Wild Food Spotlight 2 – Rubus!

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First Published on June 22, 2016 Written by Emily van Lidth de Jeude

How many times have blackberries scraped big bloody tears from your leg as you simply attempted to access the beach? Or the salmonberries taken over your garden and you spent day after day cutting them down and then digging out their stubborn, tough roots, only to find them growing back again a couple of months later? How many times have you planted delightful raspberry canes in your garden and found them soon interspersed with those godforsaken-spiny-blackberries-whose-fruit-is-inferior-and-nobody-seems-to-know-the-name-of?! Ha ha! Me too. But I love these Rubus anyway.

The Rubus genus is well-represented both in our gardens and in our island wilderness. We commonly grow raspberry, boysenberry, and wineberry in our gardens, but in the wild here we also find an abundance of red and yellow salmonberries, black raspberries, thimbleberries, and various blackberries: Trailing, Himalayan, and Evergreen (that horridly vicious spiky-looking one).

All of these are known for their heavenly berries, especially when ripened and warmed by the sun and picked during a hike through the woods. But did you know that you can use other parts of the plants as well? The leaves of red raspberries are well known for their use in teas as a uterine tonic, and black raspberry and young blackberry leaves can be picked, dried, and used the same way. Wear gloves, though – their thorns grow under the leaves as well.

And then there are the shoots. Every spring for hundreds if not thousands of years, the fresh shoots of salmonberry, blackberry, and thimbleberry have been harvested young and tender, often eaten fresh, steamed, pickled, or stir-fried. It’s June, and we’re a bit past this stage of their growth by now, but if you do find any soft flexible cane shoots extending up off the older canes or out of the ground nearby, you can pull your hand along them until they snap off like asparagus. When you’re ready to eat them, peel off the skin and prepare them any way you enjoy asparagus. It’s certainly very different, but totally delicious. And each species (even each colour of salmonberry bush) has a different flavour!

Finally berries.

Salmonberries – first of the wild rubus to ripen, they grow unstoppably all over the place, here – especially in wet meadows and roadsides. Those with exclusively green shoots grow yellow/orange berries, and those with red shoots grow red berries which darken to nearly black as they ripen. Salmonberries taste a little brighter, and with less of a rich flavour than other Rubus berries, although the red ones are sweeter than the yellow. Salmonberries seem to develop the most juicy flavour when they’ve plumped up in wet weather and sunshine, but then they’re so watery that they don’t work well in pies. They’re also a little too seedy for baking, since they lose so much water in the process that you’re left with mostly seeds. Also watch out if you’re picking after a few days of rain showers; they tend to lose their flavour, or even get mouldy inside.

Blackberries – sweet, rich, earthy, and a little bit terrifying, if you’ve ever been caught among them. And also the best for baking, which is why you may have been caught there in the first place, heading towards the middle of the brutal thicket, trying to fill a five-gallon bucket for pies. They seem to retain a lot of their juice and flavour when baked or frozen. For fresh eating, I prefer the trailing blackberries, which are smaller and less abundant than the huge invasive species, but which taste sweeter and more precious. Like little diamonds compared to big quartz crystals. One thing to watch out for, these days, is the increasing population of D. suzukii larvae (that’s Drosophila, not David, though you might be forgiven for any confusion…). You may not notice the tiny fruit fly larvae as you pick the berries and shove handfuls into your mouth, but if you freeze them on a tray you might discover many little frozen white larvae protruding from between the drupelets of the fruits. It’s OK. Insect-eating is growing in popularity. Just eat them anyway! They’re the last of the Rubus to ripen in our area, and you’ll want to store them all up for winter.

Black Raspberries – these are far less common here, but if you find them they’re absolutely delectable. So try to! The plants look a little like raspberries, more fragile than Himalayan blackberries, and with smaller leaves and stems than salmonberries. The berries themselves are much darker in colour than cultivated raspberries, but have the same dull waxy coating, so can reflect almost purple in some light. The taste is fantastic, and you’ll likely not find enough to satisfy, so just eat them all fresh and quickly, before they’re gone.

Thimbleberries – ripe around this time of year, tall and green and leggy; home to gall wasps and bane of my garden, and I know people complain about their lack of juice and consequent seediness. They don’t even ripen all at once, forcing us to graze very very slowly… just a few every day. But to me they are worth it all for the flavour. They’re almost shockingly sweet, with both the earthiness of blackberries and the tartness of raspberries. I allow them to grow behind my bean trellis, poking their multi-coloured berries through at the sunshine. By the time the beans grow there, I have eaten them all anyway.

Happy summer, neighbours! I hope you enjoy the bounty of Rubus, this year.

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