Once a summer delight, berries are available in stores most of the year these days. Still, for the less common types, you'll probably need to check your local farmer’s market in season. Here's a guide to the many berry varieties.
Bilberries (whortleberries): A relative of the cranberry and blueberry, this European fruit resembles a blueberry but is too tart to eat as is. It is not commonly found fresh in this country, though extracts and juices are available, mostly in health-food stores.
Blackberries: Plump, sweet blackberries grow wild across most of North America and are in stores late spring through early fall. Blackberries are a good source of pectin, a type of soluble fiber that may help lower cholesterol levels.
Blueberries: Blueberries originated in North America and are one of the two most popular types of berries, second only to strawberries. They provide moderate levels of vitamin C and the essential dietary mineral manganese. Blueberries also contain a good amount of pectin.
Cape gooseberries (goldenberries): These berries are relatives of the tomatillo. Like the tomatillo, the berry is enclosed in a papery husk that resembles a Japanese lantern. Fully ripe, the smooth-skinned berries range from a yellow-green to orange and their flesh looks a bit like a yellow cherry. Ripe berries smell somewhat like pineapple and have a sweet-tart flavor with undertones of tomato—you can even use them in salads, the way you would a cherry tomato. These berries are not widely available; your best bet is a farmers’ market in the spring.
Cranberries: Tart cranberries are a fall favorite, but these healthy, red berries offer benefits year-round. Research suggests that cranberries can help prevent urinary tract infections in some women. They also inhibit the bacteria that cause cavities. However, cranberries are too tart for most people to enjoy unsweetened, so beware of added sugar when you buy cranberry drinks or products.
Currants: These small berries grow on vines in clusters, like grapes. Currants come in red, black, and white varieties, and all have an intense tartness that makes them well-suited for jams, jellies, fruit syrups, and liqueurs—perhaps the most famous one being the French blackcurrant liqueur, crème de cassis, which is added to white wine to make the cocktail kir. The supply of fresh currants is quite limited. The berries appear in mid to late summer.
Elderberries: Elderberries are very small, dark-purple (almost black), smooth-skinned berries. They have a low percentage of flesh to seeds and are quite tart, which is why they are mostly used for making jams, jellies, and wine. Some farmers’ markets carry them fresh in late summer and early fall.
Gooseberries: Closely related to currants, gooseberries are very tart, grape-like fruits that turn from pale green to amber as they ripen. American-grown gooseberries are small (1/2-inch diameter) and round. European varieties are twice the size and more oval in shape. Fresh gooseberries have a very short season—late May through late July—but you can occasionally find wintertime imports.
Huckleberries: These shiny, purple-skinned berries are similar to blueberries. They are generally not cultivated, but wild huckleberries can be found in specialty markets in the summer.
Juneberries (serviceberries): Juneberries closely resemble blueberries, but are blander and seedier. They were a staple of the American Plains Indians, who dried the berries and combined them with dried meat and fat to make a portable food called pemmican. They are native to the north central United States and appear mostly in local farmers’ markets. They are best put to use in jams, jellies, or wine.
Lingonberries: These relatives of the cranberry are bright red and about the size of a blueberry. They thrive only in cold climates and are a distinctive ingredient in Scandinavian cuisine, usually as jam or preserved in a sweet syrup. You can find them fresh in some farmers’ markets in northern states and the Pacific Northwest.
Mulberries: Like raspberries and blackberries, mulberries are “aggregate fruits,” made up of many tiny druplets. Unlike raspberries and blackberries, however, mulberries grow on trees, not vines. There are three main types of mulberry tree: white, red, and black. The color of a mulberry does not necessarily match its tree name: For example, a white mulberry tree can produce berries that are white or purple, as well as shades in between. White mulberries have the least interesting flavor, being blandly sweet. Red and black mulberries have more interesting sweet-tart flavors. The berries, however, are extremely difficult to harvest—they tend to get crushed in the process—so it’s rare to find fresh mulberries in the market.
Oheloberries: These berries—which are native to Hawaii and grow only in the lava beds of Maui and Hawaii—are small, slightly sweet, red or yellow fruits. Quantities are limited and only available in summer. It’s very rare to find these outside Hawaii, except in the form of jams and jellies.
Raspberries: Raspberries are among the most fragile of berries, so they’re usually expensive. They have a sweet and slightly tart flavor that enhances salads, vinegars, and desserts. Raspberries usually keep just a couple of days at home.
Salmonberries: Salmonberries are members of the rose family and are closely related to blackberries. The immature berry is salmon-colored, but as it ripens, the berry turns red.
Strawberries: Strawberries offer more vitamin C than any other berry. They are also rich in dietary fiber. Strawberries rank No. 1 as America’s favorite berry, and are widely available in stores all year. They are sweetest, however, in summer.
Thimbleberries: The thimbleberry is so named because it resembles a small thimble. It looks a bit like a red raspberry, but with a powdery bloom. It is a quite fragile berry and does not travel well, so it is mostly available from local farmers’ markets in midsummer.