A beginner’s guide to urban foraging in Madison

Find edible fruits, nuts and more within city limits
A bunch of blackberries hang from a wood fence.
Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons
Blackberries are one of the many fruits that can be foraged across Wisconsin.

Many folks regularly ransack apple orchards and pumpkin patches each fall. Others may have scrounged the irresistible, virtual world of Animal Crossing to cope with quarantine woes. But how many of us can say we have actually, IRL, foraged for our own food?

You don’t have to be a Bear Grylls type to do so — there are plenty of public spots in town to snag some berries and other non-creepy-crawly goodies straight from the bush, tree or otherwise unrestricted plant. As with every outdoor exploration, however, make sure you have the necessary know-how to gobble up your freshly plucked treats without concern. Here are the four most basic rules:

  1. Not certain (like, really, really certain) what you are about to put in your mouth? Don’t eat it!
  2. Not sure if that fruit-bearing tree is a little too close to someone’s private property? Don’t risk it!
  3. Need to cut or damage the plant in order to forage? Leave it alone!
  4. Supply running low? Only take your share!

Beyond that, go nuts — if you can find them, that is — when munching on discovered edibles within the Dane County Park System or on other public property. It’s a bit safer to stick to the Dane County Park System’s designated parks and wildlife areas than venturing into unknown territory, though, since the county transparently opposes the use of pesticides in these spots. Falling Fruit is also a handy online resource that tracks urban harvest spots across the world, with hundreds of pins and reviews from past foragers in the Madison area.

Plan ahead and see which of these sweet and hyperlocal finds you can add to your bounty:

While the origin of the children’s song may not be so sweet, these fast-growing berries are. Typically fat and juicy by July, mulberries can oftentimes be found around Anderson Farm County Park — just make sure to stay on the grassy paths. CamRock County Park, which hosts an archery range and fishing areas in addition to trails, boasts a mulberry bush down by the creek. The Capital City State Trail, Oscar Rennebohm Park and Kettle Pond Park are also promising year to year.

July showers bring August blackberries … or something like that. Donald County Park — particularly in the forested sections — and Scheidegger Forest are some of the best spots to search for these deep and plump beauties. Otherwise, head over to Glen Oak Hills Park, Stricker’s Pond or Prairie Moraine County Park to scoop some cobbler-worthy additions to your fruit basket.

Pears lined up on a log.

Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons

There won’t be 11 pipers piping to help you locate these natural snacks, but there are lots of points across town that bear fruit in August and September. These include Babcock County Park (near the campground), the Capital Springs Dog Park, Token Creek County Park and Schumacher Farm County Park, to name a few.

White-tail deer and rabbits absolutely love these things, so why not give it a shot? Jelly-making or drink production may be the best bet with these pomes, and are native in wet areas near the UW Marching Band Field, Dejope Residence Hall, the Mechanical Engineering Building and Windom Way Park come September.

Wanna stick it to the man? If that man is the produce powerhouse Driscoll’s, then pluck away! In all seriousness, coming by the fruits of your labor with your own labor can be a cheaper and much more entertaining way to stock up for a custard pie or crumble. Head to Warner Park — specifically close to the train tracks by the bridge — Hoyt Park or Elver Park each July to indulge yourself responsibly.

Venture outside the orchard from August through October to fulfill your pie-stuffing, water-bobbing, caramel-covered needs. Hotspots include High Point Park, the areas surrounding Eagle Heights, O.B. Sherry Park and even in front of the post office on Milwaukee Street.

Typically known for their drought resistance and bird-oriented seduction, serviceberry trees and shrubs produce tiny, edible seeds that supposedly smell like almonds when baked. Other folks eat them raw — very blueberry-esque — or bake them into puddings, muffins and more. Pop over to Hoyt Park, the Soil Science Building on Observatory Drive, James Madison Park or Yahara Place Park to give them a try in the summer months.

Beyond those previously mentioned, there are boundless species of fruits and nuts waiting for the next curious hiker or scavenger. Juneberries, frost grapes, black walnuts, cherries, black elderberries, red clover, parsnips, ramps, wood sorrel and the mounds of various mushrooms only scratch the surface. Some folks even pull dandelions, silver maple and cattails from their backyards. So whether you want to stick to those found in the grocery store or walk on the wild side, be sure to do your research, prioritize your safety and forage away in Madison.