Excellent question. Your answer comes from Sonia Uyterhoeven, Gardener for Public Education. If you want to learn more from Sonia, she writes a weekly column on our blog, Plant Talk.
This is an excellent question, Susan. The short answer is no. Whenever I am asked about foraging, my initial response is one of caution. It is always best never to eat anything from the garden or your community unless it is properly identified and you know for certain that it is edible.
That being said, if you are planning a bird-friendly garden there are many good options that both you and the birds can enjoy. Birds are tough competition and a hungry bunch, so plant en masse.
Some popular choices are high bush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum), red and black raspberries (Rubus idaeus and Rubus occidentalis), gooseberries (Ribes grossularia), and alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca).
Some more unusual choices that are generally viewed as ornamentals but are also edible are beach plum (Prunus maritima), serviceberry/juneberry (Amelanchier alnifolia and Amelanchier laevis), American cranberry bush (Viburnum opulus var. americanum (trilobum)), black chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa), native dogwood (Cornus florida), Cornelian dogwood (Cornus mas), and Kousa dogwood (Cornus kousa).
Several words of caution: Just because one species is edible doesn’t mean all species in a genus are edible. For example, with the above list the American cranberry bush is edible but that does not imply that all viburnums are – they are not.
If a plant is edible, make sure that you are aware if any parts are poisonous. For example, wild black cherry (Prunus serotina) has edible fruit but the seeds are poisonous so that you have to pit the fruit before eating. American and European elderberry (Sambucus canadensis and Sambucus nigra) have edible berries that must be cooked before they are used. The berries are slightly toxic when they are unripe and the stems should always be removed.
There is also the taste factor that is not mentioned in the list. You can eat the berries from the native dogwood but they are bitter and the Cornelian dogwood and Kousa dogwood tend to be more popular (although not conventional) tastes. With the serviceberries, Amelanchier alnifolia has sweeter fruit than Amelanchier laevis. Many berries are tart and make good jams – beach plum and American cranberry bush are two examples.
This is just a start. The best advice I can give is to search the Internet and books in the library for information and recipes. Often you will find older books on herbals that will include information and recipes. There are also newer books on edible landscapes. The Internet is always a wonderful resource but I would surf cautiously when you are collecting information on whether or not something is edible and make sure that it comes from a credible source. Poisonous Plants from North Carolina is a reliable cross reference. There is also a surfeit of recipes available on the Web and this will give you some good ideas. Hope you and the birds enjoy your garden.
Thanks Susan! Best wishes for a healthy, happy, berry-filled New Year. ~ AR