Midsummer berry pickin'
Blackberry, Blueberry, Raspberry, Huckleberry...
August 01, 2007
There is nothing that compliments backpacking and camping food better than sweet, ripe, wild berries. I scope out the raspberry patches on my way to my campsite on North Manitou Island, and after the tent is set up, I head back with an empty wide-mouth water bottle to pick berries for my evening's dessert. I just sprinkle a little sugar on them, let them set awhile, then stir and eat them like I did on my Great-Grandparents' farm when I was a kid, dripping in sweet syrup.
If I am on Isle Royale when the blueberries are ripe in late August, I bring supplies to make a cobbler that is to die for after a long day in the wilderness. And almost any kind of berry makes the breakfast cereal more enjoyable.
Midsummer berries include blackberry, blueberry, black cherry, chokecherry, huckleberry, gooseberry, red raspberry, black raspberry, and thimbleberry. These berries can be snacked on directly from the field or prepared at the campsite, and most lend themselves well to freezing so that they can be put into cereals, pies, jellies, or whatever, whenever you want them. If you want to freeze them, it is best not to rinse them first because they will stick together when frozen. First, lay them out on cookie sheets and sort out debris and insects. Then freeze, fill zipper bags or freezer containers with the amount you want, and put back in the freezer. They can be easily removed a little at a time, rinsed, and put into your favorite recipe.
There are many species of blackberries in the Great Lakes region, all of which are edible. Blackberries grow on reddish-colored woody "canes" that can be loaded with thorns, so you need to cover up if you don't want to look like you just tangled with a wildcat, although that would make a good story. The leaves alternate on the arching stems and contain five leaflets each that are deep green on top and grayish-green underneath. As blackberries ripen, they change from green to red to glossy black and can grow to about an inch long. When picked, the receptacle stays attached to the berry, unlike raspberries and thimbleberries, whose receptacles stay on the plant. Dewberries are similar to blackberries, but they grow along the ground. Blackberries and dewberries can be found in the sun or shade and in just about any soil type. My husband found a nice wild blackberry patch in the U.P. during a fishing trip once. He froze several quarts and when I had time I thawed them and made the best blackberry jelly.
Blueberries prefer acidic soil, such as that found in bogs or upland oak and pine groves. Plants can grow as low as six inches or as bushes up to 10 feet tall. The branches are light green and thornless. The simple leaves are light to medium green, and the bell-shaped blossoms are white to pale pink. The pea-size or larger berries can be powdery blue, dark purple, or almost black. The most distinguishing characteristic of blueberries is their scalloped-edge "naval."
Huckleberries and blueberries are in the same family and are very similar in size and taste, but huckleberries contain about ten small chewy seeds, while blueberries contain numerous tinier seeds. Huckleberry blossoms are reddish-hued and bell-shaped, and the berries are deep purple to black. Bushes grow two to four feet tall in rocky woodlands and boggy areas.
Black cherries and chokecherries are closely related. The lustrous black fruits form in drooping clusters. Pits make up the largest part of the pea-sized berries, so they are best for recipes that use only the pulp and juice, such as jellies, wine, and syrup. The pits and wilting leaves of chokecherries contain hydrocyanic acid and should not be eaten, but cooking destroys the acid. Black cherries are less bitter than chokecherries.
Black cherry trees can grow to be 100 feet tall and are widespread throughout the Great Lakes area. Their bark is dark gray to black and flaky like burnt potato chips. Leaves are alternate, simple, and deciduous. They are shiny green on top and light green underneath. Chokecherries average 10 to 12 feet in height and usually grow in groves of 10 to 50 wherever they can get lots of sunshine. The bark is brown with prominent lenticels (breathing holes), and the leaves are dark green, simple, and alternate with numerous fine teeth. Chokecherries are 50% higher in vitamin C than cultivated cherries, but much of the value is destroyed when heated. Remember, however, that if you eat chokecherries raw, be sure to spit the pits!
Gooseberries and currants were once fairly common in the Great Lakes region, until it was discovered in the early 1900s that they served as intermediate hosts for white pine blister rust, which was infecting our white pine timber stands. Therefore, gooseberries and currants were the targets of an eradication program, and they aren't as common as they once were.
Gooseberry shrubs grow from two to five feet tall and can be erect or spreading. Branches are prickly and have simple leaves that resemble maple leaves. The globular fruit has a "pigtail", which is the dried blossom, and light vertical stripes like the seams of a basketball. There are several varieties of gooseberries, and not all of them are good tasting, but at least they are not poisonous. Gooseberries are a sour fruit that makes good pies. However, some varieties have prickly fruit, which limits them to strained juice recipes. When ripe, the berries are light purple to reddish purple.
Red raspberries and black raspberries share the genus Rubus with dewberry, blackberry, and thimbleberry. Red and black raspberries are widespread in Michigan and relatively easy to pick, but they do have thorns to be aware of. Many kinds of wildlife are fond of raspberries, and I have been awakened on many summer nights by the sound of a raccoon family squabbling over the ripe raspberries on our property border just outside the bedroom window. Black raspberry canes are light purple and red raspberry canes are light green to brown. The canes bend down to the ground, often taking root and making another plant. The leaves are light green and compound with three to five leaflets, and the undersides are covered with fine down that makes them appear whitish. When you pick black and red raspberries and thimbleberries, the receptacle, or core, stays on the bush, leaving a hollow spot.
Thimbleberries are commonly found in the Keweenaw Peninsula, across the Upper Peninsula, and in the northern Lower Peninsula. They grow 1 ½ to 8 foot tall on canes that are smooth instead of thorny like its other relatives. The leaves are soft and fuzzy, dinner plate size, and five-lobed, resembling large maple leaves. The receptacles stay on the plant when berries are picked, leaving a hole, which makes them look like thimbles. They are soft red when ripe and can be quite mushy and tart, so I don't seek them out while backpacking Isle Royale like many other visitors do. However, I have had a scrumptious thimbleberry chiffon pie in a Keweenaw restaurant, and the jelly and jam made in the cottage industry are very good, albeit very costly.
To help you enjoy the wild berries you pick this summer, I have included some recipes.
Gooseberry Slump (Dumplings)
2 c. wild gooseberries
1 ½ c. water
¾ c. sugar
1 c. biscuit mix
2 T. sugar
½ t. nutmeg
1/3 c. milk
In a 2- or 3-quart saucepan or pot, mix gooseberries, water, and sugar. Bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer for 10 minutes. Mix dry ingredients for dumplings. Add milk and mix with a fork. Drop batter by tablespoonfuls atop berry sauce. Cook uncovered at low heat for 10 minutes; cover and cook for 10 more minutes (4-6 servings).
Blueberries, huckleberries, or cranberries can also be used. This is a good campfire dessert from the Great Lakes Berry Book by Bob Krumm.
(for syrup or jelly)
Add water to barely cover 1 gallon of berries. Bring to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Strain through a colander, saving the juice and returning the berries to your pan. Barely cover with water and bring to a boil again, simmering for another 20 minutes. Drain as before, saving the juice and returning the berries again to your pan. Do the above one more time, a total of three times.
Discard the berries and mix the resulting three juices. You should have between 8 and 12 cups of juice. You can now use this juice for either syrup or clear jelly.
8 c. juice or 12 c. juice
1 pkg. Sure-Jell pectin
½ c. lemon juice
1 ½ t. almond extract
10 c. sugar (if using 8 c. juice) or 12 c. sugar (if using 12 c. juice)
Pour boiling water over clean new lids. Have clean dry jars ready to use. Mix ingredients, boil for 2 minutes. Pour syrup into about 3 jars at a time within 1/8 inch of top of jar. Put hot lid on top and screw on band. Immediately invert jars for 5 minutes, then turn jars right side up again. After jars are cool, check seal by pressing middle of lid with finger. If lid springs up when finger is released, lid is not sealed. (Just refrigerate sealing failures and use within three weeks.) Because of the high sugar and acid content, you do not have to use the water bath method to make this syrup or jelly.
Continue with your other jars in the same manner. This syrup is good on French toast, pancakes, waffles, or ice cream.
1 c. milk
1 T. baking powder
2 T. salad oil
2 T. sugar
1 c. flour
½ c. huckleberries
½ t. salt
More milk, as needed
Beat eggs, add milk and oil. Add dry ingredients, mix well, and add huckleberries. Add enough milk until batter is the consistency of thick cream. Bake on hot griddle.
You can also substitute blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, juneberries, or blackberries. From the Great Lakes Berry Book by Bob Krumm.
For more information check out The Great Lakes Berry Book by Bob Krumm and Trees of Michigan and the Upper Great Lakes by Norman F. Smith.