Picking Wild Berries

Some plants we eat, I think, by default. Because they do not poison, we ingest them to fill hungry stomachs. Like turnips, they bring no other satisfaction or inspiration to life.

Other plants we eat for the sheer delight they bring, arousing the palate and brightening the mood—like berries. Red, black, blue, a veritable rainbow of delight!

Our family spends a good part of the summer along hedgerows and mountain trails, harvesting God’s free bounty of the most nutrient-dense, and delicious, foods to be had. We don’t depend on these berries to survive like my neighbor Stanley did growing up in the gap during the depression. But, oh, they taste so much sweeter knowing they cost only as much as the gas we put in the car to get there—and a little sweat.

I had to ask a lot of old-timers to find out the name of the berries we found in the gap. Yet, even though they kept saying, “Wineberries,” I couldn’t find them in any of my gardening or living-off-the-land books. We enjoyed their sweet, sticky flavor for years before I finally thought to look in the Foxfire books. There it was, in Foxfire 3 , “Wineberry (rubus phoenicolasius) Commonly called red raspberry in the mountains, strawberry-raspberry.”

The Wineberry

A perennial shrub with canes reaching up to 10 feet long, the wineberry comes from Asia. Some people consider it a pesky, invasive species. I bet they’ve never tasted one berry. Similar to the native red raspberry (rubus ideaus), the wineberry differs by reddish-purplish (wine-colored) hairs along the stems and calyx and a layer of wooly, white hairs that cover the underside of the leaf. Somewhat larger than raspberries, the wineberries taste sweeter and have softer seeds. We find them along roadsides in the valley and in the mountains. Moist, partially shaded areas are the best locations to look.

The Black Raspberry

Before the wineberries come out, though, we’ve already put up plenty of black raspberry jam. Called black caps or thimbleberry by some, the black raspberry (rubus occidentalis) flourishes along fencerows, in fields, or beside unkempt, old barns.

The long canes of this very sweet berry are pale with finely cut, soft green leaves. These leaves, white on the underside, are rich in vitamin C. Some folks dry them to make tea. The ripe fruit is small, dark purple, and a favorite for jams and jellies. This deliciously healthy berry contains certain anticancer compounds and most berries contain flavonoids that are potent antioxidants. Responsible for the dense blue, purple or red coloring in the berry, they protect blood vessels from damage, aid in circulation (especially the eyes, heart and extremities), and reduce inflammation.

After the black caps and wineberries, the blackberry season begins. Growing along roadsides and in old fields, the blackberry (rubus argutus) has very thorny stems and five, deep green leaflets. The fruit is black, juicy, and as big as the end of your thumb.

We like to freeze our blackberries. After washing and drying, we spread them on a cookie sheet and pop them in the freezer. Once frozen, we put them in zip shut bags and save them for fruit salad or smoothies. The blackberry is also choice for cobblers, cordials, and syrup.

As well as its delectable flavor, the blackberry is excellent for diarrhea. In her book Herbal Medicine, Dian Dincin Buchman tells of her mother drying blackberries, grinding them into powder, and putting the powder in a jar labeled “D.”

“I somehow thought the ‘D’ meant Dincin, but when I was about six I learned it actually meant diarrhea,” she says. “The powder is taken in teaspoon doses with a small amount of water, but tea made from the leaves…can be used in cup doses several times a day.”

The Elderberry

Toward the end of summer, we pick elderberries. Unlike the brambles, the elderberry (sambucus canadensis) forms a tall shrub. We search for the telltale, easy-to-spot flower clusters in the spring and remember the location of the bushes. This makes spotting the tiny fruit easier later in the season.

Elderberries generally ripen to a dark blue-black toward the end of August. Avoid the red ones. Unripe or raw berries contain a chemical that can cause stomach upset if eaten in excess. But who needs raw berries. Elderberry jam is superb, elderberry wine is sought after, and elderflower fritters are unforgettable.

We use the elderberries primarily for home remedies. Studies have shown elderberry syrup to have anti-viral and anti-flu properties. Both the flowers and berries, prepared into a tea, induce sweating, thereby reducing fevers.

Walking through a nearby farmer’s market, I spied raspberries for six dollars a pint. I could never buy all the berries in my freezer at that price. But I could afford the time to hike the mountain trails while picking berries and chatting with my husband. I wonder if Stanley realizes how good he had it. Berries and exercise—the perfectly healthy, perfectly delicious combination.

Photo by mccun934

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