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Berry Watch 2013 // Part 6: Blackberries

I’ve been reading a chapter called “Wild Pickings” from Irish chef Denis Cotter’s Wild Garlic, Gooseberries… and Me: A Chef’s Stories and Recipes from the Land. Cotter talks about his adventures in foraging for greens, mushrooms, fruits, and sea vegetables, as well as the cooking experiments that he carries out with his findings. In his discussion of picking blackberries, he talks about what an effective intergenerational activity it can be.

  Wild Garlic, Gooseberries... and Me  by Denis Cotter. A great book for recipes, foraging info, and engaging narratives about food.

Wild Garlic, Gooseberries... and Me by Denis Cotter. A great book for recipes, foraging info, and engaging narratives about food.

Says Cotter, "Picking blackberries is pure pleasure. For kids, there is no misunderstanding, no wondering what this nasty stuff we’re collecting is about. The berries are sweet, and the slight thorny challenge only just enough of a problem to make them feel adventurous and appreciate the reward. Don’t get preachy, but you will know that you are making future memories; building and nurturing connections and stretching them into the next generation. This is how traditions survive, with the merest fingertip contact with the past. If blackberry picking is the easy link, it may well be the portal through which another generation may pass in order to explore the wider possibilities of wild foods." (p. 122-123)

 A cluster of blackberries at various stages of ripeness near Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park.

A cluster of blackberries at various stages of ripeness near Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park.

I love this description of gathering blackberries. Listening to Cotter illustrate the taste of the berries, the sting of the thorns, and “fingertip contact” – which makes me think of a ripe berry resting between my thumb and forefinger, ready to slide effortlessly off of the shrub – speaks to the power of these wild fruits to create a lasting sensory impression upon the people who choose to collect them. I know that when I pick blackberries, the pain of the prickles, the pillowy ripeness of the berries, the feel of the leaves against my wrists, the bright magenta shock of the juice from accidentally crushed fruits all help to tether my memory of the fruit to the shrub that provides it.

I give blackberries a lot of credit for being my “portal” into “the wider possibilities of wild foods”. It was about three years ago that I began to notice clumps of blackberry bushes in a few different parts of my neighbourhood (an observation likely guided by the taste of a friend’s homemade wild blackberry jam). After picking my first bucket of urban blackberries that August, I began to wonder why I had thought that the expensive store-bought berries were my only option. At that time, I also casually wondered what other foods were up for offer in local parkland, forests, and on the side of the road. I heard rumors about apple and pear trees around the city, and about people picking edible weeds for use in salads. I wondered about other wildberries, too – aside from blackberries, were there other plentiful local pickings to be had in the summer? Through my explorations of Stanley Park this year, I’ve been able to grow that inquisitive seed planted by the blackberry into a small tree of knowledge (see the Berry Watch posts).

I’ve also come to learn more about the blackberry itself through my study of Stanley Park. I’ve discovered that there are different kinds of blackberry shrubs that exist along the coast, all with varying levels of power. The Himalayan blackberry shrub (Rubus discolor), for example, is sturdy, sharp, and ubiquitous. The blackberries that you’ve picked in the park, on the side of the road, or in an industrial lot are likely from a Himalayan blackberry thicket. Nature has a complicated relationship with the Himalayan blackberry here on the coast. In one sense, it is a generous provider of gourmet fruit for anybody with a bucket, and, as described above, a forger of sense memories and connections with the natural world. In another sense, it is like the condo developer who is trying to take over your humble neighbourhood. It is an invasive species (see my previous post) that greedily expands into spaces that could otherwise be enjoyed by the native plants and shrubs that belong to the coastal land. Sometimes the branches of the Himalayan blackberry arc and re-root at their tip, creating an occupation of horizontal space, a chain store. Himalayan blackberry shrubs can grow quite tall (up to 5 metres), and are loaded with fruit… though they often like to tease short folks like me with a wealth of sweet, ripe berries that are a foot out of reach!

 The top of a tall Himalayan blackberry shrub - most of these berries are out of my reach!

The top of a tall Himalayan blackberry shrub - most of these berries are out of my reach!

 Sometimes Himalayan blackberry branches form arcs and re-root at the tip. 

Sometimes Himalayan blackberry branches form arcs and re-root at the tip. 

I’ve also learned about a blackberry that grows closer to the ground on more delicate stems, produces a smaller fruit, and is native to coastal British Columbia – it is called the trailing blackberry (Rubus ursinus). I encountered ripening vines of this blackberry along the sides of the Stanley Park forest trails in July. I liked the sense of surprise that I felt upon seeing this plant – unlike the Himalayan blackberry, which boldly makes itself known to the public, the trailing blackberry requires a keen eye and a bit of patience, as it hides closer to the ground. Unlike the Himalayan blackberry, some trailing blackberry shrubs are male and some are female - so only the shrubs with female flowers bear fruit.

trailing_blackberry.jpg
 A couple sightings of trailing blackberry along the Stanley Park forest trails in late July. 

A couple sightings of trailing blackberry along the Stanley Park forest trails in late July. 

You also might see cutleaf (or evergreen) blackberry shrubs (Rubus laciniatus) around coastal BC. Like the Himalayan blackberry, these shrubs are not native to BC and are considered invasive. They can be distinguished by their leaf shape – each leaf contains 5 leaflets with very frilly edges.

 A cutleaf blackberry shrub spotted at Crab (aka Portside) Park in Vancouver.

A cutleaf blackberry shrub spotted at Crab (aka Portside) Park in Vancouver.

Berry Watch 2013 // Part 5: Western Black Raspberries

In late July, as I was strolling through the forest toward Third Beach, I came across a patch of western black raspberries (aka blackcap raspberriesRubus leucodermis to be exact). The raspberry branches are on the north side of Tatlow trail, just west of Park Drive.

 Here are the western black raspberry branches, photographed August 11. As I'll mention below, these raspberries are a bit past their prime!

Here are the western black raspberry branches, photographed August 11. As I'll mention below, these raspberries are a bit past their prime!

Just as the name suggests, western black raspberries are ripe when they are a purplish-black colour. They are similar in shape to thimbleberries – their drupes (the little bumpy parts on the exterior of the fruit) are smaller and more numerous than that of a conventional raspberry, and they have a broad, “cap”-like shape. I tasted a nice ripe black one – it was very tasty, but also super seedy!

But alas… how soon the summer fruits disappear! When I first came across the raspberries 12 days ago or so, there were several unripe red berries on the branch, along with a few ripe black ones - it was a berry patch so full of hope! When I checked back on them yesterday, most of the raspberries had disappeared – some had likely been picked by passers-by or eaten by wildlife, and others had simply ripened and rotted away. My camera had died when I passed the raspberry patch for the first time, so unfortunately, all I have to show you are are a few slightly overripe berries from yesterday. As you can see, they range from mouth-watering to macabre:

 Closeup of a western black raspberry cluster, past its prime and on the decline. There are cobwebs and everything!

Closeup of a western black raspberry cluster, past its prime and on the decline. There are cobwebs and everything!

In case you're curious about the leaf shape and stem-prickliness of the western black raspberry for identification purposes, here's what to look for: 

The leaf and stem of a western black raspberry branch. 

Berry Watch 2013 // Part 4: Thimbleberries

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!

 

 My first "taste" of thimbleberries was a tasty description in  Wild Berries of British Columbia  by Fiona Hamersley Chambers.

My first "taste" of thimbleberries was a tasty description in Wild Berries of British Columbia by Fiona Hamersley Chambers.

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:

 A thimbleberry shrub in May. Note the large maple-shaped leaves and white flowers.

A thimbleberry shrub in May. Note the large maple-shaped leaves and white flowers.

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:

 Some unripe thimbleberries at the beginning of June. 

Some unripe thimbleberries at the beginning of June. 

By late June, the berries were changing colour to a pale yellow / dusty rose:

 A ripening thimbleberry in late June. 

A ripening thimbleberry in late June. 

 This thimbleberry is getting there! It should be ripe pretty soon!

This thimbleberry is getting there! It should be ripe pretty soon!

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.

 A ripe thimbleberry in July. Finally!

A ripe thimbleberry in July. Finally!

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.

 

Berry Watch 2013 // Part 3: Red Elderberries

As I’ve watched the berries ripen in the forest this summer, I’ve found that different berry shrubs have different sensations of time. Some berries, such as blackberries, red huckleberries, and salal berries, treat their time on this planet as a leisurely, extended celebration. They ripen gradually and in succession, leaving some fruits green while others sweeten in the sun. The window of time for gathering the ripened fruit is long; I know that I can observe, document, and taste them at a slow and measured pace.

There are other berries that treat their ripening in a live-fast-and-die-young kind of way. Every berry will ripen at once, will live a plump and happy life for a glorious few weeks, and then will shrivel and decay. From what I’ve observed at Stanley Park, this seems to be the life of the red elderberry.

{Note: if you plan to forage red elderberries, have a look at the cautionary blurb at the bottom of this page.}  

I first started to notice red elderberry shrubs at Stanley Park around April. Many of these shrubs have grown into tree-like formations. Their leaves are long, pointed ovals that hang in a relaxed, friendly manner. The foliage makes the tree look slightly tropical – I was reminded of the leaves of a “money tree” houseplant. My eye was also drawn to the clusters of little white flowers adorning the branches. These flowers can be used for medicinal and culinary purposes – a bit of “elderflower” googling connects me not only to pictures, but to recipes for cordial, wine, fritters, and cakes. Give it a try and see what you can find!

 My first picture of a red elderberry shrub. I believe I took it in April (though I didn't have the date set correctly on my camera then!) Note the little white elderflowers in bloom.

My first picture of a red elderberry shrub. I believe I took it in April (though I didn't have the date set correctly on my camera then!) Note the little white elderflowers in bloom.

The transition from elderflower to elderberry began in May. The areas that once held flowers were now clusters of tiny green nuggets. Each nugget looks like a mini-acorn, or a tiny squash. The clusters look like the stems of grapes:

 A red elderberry shrub in May. These little green nuggets will eventually become red berries.

A red elderberry shrub in May. These little green nuggets will eventually become red berries.

By the end of June, the elderberries were ripe:

 Red elderberries in late June.

Red elderberries in late June.

As you can see, the berries in the picture above have a plump and appealing look. However, when I returned to Stanley Park about three weeks later, the elderberries had peaked and were looking shriveled. These past-their-prime berries reminded me of Nerds candy!

 Only 3 weeks later, these elderberries are on their way out.

Only 3 weeks later, these elderberries are on their way out.

Though I continue to enjoy, the slow, gradual ripening of berries such as salal, I think that the quick-to-mature, quick-to-decay nature of red elderberries is important to ponder. While the shrubs were producing their luscious berries (the month of June), I was spending copious amounts of time indoors, completing a work project that required a computer. I didn’t have a chance to visit the park as often as I hoped, and I didn’t get to observe the transition of the elderberry shrubs as thoroughly as I would have liked. I think about the region shared by the red elderberry and I – the south coast of BC, where the daylight hours are slowly begin to contract and sunlight is a privilege – and I wonder: what other brevities of nature are slipping through our fingers? I guess it's time to turn the computer off for the day, go outside, and soak up some Vitamin D...

 * A cautionary note about red elderberries: 

Almost all parts of red elderberry shrubs, aside from the fruits and flowers, contain toxins. These toxins are also in the seeds of the fruit. Some sources cite red elderberries as poisonous, and some say they are okay to eat as long as they’ve been cooked and de-seeded. I recommend doing a bit of research and using your own good judgment if you plan on consuming these berries. I think that the summary of red elderberries on this Eat the Weeds post (written by experienced forager Green Deane) is quite good – just scroll about halfway down the page and have a read.

Berry Watch 2013 // Part 2: Salal Berries and Red Huckleberries

Hello, everyone – I’m back from Salt Spring Island! I had a wonderful, renewing trip, and I’m excited to get back to the Stanley Park Project.

More and more of the berries in the forest are starting to ripen – it’s so exciting! I’ve been anticipating the arrival of the berries for months. I began reading about coastal berry shrubs in the late winter, spent months identifying their leaf and flower patterns, and photographed their progress throughout the late spring. Now that the sun is working its transformative magic, I can exchange cool observation of the ripening berries for the intimacy of touch and taste.

Salal was one of the first berry shrubs that called out to me at Stanley Park in mid-to-late spring. I immediately noticed its bold, playful personality, its leathery leaves buoyed by the energy of new spring growth. What really caught my eye were the whitish-pink flowers dangling from little stems, as though the salal shrubs were decorating itself with paper lanterns for a party. Even the name of the plant itself - salal - has a lilting, festive ring to it.

 A springtime salal shrub with bells on! This photo was taken in late May.

A springtime salal shrub with bells on! This photo was taken in late May.

Throughout the last few months, I’ve been taking snapshots of the changing salal flower stems. Each flower eventually morphs into a green “berry” (Plants of Coastal British Columbia tells me that this “berry” is actually a “fleshy sepal” – a “sepal” normally being that green part that covers the petals of the flower before they open up). As I was walking through the forest last weekend, I noticed that some of the salal “berries” are starting to ripen into a bluish-purple colour, so I munched on a few. They have a deep, musky, tangy flavour that resembles a concord grape – I quite liked them. They are also a little hairy, but don’t let that deter you!

Here is a salal flower stem in late May:

 

salal_may.jpg

...in mid-June: 

salal_june.jpg

...in late June:

salal_late_june.jpg

...and in mid-July: 

salal_july.jpg

I’ve also been noticing red huckleberries speckling the forest since early June, and there’s certainly still some around to enjoy. These berries really snuck up on me – I was walking past a red huckleberry shrub one day, wondering when it would flower, and was surprised to see tiny ripe red berries already adorning the underside of its foliage! The little oval leaves were shielding these berries as best they could, as though the plant was bashful about its sudden maturity.

 Can you see the little red berries hiding under the leaves of this huckleberry shrub?

Can you see the little red berries hiding under the leaves of this huckleberry shrub?

A bit of careful observation throughout June shed more light on the development of these red fruits: they start very subtly from tiny, whitish-green flowers that hide beneath the undersides of the leaves:

 Can you see the little green "flower" on the right side of the plant. So incognito!

Can you see the little green "flower" on the right side of the plant. So incognito!

Red huckleberries are very small (1 cm or less in diameter), but pack a delicious, tangy punch. Though this shrub is more delicate and effacing than the outgoing, festive salal, it is worth getting to know – in my opinion, the berries that it quietly creates are of equal intensity to those of showy salal. You’ll find a lot of red huckleberry shrubs rooted in crumbling, rotted stumps throughout the forest.

 

Berry Watch 2013 // Part 1: Salmonberries

Update, August 2013: The "Berry Watch 2013" saga continues! If you're interested in the ripening fruits at Stanley Park and in and around Vancouver, have a look at the other fine "Berry Watch" blog posts! Or continue reading about salmonberries below - they are finished for the season, but it's always good to know about them.

I’ve been slowly and steadily increasing my knowledge of the native berry shrubs that grow in coastal BC. Berries were one of the first things on my radar during the early inklings of this learning project; I felt it would be empowering (and impressive to friends!) to know which fruits I could safely pop off the bush and into my mouth during a summer hike. In April, I signed out a book from the library called Wild Berries of British Columbia by Fiona Hamersley Chambers (one of the wonderful guides from Lone Pine publishers) and was surprised to learn about the vast amount of edible berries that grow in the region. As I was getting more absorbed in this book, the salmonberry shoots in Stanley Park were concurrently beginning to grow taller and come alive with pink flowers, a bright anticipation of the berries that would soon replace them.

 A salmonberry flower blooming near the seawall in early April. 

A salmonberry flower blooming near the seawall in early April. 

It seems crazy to me now, but I hadn’t heard of – or noticed – salmonberries until this year. They are very common in Stanley Park, but certainly not as prolific to Vancouver as the Himalayan blackberry, which I’ve spotted in parks and green spaces, as well as in vacant and industrial lots. More on blackberries later, I promise!

Salmonberry shrubs begin early in the spring as skinny canes, and sprout clumps of refreshingly green, corrugated leaves in groups of 3 pointy leaflets. Their papery pink flowers begin to bloom in March, and are one of the first bursts of bright colour to speckle the brown and green springtime forest. Those of you that live on the BC coast will know that the grey, wet spring season can last forever – so as I gazed at the salmonberries this past spring, I appreciated the sense of optimism that these pinks provided, a promise that there would be more vivid colours to come as the weather grew warmer.

 Some salmonberry canes hanging out in the forest in April. You'll see that some green berries are beginning to form with a muppet-like fringe around their "necks".

Some salmonberry canes hanging out in the forest in April. You'll see that some green berries are beginning to form with a muppet-like fringe around their "necks".

I watched with anticipation through March, April, and May as the flowers became small green fruits and ripened into brilliant red and orange berries. Salmonberries look very much like raspberries, and belong to the same Rubus genus of berry as raspberries, blackberries, and thimbleberries. However, salmonberries are unique from their Rubus peers in that they grow in two colours (red and orange, the result of a one-gene allele difference). In addition, they are the earliest berries to ripen on the coast. It is only early June, and for the last couple of weeks I’ve certainly been popping a few ripe ones in my mouth as I stroll the trails.

 A ripening red salmonberry hiding under its green canopy.

A ripening red salmonberry hiding under its green canopy.

 Some yellow salmonberries moving toward ripeness.

Some yellow salmonberries moving toward ripeness.

Are salmonberries the most delicious berries in the world? Probably not, but it depends on your taste buds. The ones I’ve had seem to range from mildly tart to mildly sweet and a little bland, but those berries may have benefitted from a little more ripening on the branch prior to plucking. What I’ve really enjoyed about salmonberries is their precociousness – they provide a bit of colour, flavor, and relief during the long wait for the emergence of other summer wildfruits. And, like a good precocious pupil of the forest who has finished her work early, the salmonberry helps to teach beginners like me about the rhythms of flowering and fruiting, and to guide my eye to the development patterns of the berry shrubs that will bear fruit later in the summer.