Foraging in Minnesota: Sand Cherry

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A couple days ago, my daughter found a single cherry. I could not have been more elated. 

It was our first Sand cherry. We’d been searching hard for two whole days, covering almost 10 miles on foot, in three distinct parts of Minnesota. The triumph was not so much the harvest (ultimately a couple dozen cherries) as it was the successful conclusion to our foraging quest. 

Prunus pumila

There are several varieties of Sand cherry, Minnesota being home to two. According to the Minnesota Wildflowers website, there is some debate regarding the breakdown of varieties (if not species). But for now the general consensus is that they all still fit under the umbrella of Prunus pumila as one species. That’s probably good for our purposes, because making taxonomic distinctions is often difficult. Foraging-wise, there would probably be no point. 

In Minnesota, Sand cherry is an inhabitant of dry— if not barren—places. Literally, think sand. The map available on Minnesota Wildflowers gives the impression that it resides almost exclusively along the prairie/forest transition zone, but the Bell Museum Biodiversity Atlas database shows a range that includes the north central and Arrowhead regions as well. 

Sand cherry leaves are rich green and semi-glossy on top, lighter underneath, with a regular pattern of small teeth that is easily recognized. Twigs are often reddish. Identification in the field can be tricky as they share a leaf shape with many other species, namely willows. However, those willows are usually larger and/or have un-toothed leaf margins. 

The Fruit

Sand cherry fruits are the largest of Minnesota’s four native cherry species. As I recently told some family members, they are about the size of garbanzo beans. There is a pit in the middle, of course, characteristic of cherries and plums. Unlike our other native cherries, however, the amount of flesh surrounding the pit is fairly substantial and fleshy. It reminded me of a bing cherry in that way, albeit much smaller.

Fruits are green while developing. As they ripen, that changes to burgundy and ends fairly black. They are easy to spot once fully ripe. 

As far as flavor goes, Sand cherry could be the least desirable of our Prunus species. Those I ate fresh in the field had only minimal bitterness—and minimal flavor. I won’t say they’re all like that, but be prepared to be underwhelmed. I’m optimistic that experimenting with a large harvest (if you can get one) could tease out more cherry flavor, but I’m not going out of my way to test that theory.

Find Your Own

In my quest to find P. pumila this year, I was most successful in the drier places of east central, west central, and northwest Minnesota. Plant specimens were most plentiful in poor soils and where density of grasses and forbs were lower. The cherries themselves were difficult to find. Perhaps this is an off-year, or perhaps drought conditions are impacting Sand cherries as they appear to be impacting our other cherries. 

In east central Minnesota, we found some on a parcel of state forest land that had been clear cut approximately six years ago. The soil there is a fine sand. Other vegetation included big bluestem, pin cherry, willows, blueberries, and red pines (planted). Such young pine plantations would be a decent starting place, in my opinion. 

In western Minnesota, we found plenty of specimens in state parks. In one park, they were plentiful on the dry ridge tops and knobs in the remnant prairie. Their preferred habitat was quickly evident: where it was too dry for anything else except little bluestem. There weren’t as many to be found in the other park. However, it was clear they also preferred well-drained locations. 

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If you’re interested in learning about more foraged foods, please visit the What to Forage page.

Foraging in Minnesota: Blackberries

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It’s blackberry season. While I sit here typing this out in mid-August, I have a hunch there are literally tons of them out there going unpicked. And while not every year is good for blackberry picking, we’ve had adequate rainfall in 2020, which is a good sign. It was the same last year, when I literally picked gallon after gallon throughout most of August and into September, within a mile of my home.  Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Blackberries”

Foraging in Minnesota: Hedgehog Mushrooms

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Yesterday I found my first hedgehog mushrooms of the season. It was on a short outing with my daughter; she was after raspberries and I wanted to follow up on the sudden burst of mushroom activity in the yard. I rightly suspected some edible mushrooms would be available, mostly chanterelles and lobsters. Those were good finds, but I hollered out loud when the first few hedgehogs appeared on the forest floor- they are among my most favorite mushrooms to eat. Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Hedgehog Mushrooms”

Foraging in Minnesota: Dwarf Raspberries

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Every year about this time there is a lull in the foraging season here in Minnesota. The early season has passed and the frenzy over morels, fiddleheads, and ramps is over. The summer mushrooms and berries really haven’t started. However, while raspberries, blackberries, thimbleberries, and other members of the Rubus clan have yet to even finish blooming, their little brother is here to take center stage.  Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Dwarf Raspberries”

Foraging in Minnesota: Ostrich Ferns

Read More Foraging fiddleheads

The Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) seems to be gaining in popularity among foragers, if mentions in social media are any indication. Posts about “fiddleheads” are becoming more and more common this time of year. Also apparent in the social media soup is how much confusion there is when it comes to knowing which species are edible and how they are identified. 

Some people- a proportional few- are vocal in their opinion that the Ostrich fern is not the only edible fern in Minnesota. While that may be true for sometimes complicated reasons, I will not subscribe to that school of thought. Allow me to explain why.  Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Ostrich Ferns”

What to Fix: Recipes for Ramps

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Ramps are special, and the season is short. For some foragers, it’s the taste of Spring, and they wouldn’t miss it. I’m not that fervent, but I do like them nonetheless. This year, I made a point to branch out and do more than scrambled eggs with ramps. Now, I’m no chef, so don’t expect any groundbreaking ideas or recipes here. My perspective is that of an avid forager and great fan of trying new things. Continue reading “What to Fix: Recipes for Ramps”

Foraging in Minnesota: Ramps

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Once again, I blame social media. For what, you ask? For the ridiculous fame that ramps seem to be “enjoying” nowadays. Of course, people have known about ramps for a long time, even holding spring festivals for them in parts of the eastern U.S. where they used to grow prolifically. I say “used to” because it is well known that wild ramp populations are hurting. Because of that, they really don’t need any extra harvest pressure. Every foraging group I subscribe to on Facebook, however, is currently experiencing Ramp Mania. Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Ramps”

Foraging in Minnesota: Black Cherry

Read More Minnesota black cherry

I’m sure you’ve heard of “black cherry,” either as a flavoring or as a type of wood. For me, the name evokes a certain flavor of candy. But did you know it’s a harvestable fruit here in Minnesota? Yes, it is. And this year’s harvest was outstanding. 

I’d been waiting several years for a good crop of these cherries- perhaps 4 or 5. They were not something I went out of my way for, but I usually checked on a couple different trees at least once toward the end of each summer. Well, this year, it was clear conditions were somehow just right. Branches were full of green clusters by July all over in my area.  Continue reading “Foraging in Minnesota: Black Cherry”

Do Something New: Smelt Netting

When I was growing up in the ’80s, the smelt boom on Lake Superior was already over and fading into collective memory, becoming legend. “Smelting” in its heyday was something everybody knew about and a great many rushed to the rivers to partake in. Nowadays, it’s almost exclusively a “used to” activity; you might have heard it too: “we used to go up there and fill up a barrel with smelt in half an hour.” In recent years, however, I’ve learned that the smelt still run and a select few still pursue them. 

Last Wednesday, I bought a smelt net from a guy on Craig’s List for 10 bucks. The next day I headed for Lake Superior with that net, hip waders, a 5 gallon bucket, what little information could be gleaned from the internet regarding current conditions, and a whole lot of hope. The plan was to start up the shore after sunset, and work my way down if I found nothing. The first stop was the booming metropolis of Knife River.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Smelt Netting”

Do Something New: Tapping Maple Trees and Making Syrup

Read More Minnesota maple basswood forest

When you try something new, sometimes it doesn’t go so well. A week ago, it was looking like I wouldn’t see so much as a drop of maple sap coming out of my taps. There was more than a foot of snow on the ground, and although the temperatures seemed perfect, nothing was happening. I didn’t know the first thing about how to make maple syrup, not to mention all the nuances regarding the tree tapping and sap collection along the way.  Continue reading “Do Something New: Tapping Maple Trees and Making Syrup”

What to Fix- Chokecherry Recipes

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Believe me, I’ve been there too. You find yourself in the presence of an abundance of some kind of foraged treasure- perhaps for the first time– and you collect more than you know what to do with. Most of the time these things can be preserved, and we can decide what to do with it all later. For some reason I always seem to envision this taking place on a January day that’s so nasty I can’t even go ice fishing. 

Anyway, the time to decide what to do with all those chokecherries has come. If you’re like me, you’ve made a couple batches of pancake syrup and/or jelly, but there are still several bags of berries waiting down in the basement freezer. The good news is, chokecherry syrup and jelly are unique and tireless, at least in our house (I believe every forager owes it to themselves to at least try the pancake syrup). The better news is, you don’t have to restrict yourself to syrup and jelly; if you use your imagination a bit and have the patience to endure a little trial and error, there are lots of uses for your purple tree caviar.  Continue reading “What to Fix- Chokecherry Recipes”