Who hasn’t plucked and munched on a handful of wild blackberries or huckleberries while hiking? Didn’t it feel like a tiny treasure hunt, the taste of wild berries sharper, more intense than their tamed counterparts?
Sure, foraging for berries takes time, but you didn’t lift a finger, did not drop a single bead of sweat to propagate, nurture, plant, weed, fertilize nor water the little suckers! You only have to show up and pick. Even with decent foraging skills, a couple of hours of picking yields a harvest that may look slim. After all, I can pick 5 times faster from tidy rows of ‘Apaho’, ‘Triple Crown’ or ‘Navajo’ – three widely planted thornless cultivars – than from a fiercely tangled thorny thicket of wild blackberries. (yes, I have measured!)… but of course the tidy rows have to be maintained, pruned, trellised, weeded, mowed…
Besides, there is nothing like picking wild berries on a warm scented summer morning: the sweetly clean fragrance of pink bouncing-bet, the sharp minty smell of trampled horsemint, the aroma of over ripe berries, the muskiness of rotting vegetation, the heady pervasive scent of flowering basswood humming with bees… it’s… wild! And some berries simply are not cultivated. So if you want them, you get to pick.
Most common berries fruiting in June or July for us include:
• Mulberries, beloved of birds and small children, are small fast-growing trees. While the fruit of the native red mulberry (Morus rubra) are excellent, red mulberries has hybridized with white mulberry (Morus alba) an invasive species from Southeast Asia introduced several hundred years ago as a source of food for the silk worm in an attempt to establish a silk industry. Some of the white or hybrid mulberry fruit are insipid: taste first.
• Black raspberries, also called blackcaps, are much smaller and sweeter than blackberries. Their fruit is hollow (a sign of a raspberry) and their thorns gentle. It’s a timid plant in the wild, that has a tough time competing with wineberry and blackberry brambles.
• Wineberries (Rubus phoenicolasius) are a species of raspberries native to Northern China, Japan and Korea and naturalized in moist areas at the edge of woods, along streams, dicthes and old stone walls – plentiful along semi-shady country roads. The immature berry is enclosed in a hairy calyx that opens up once the fruit ripens. They are slightly tart and not as deeply perfumed as raspberries, but they hold on the vine extremely well, and don’t spoil as fast. You can start picking when they first turn vermilion red until they are very dark red. This year was a particularly good year for them, I have been able to pick several gallons, which I canned or froze. They also started to ripen later than in the last few years, and in late July, here in Rappahannock County, they are are still some out at higher altitudes.
• Blackberries (various Rubus species) showy blossoms are conspicuously beautiful in May – an easy way to note them and return for harvest later. They produce fruit of various sweetness and are renowned for vicious thorns that can tear a shirt or rip the back of a hand in the blink of an eye. They are the latest of the berries mentioned here, and overlap with the wineberries.
• Wild blueberries are said to be all around the Shenandoah National Park, but I have never gone to pick them there.
Berry-picking equipment is minimal: a basket hanging from the belt or the neck to free both hands for picking; sturdy boots, long pants and long sleeves against poison ivy, thorns and biting insects; a walking stick or hook to pull in or away a particularly thorny branch is nicely helpful
Don’t pile too many berries in your basket least the bottom layer be crushed. In hot weather they can spoil in a few hours – especially when wet or smashed. So, eat, cook or freeze those soft berries fast. At this time of the year, I always have in the car a low card box and a stack of pint-size berry baskets… because you never know when opportunity arise. I am an inveterate berry pickers, and I met lots of opportunities head-on this year!
Just like their garden siblings, wild berries can be used raw or cooked (strain out the numerous seeds of wild blackberries though); juiced; turned into jam, jelly, syrup; or frozen whole. They are delicious in smoothies, ice-creams or fruit sauces. Freezing is my favorite way to preserve them: I put whole berries in freezer bags and layer the bags flat in the freezer. Once the berries are frozen hard, the bags can be stacked. I avoid washing the berries before freezing, but if that is really necessary, I let them dry thoroughly first so they don’t clump together.
Jam and fruit spread are also time-honored ways to preserves them. This year, I have been canning them with low-pasteurization water-bath so they retain their color ad shape (which they loose in a rolling-boil water-bath).
They can be pickled (I intend to try some later) as well as turn into any number of beverages: juice, syrup, shrub & wine.
Shrub is particularly fool-proof and I have yet met someone who has not enjoyed a berry shrub.
Any berry, wild or of garden-origin- can be used to make shrub, and you may also use frozen berries. I I particularly like blackberry shrub and strawberry shrub. Raspberry shrub is exquisite, but I rarely feel I have enough raspberries to spare some for a shrub. Blackberries & strawberries, we’ve got!
How to use shrub? Stir a spoonful or two of shrub in plain water, ice-tea or hot tea. It’s also perfect for homemade soda (mix with sparkling or seltzer water) or for a wine spritzer (use sparkling wine), I prefer 1 part shrub to 4 or 5 parts sparkling water. Adjust to your taste…. and feel to experiment in cocktail.
YIELDS ABOUT 4 CUPS
1 quart of wild berries (one kind only)
1 cup red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar (at least 5% acidity)
2 cups water
1 to 1 1/4 cup mild real honey (the kind you get from a small beekeeper so it is minimally processed) or 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cup sugar (to taste)
Bring berries, vinegar & 1 cup water to boil. Simmer 10 minutes until berries are soft. Process through a food-mill to remove seeds. Strain through a fine mesh strainer or let drain through a jelly bag if desired to remove additional pulp.
Heat remaining water with honey (or sugar), stirring until honey (or sugar) dissolves. Brig t o boil. Remove from heat and stir into the still-warm fruit/vinegar mix. For long-term storage can using boiling water bath method or refrigerate for up to 2 months.