Wild Berries of the West, by Btty B. Derig and M.C. Fuller

Review by Columbine Quillen

Nature – September 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

Wild Berries of the West
By Betty B. Derig and Margaret C. Fuller
Illustrated by Mimi Osborne
Published in 2001 by Mountain Press Publishing Co.
ISBN 0-87842-433-4

WILD BERRIES OF THE WEST is a field guide describing berries found from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Coast and from British Columbia to northern Mexico. The book is organized in alphabetical order using the family name — eg. the Barberry Family, the Cactus Family, the Dogwood Family, and the Sumac Family — along with the Latin name for that berry family. Under the family heading, the species are listed in order from most common to least common with both their English and Latin names.

Under each species heading is a good description including how large the plant grows, how the leaves or needles are grouped, the color of the leaves or needles, the color of the berries, how the berries are grouped, when the plant blooms, and when the berries are ripe. In addition, Derig and Fuller tell exactly where the plant grows.

At the end of all of the species descriptions, the authors tell if the berries are edible, how they taste, and if any other part of the plant is edible. For edible berries, they offer recipes at the end of the book.

Derig and Fuller also give a good history of how the berry has been used, especially by Native Americans. Berries have been used in medicines, religious ceremonies, soaps, jewelry, and foods, for poultices, dyes, antiseptics and numerous other concoctions. And the wood and fiber from berry bushes has been used to make diapers, rope, baskets and a multitude of tools.

If you want to grow the berry there is an extra segment that tells you whether it can be domesticated and where it will grow.

This berry guide offers excellent information, but it isn’t easy to use to identify an unknown berry or berry plant because of how it is organized. If you know what the name of the plant is and want to learn more information, you can use the index and find superb facts about that berry. But if you come across a berry that you have never seen before, you could end up looking at every single picture in this 234-page book trying to identify it. Furthermore, sometimes there is not a picture of a particular berry, but rather a picture of a relative that looks a bit different.

Considering that many berries look very similar and it is pretty important to be able to distinguish an edible berry from a toxic berry, it would be nice if the format made identification easier.

This book might have been better if there were a picture of every berry, its bloom, and its plant at the beginning of the book with a corresponding page number where you could find a more detailed scientific description and history. Or to start the berry picker on the right track, perhaps the book could have been organized by geographical similarities — which berries grow in wetlands, in road cuts, at high altitudes, in Washington, and in Colorado. Whether those formats would have worked better or not, however, having tried this book out, I can only conclude that there has got to be an easier way to identify berries.

But even so, the index is excellent and can be used to find out about the berries you have the patience to identify (or are already familiar with), and there’s a wealth of information about berry history, and native American and herbalist usage of berries.

Wild Berries of the West is not an easy-to-use identification guide, but it does offer interesting information about most of the berries in the West; so if you like to pick wild berries, you should buy it. The recipes in the back explain how to make many different things with berries — from desserts, drinks, sauces and snacks, to main dishes and candles — and most of the non-berry ingredients can be found in your average kitchen. The pictures in the book are large enough to make viewing easy, and the berry histories are captivating.

— Columbine Quillen