BY DODI KINGSFIELD, TECHNICAL SERVICES SUPERVISOR, FREELANCE WRIYER & AUTHOR, FORESTVILLE
I love this time of year and living where I live. After dinner at the end of a long day, for dessert I meander around my back yard and graze for berries: strawberries, cherries, gooseberries, currants, black raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, elderberries, and grapes. Some grow wild on our land and others we planted. We are blessed to live in area where these nutrient-packed treats of nature thrive. Our families are given the unique opportunities to harvest wild or locally grown berries and feed ourselves with fresh, inexpensive, and nutritious treats for several months.
Berries are nature’s powerhouses of nutrition in a small package. One cup of raw berries has less than 80 calories, almost 25% of your daily value for fiber, is an excellent source of the antioxidant nutrient vitamin C, and contains trace levels of essential amino acids and important minerals such as manganese, potassium and phosphorus. Most berries are dark in color, indicating high polyphenols, which are antioxidant compounds that demonstrate positive health benefits in a variety of ways.
Tiny strawberries grow wild in a small field next to our stream, but we’re lucky if we collect a hand full. Our garden strawberry patch matured and we need to replace the bed. Strawberries work best when planted in rows with lots of room between the plants that send out runners. Nearby fruit stands, berry farms and farmer’s markets carry strawberries or may allow you to pick your own. There is nothing that welcomes summer more than a bite of fresh strawberry shortcake topped with lots of whipping cream.
We collect cherries from a wild cherry tree growing next to our creek, pick sours and darks at a nearby orchard and have several pie cherry trees we are nursing to maturity. Cherries grow well in our area and can be purchased at local nurseries or ordered from a reputable catalog like Stark Brothers. Cherries make excellent pies, jams and freeze or can well. Dried cherries are a treat on ice cream or try cherry syrup on pancakes. Dark cherries are loaded with anthocyanins and some Montmorenci cherry eaters claim health benefits.
Childhood nursery rhymes mention gooseberry pie and gooseberry jam, but there are few to no gooseberry products on the market in the US. Europeans are very familiar with gooseberries and their plum-like sweetness grown like hostages among the inch long thorns of this easy to grow bush. They grow prolifically, in the same fashion as currants. The berries begin as hard green, individual berries hanging from stems and as the season continues, they turn purple and grow softer. When ripe, many of the protective thorns have fallen from the bush and the berries pull off easily. Use gooseberries in place of grapes for Waldorf salad, follow a plum recipe when making jam or eat fresh off the bush in July.
Friends sent us six red currant bushes as a thank you gift and they are a gift that just won’t stop giving. It was about three years before these plants produced several quarts of berries per bush. Black currants have even more vitamin C than red, but have a flavor and odor completely different. Currants grow wild but tend to be sparse. Plant them with several feet between as they send out runners and spread their branches which are loaded with shiny red or black berries and can grow up to six feet tall. Currants ripen in late June and are continuously picked through July.
Black raspberries grow wild on dark red stems in the edges of fields or near trees, ripening in early June. Raspberries are different from their blackberry cousins in that the berry pulls off the core and stem like a cap, where a blackberry pulls completely off the stem, core and all. The individual sizes of the fruit pustules are smaller on a raspberry and raspberries are much sweeter than blackberries. Black raspberries make the best choice for summer’s first batch of homemade ice cream, warm black raspberry pie or another batch of great jam for the cupboard. Red raspberries are more commonly found at farmers markets or are available to pick at nearby berry bushes. Put up raspberries as soon as they are picked, since these soft berries spoil very quickly.
Blueberry season goes from July until September, one of the longest berry seasons of the year. We try to plant one blueberry bush a year in our garden since blueberries take almost five years before they generate fruit. Picking blueberries at a local blueberry farm is an excellent family activity and berries freeze well for winter treats of blueberry muffins, pies and pancakes. Put fresh blueberries on granola, ice cream, and oatmeal or in fruit salads. You may find wild blueberry bushes or their cousins the huckleberries, but many no longer bear fruit or have lost their native habitat. Blueberries grow well in acidic soil and are an excellent all around choice for learning to grow berries.
Not shortly after black raspberry season, my favorite berry season of all times begins: blackberry season. As a kid growing up in Pennsylvania, we lived on blackberries and spent every summer picking gallons and Mom would can them for winter. The land we live on now used to be one of the town’s blackberry picking spots, but now it’s my personal blackberry picking spot. Every evening, after dinner, I walk about the long pricker bushes and pick the juiciest, ripest berries for my dessert. For weeks I can gorge daily on blackberries until the season is over. If you’re lucky enough to have wild blackberries growing nearby, take advantage of one of nature’s gifts. If you can’t handle the thorns but love the berries, consider planting some thorn-less varieties, available through nursery catalogs, for your own back yard blackberry patch.
Growing near the blackberries, in the ditches and along the edges of fields and paths, is a much taller, fuller bush full of dark black berry clusters called elderberries. Another berry that grows well and abundantly in our area, this late blooming fruit packs a powerhouse of nutrition into a tiny little package. Eating too many of these berries can results in an upset tummy, but tiny fingers love picking these little berries off the stem clusters and eating them. Elderberries make great jelly, pies, pancakes and botched batches of jam get turned into “purple syrup” for pancakes that my kids love.
Grapes mark the end of the berry picking season, beginning in September and lasting until Halloween some years. There are tart, tiny wild grapes that grow in the woods that can be picked and used similar to cultivated grapes, but vineyards that specialize in purple varieties such as Concords and Fredonias surround us. Table grapes tend to be seedless, requiring special plantings, but can be easily grown in a backyard garden as a healthy treat for the family.
Whether picking in the wild or growing a garden out back, harvesting berries is a highlight of summer that can be enjoyed by the entire family. The small fingers of children are perfect for picking, they love eating them and the berries are so good for you and your family. The next the time you are walking around your neighborhood or countryside, see if you can find your own wild berry patch and get in touch with your inner bear, start grazing.
Disclaimer: Be certain to positively identify any berry before eating, have children consult with their parents first before eating wild fruits and don’t eat anything you can’t identify. Also be aware of the presence of wild animals (a.k.a., bears) or snakes when picking berries in the wild and take the proper safety measures. n
Dodi Kingsfield, Technical Services Supervisor, Freelance Writer and Author. Dodi is employed as a Technical Supervisor for a large food manufacturer in Dunkirk, writes childrens and young adult books and does freelance writing for the web and magazines. Married for more than 20 years and a full-time mother of five, Dodi enjoys yoga, organic gardening and telling tall tales. She can be reached through her e-mail address at email@example.com.