Wild, Edible Cape Cod and the Islands

Rose hip near the water in Wellfleet. Photo by Maggie Kulbokas.

The Cape and Islands have so much to offer to the people who come to our sandy shores, including superb cuisine. For most, eating in the area involves going out to a restaurant or having a cookout on their back deck. There is also the remarkable bounty of the sea and plenty of wildlife to hunt in season. However, the area also has plenty of foods that can be foraged. These lesser known joys are truly a thing of beauty (and spending a day picking berries in the woods can be quite relaxing).

Here are some of the most common items that can be found on Cape Cod and the Islands, along with some recipes!

  1. Huckleberries are perhaps the most plentiful wild berry in the area and they are also the least well known. Look in almost any stretch of wood and one can find thick groups of huckleberry bushes. The berries are dark purple in color when ripe (they start off green, get red, and then ripen). The berries reach fruition in mid-July usually. The number of berries varies year to year because they are sensitive to the weather, so some years, there will be plenty of big, juicy berries, and other years, the bushes will yield fewer, smaller berries. These berries are wonderful for pies, puddings, muffins, or whatever else. They are a bit seedier than wild blueberries.
  2. Blueberries are on the Cape and Islands, both high bush and low bush. They tend to ripen around mid-July as well and follow a very similar cycle to the huckleberry. As a matter of fact, many blueberry bushes grow in the same area as huckleberry bushes. Blueberries are a lighter color than the huckleberry and have a fluted top. They can be harder to get a lot of, so it is recommended to pick them along with the huckleberries and use them both in whatever dish is being prepared (or one could supplement with store-bought blueberries, but that’s no fun). 
  3. Beach plums grow in the dunes of the Cape and Islands and they ripen in mid-August to September. Beach plums turn purplish when ripe and are commonly used in jellies, although more enterprising individuals can make wine, brandy, and sauces using them.
  4. Rose hips are another common, edible dune plant. Rose hips ripen throughout the late summer and early fall and are a bright red when ripe. Rose hips have many uses and it is more the creativity of the person picking them that determines what they will be made into. They are also edible raw (as are huckleberries and blueberries). There are even non-food uses for rose hips, such as making crafts and fragrances.
  5. Raspberries are plentiful on Cape (and are found in quite a few yards). These red berries grow on bushes and ripen from mid-summer to as late as mid-autumn (in rare instances). The berries are delightful raw, but can be made into a variety of tasty treats.
  6. Blackberries are less plentiful on the Cape than raspberries, but they can be found if one knows where to look. The berries tend to be a bit sweeter than raspberries and unlike raspberries which grow on bushes, blackberries grow on vines and lie closer to the ground. The berries ripen in mid-July to late August. For both raspberries and blackberries, be careful of thorns!
  7. Concord grapes grow on vines all over the area and they come into season between September and October. The grapes, which have a bluish-purple appearance, are very commonly used in jellies and can also be made into juice and wine (in addition to being edible raw). 
  8. Wintergreen berries can be found throughout the woods in the area. These small red berries typically are ripe from mid to late summer until winter. The berries can be used to flavor many things (they used to be widely used in gums), and for those so inclined, the berries can be used to make a minty ice cream. The leaves can be used to make tea which has effects similar to aspirin, however, the leaves should not be eaten as they can irritate the lining of the stomach.
  9. Fiddleheads (the furled fronds of nascent ferns), can be found in the area, particularly in swampier areas. The time to pick them is in the early spring and they are better smaller (bigger than a half-dollar and they start to get tough). When picking, keep in mind that each plant produces five to nine tops, so it is recommended to only take three tops per plant to keep them plant alive. It is not advised to eat fiddleheads raw, but once they have been boiled or steamed, they can be wonderful in a variety of dishes, including soups, pastas, or even tempura-fried!
  10. Chokecherries ripen in late August. The fruit is dark purple to black when fully ripe and is not something that is commonly eaten, but it is edible, despite being a bit on the bitter side. It is recommended to let the fruit get a bit overripe before picking to make it sweeter. The fruit is most commonly used in jellies.

There are other edible things growing on the Cape (mint, strawberries, and even crab apples among them), but the ones listed above are the most common and plentiful. Enjoy!

Huckleberry Pudding (Huckleberry Slump)

Ingredients for the Pudding:

  • 4 cups Huckleberries
  • 1 cup Sugar

Put in a pot with enough water to cover the berries and bring to a boil. Once a boil has been reached, add dumpling batter in large spoonfuls (the recipe can be found on a box of Bisquick or Jiffy).

 Dumpling batter can be made with 2 cups of Bisquick or Jiffy, mixed with 2/3 of a cup of milk. Mix until it is cohesive.

Once the batter is added, boil covered for 15 minutes.

Ingredients for the Hard Sauce: 

  • 4 Tbsp (1/2 a stick) butter
  • 1 ½ cups of sugar
  • 1 tsp nutmeg

Mix ingredients together. The hard sauce should be crumbly.

Once finished, put a dumpling and berries in a bowl and add hard sauce to taste.

Beach Plum Jelly 

Ingredients: 

  • 4 pounds of beach plums
  • 6 ½ cups of sugar
  • ½ tsp of butter
  • 1 pouch of CERTO fruit pectin

Put beach plums in a pan (or pot) and add water to cover the beach plums. Bring this to a boil and use a masher to break up the beach plums. Reduce heat to low and cover. Let this simmer 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Place 3 layers of damp cheesecloth or a jelly bag in large bowl. Pour prepared fruit into cheesecloth. Tie cheesecloth closed, then hang and let drip into bowl until dripping stops. Press gently. Measure exactly 4 cups juice into a 6 or 8 quart saucepot.

Stir the sugar into juice in saucepot. Add butter to reduce foaming. Bring the mixture to a full rolling boil (a boil that doesn't stop bubbling when stirred) on high heat, stirring constantly. Stir in pectin. Return to full rolling boil and boil exactly 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Skim off any foam with a metal spoon.

Ladle the mixture immediately into prepared jars, filling to within 1/8 inch of the tops. Wipe jar rims and threads. Cover with two-piece lids. Screw bands tightly. Place jars on elevated rack in canner. Lower rack into canner. (Water must cover jars by 1 to 2 inches. Add boiling water, if necessary.) Cover and bring water to gentle boil. Process 5 minutes. Remove jars and place upright on a towel to cool completely. After jars cool, check seals by pressing middles of lids with finger. (If lids spring back, lids are not sealed and refrigeration is necessary.) 

About the Author

Contributing Writer

Mati Brown holds a Journalism degree from the University of Massachusetts – Amherst. She has written for several publications, including the Berlin Reporter, EDGE publications, and the Falmouth and Mashpee Bulletins. A current resident of Brewster, she is glad to be writing about the area she grew up in.