As I walk through the meadow on a morning after a fresh rain, I am surrounded by life. Flowers are popping out, hummingbirds are zipping around and the bumblebees are buzzing. Butterflies flutter near my feet and I enjoy the distinct feeling of summertime in the Vail Valley.
I close my eyes as wafts of moist and fragrant air envelops me. Upon reopening my eyes I see shrubs packed with flowers. They are berry bushes that are now in full blossom.
Berry bushes delight us throughout the year. In early summer they bloom thick with flowers and attract pollinators to distribute pollen and fertilize their seeds.
The seeds then become encased in beautiful fruits which ripen in late summer. Berries are a vital late season food source for bears, birds, and ground squirrels. These animals play an important role of distributing the seeds far and wide.
Humans can enjoy wild berries as well, but you’ll want to know it’s edible before putting it into your mouth. As a general rule, blue and black berries are usually edible, red berries are sometimes edible, and white berries should never be eaten.
Come autumn the leaves of the berry bushes turn golden, burgundy and scarlet and delight us with rich and vibrant color. So the local berry bushes appeal to our senses of smell, taste and sight over the next several months.
When it comes to identifying berry bushes in bloom, there are several to choose from. Among the most prolific is serviceberry which grows well on sunny slopes. The flowers are bright white and usually thick. The best way to distinguish serviceberry is by the oval leaves that have a smooth edge along the bottom, and a serrated edge along the sides and top.
Serviceberry fruits look a lot like blueberries. They are edible, but not particularly sweet. In my opinion they require a bit of acquired taste because they are mealy.
Chokecherries have creamy colored flowers and close inspection reveals not individual flowers like the serviceberries, but clusters of flowers packed together about the size and shape of your thumb. As the name implies, these berries are tart but nonetheless can be used to make a fine wine, and with enough sugar make jam.
Elderberry bushes are also in bloom. While the serviceberry and choke cherry bushes can grow to over your head, the elderberries are typically waist high and almost always contain evidence of being browsed on by elk and deer over the winter. Elderberry blossoms at a glance look like cauliflower to me.
The small elderberries will turn bright red and grow in tight clusters. Like the chokecherries, it is possible to make wine and jam from these berries provided enough sugar. I have been told that in Europe, elderberry is a common cure-all over the counter remedy to treat many ailments.
Currents and gooseberries are also in bloom and have tiny bell-shaped flowers. There are several local species, but the leaf shape is always in three main lobes. Most currants and gooseberries are fairly tasty to eat. It seems that mice often enjoy feeding on the bark while the woody stems are buried in snow in wintertime.
Snowberries are also in bloom with delicate bell-shaped white to pinkish flowers. Snowberry bushes grow from knee-high to about waist level and have small oval shaped leaves with a seam down the center. As the name implies, the berries are white.
Baneberries have a white feathery blossom that’s a bit larger than a miniature marshmallow. The leaves are strikingly serrated even from a distance. The plants grow about knee-high and produce clusters of super-shiny bright red berries and sometimes white berries that are so showy they remind me of Christmas decorations. Baneberries are highly poisonous.
Oregon grape are those low-lying plants that have holly-like leaves with yellow blossoms that look like clusters of little balls. They will produce blue fruits that are edible, but quite sour.
In thick spruce and fir forests and near tree line, a thick ground cover of ankle-high bearberry, whortleberry, huckleberry becomes obvious. These similar plants are related to blueberries and if you fondle the plants you will find delicate pink bell-shaped flowers hiding under the leaves. These berries are my favorite to eat in the late summer and early autumn, and because they are difficult to see, they are best located by their sweet fragrance. These potent flavorful wild blueberries make the domestic variety seem bland.
An observant hiker will see all of these varieties of berry bushes on a typical high-country hike. It is fascinating to watch the transition from blossom to berry take place over the course of the summer.