellowish grey, with groupings of rounded purplish stemlets on the ends. These stemlets start out with clusters of white flowers and end up with round purple elderberries about 3/16 inch in diameter. Elderberries have compound leaves with 5 to 11 leaflets growing oppositely on each stem. Leaves are 6 to 10 inches long and leaflets are 2 to 4 inches long and oval with sharp-toothed edges.

Toxicity: Although the berries are edible and commonly juiced to make jelly, jam and wine, the leaves, stems, seeds and all other parts of the plant are toxic.

Blackberriesblackberries

Wild blackberries reach peak season from the end of summer until early fall.

Where they grow. Blackberries grow in disturbed areas along fields, pastures, forest clearings, thickets, paths, roadsides, streams, ponds and lakes.

What they look like. Blackberries grow in brambles — sprawling, vining shrubs — with rigid canes that grow up to 8 feet long. They have alternate compound leaves that grow up to 5 inches long with toothy edges, sharply pointed tips and round bottoms. The leaves contain three to five leaflets with a longer center leaflet extending on a stemlet. Blackberries have a compound black fruit about a 1/2 inch across with the core intact after being picked.

Black huckleberryblack huckleberry

Black huckleberries ripen in mid to late summer through early fall.

Where they grow. Black huckleberries grow in dry, rocky or sandy areas including open mixed-wooded forests, thickets, mountains and hilly areas.

What they look like. The black huckleberry is a small woody shrub that can grow up to 3 feet tall and often grows in colonies. It has greenish or reddish branches and can have older grey stems. It has alternate dark green, oval leaves that are tapered at both ends. Leaves range in size from 1 to 3 inches long with smooth edges. Huckleberries are black to blackish-blue with a small but noticeable five-point crown on the bottom when ripe. They range in size from 1/4 to 1/2 inch across and grow in small clusters.

Crabapplescrabapple

Numerous wild crabapple varieties grow throughout Ohio, ripping in later summer to early fall.

Where they grow. Crabapples are found in open woods, thickets, old fields, stream banks, parks and grasslands.

What they look like. Crabapples are small to medium tress, ranging in height from 5 to 30 feet, with many branches. Younger branches are dark reddish brown, while older branches are grey. Crabapples have oval leaves that are tapered at both ends and grow alternately on long stemlets in small clusters along the branch. Leaves range in size from 1 to 5 inches long with either rounded or sharp teeth on the edges. Crabapple fruits may be yellow or red with an overall red blush. The skin is dotted with pale speckles and course brown or yellow blotches.

Hawthornshawthorns

Hawthorns ripen from midsummer to early fall.

Where they grow. Over three dozen species of hawthorn are native to our region, but generally speaking, they prefer rocky areas, pastures, oil fields, woodlots and forest clearings.

What they look like. Hawthorn trees range in size from 6 to 40 feet tall. They have a rounded crown with spread out branches that have long sharp thorns. Bark on the trunk is usually grey and textured, with the exception of young trees having a smooth grey-brown bark. Their leaves vary in appearance, depending on the species. Most commonly, they are broadly tapered and smooth-edged at the base with sharp teeth from base to tip. They typically range from 2 to 4 inches long. The fruit is usually red when ripe, but may also be yellowish. It’s generally oval with flattened sides and a crown on the bottom, ranging from 1/4 to 1 inch across.

Wild grapesgrapes

There are a few different varieties of grapes that ripen during the fall in Ohio. You can find frost grapes (black), riverbank grapes (purple) and summer grapes (purple).

Where they grow. All of these grapes can be found in moist, rich, sunny locations including river and stream banks, thickets and woodland clearings.

What they look like. They all grow on woody vines with alternate toothy leaves. Riverbank grape vines can reach up to 70 feet in length, frost grape vines can reach up to 60 feet long and summer grape vines are generally around 30 feet long.  All of these grape varieties have leaves that are heart-shaped. However, riverbank and frost grape leaves have course sharp teeth, while summer grape leaves are finer and rounded. Both riverbank and summer grapes are purple, while frost grapes are black. Riverbank grapes are the largest at 3/8 to 1/2 inch across. They grow in large, tight clusters. Both summer and frost grapes are about 1/4 to 3/8 inch across, growing in large loose clusters.

Use caution: Make sure you know what you’re harvesting before consuming wild grapes. There are a few look-alike plants with toxic or inedible fruits to watch out for, including the Canada moonseed (toxic), Virginia creeper (not edible) and smilax (not edible). Be aware of these plants and look for their differences when harvesting wild grapes.

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