Over the course of the spring and the early summer, I was dying to try thimbleberries. As with many of the fruits mentioned in the Berry Watch posts, I had only learned what thimbleberries were early in the spring – like salmonberries, raspberries, and blackberries, they are part of the Rubus genus of berry. As soon as I turned to the “Thimbleberry” section in Wild Berries of British Columbia, I was sold. “Thimbleberry is one of the most delicious native berries you will find in BC (and beyond!)” raves Fiona Hamersley Chambers in Wild Berries. “…The taste is somewhat like a raspberry, but more intense and flavourful with a sharper ‘tang’” (p. 74). Between that description and the picture of the gorgeous, red-fuschia ripe berry on the same page, my mouth was watering. Too bad it was only April – I had several months to kill before the fruits ripened in July!
From that point forward, I was on close thimbleberry watch during my visits to Stanley Park. Luckily, even without flowers or fruit, thimbleberry shrubs are easy to spot: they are large, and have big, fuzzy, maple-shaped leaves. In early to mid May, their big white flowers began to emerge:
In early June, green berries started to appear. Note that their drupes (the little bumps all over the fruit) are smaller than those of a raspberry:
By late June, the berries were changing colour to a pale yellow / dusty rose:
My first taste of thimbleberries happened not at Stanley Park, but while I was on Salt Spring Island, on July 7 - yes, the event was so significant that I made note of the day! I was walking along from the “downtown” part of the island toward a forested park, and noticed a few thimbleberry shrubs along the side of the road. To my delight, they were adorned with several ripe berries ready for picking. I learned that thimbleberries respond best to a steady hand when they are being plucked from the shrub; though they look quite solid, they are actually just fragile little domes that can easily slip out of clumsy fingers and onto the ground. A shape analogy: if a raspberry were a head, a thimbleberry would be a beanie.
Folks, as far as I’m concerned, these little fruits live up to the hype – they are spectacularly tangy and sweet. Forget raisins – thimbleberries steal the title of “nature’s candy.”
In my previous post, I mentioned I’ve witnessed berries that ripen slowly and gradually (such as salal), and those that live fast and die young (such as red elderberry). Thimbleberries possess a touch of both. The shrubs that I come across will often have two or three ripe berries, several not-quite-ripe ones, as well as many that have mummified in the sun. There is a gradual process to the ripening of thimbleberries – they are not yet finished for the season – but they are so fragile that they don’t last long once they are mature.
You probably won’t be able to collect a bucket of thimbleberries as you would blackberries – it’s doubtful that there would be quantity or substance enough to fill a receptacle, and even if there was, these fragile fruits would not hold their shape for long. However, they are a wonderful “living for the moment” fruit. If you see a ripe thimbleberry, please eat it, enjoy it, and let it be a reminder to enjoy the sweetness of the present.