Bountiful Berries

by: Hilary Newell

One of the great treats in life is to stumble upon something unexpected while partaking of an enjoyable pastime. While walking on a seldom-used path in the woods, over-run by wild grapes, I recall doing just that.

We were meandering along the edge of some old forest (an enjoyable pastime), and we came upon a large patch of over-ripe blackberries (completely unexpected). How the bears didn’t find these berries, I’ll never know, but making sure there weren’t any of these omnivores around, we charged in and ate as many as we possibly could. Each handful yielded a fresh scratch on the forearm, but every bite was worth it. As I looked around, savoring juicy mouthfuls, I noticed that many of the older trees had been taken down by the aggressive grape vines, and the resulting sunny spot was just where the blackberries decided to thrive. Had I had been walking there in June, I would have noticed the vines gushing with snowy white blossoms, and I would have noted the locale, and returned later in the summer to pick enough of those succulent black fruits for some jelly.

High-bush and low-bush blueberries grow wild across the island. Look for them in late July and early August.

Being a home owner on Nantucket, I can do just that. Blessed with two acres of relatively old (40-year) woods, I have lots of blackberries volunteering where the woods meet my yard. Anxious to encroach into the full sun, these rambunctious, thorny canes can tear through a cotton shirt (and any bare skin) without any trouble. I have learned to keep them trimmed, and therefore slightly under control, and they provide several quarts of berries each summer. They are very ornamental in June, but they are enjoyed in my house in late summer in myriad ways. Blackberry cobbler, blackberry jelly or just plain on a little vanilla ice cream are the preferred recipes, and if it’s a real bumper crop, I freeze the juice in small bags and use it in smoothies in the middle of winter.

Another volunteer at the edge of our woods is the common elderberry. Horticulture professors and garden writers have been calling this plant Sambucus canadensis forever, but it appears that taxonomists have downgraded it to simply a sub-species of its European relative, Sambucus nigra. This probably means very little to most people, but if you are a believer in the wealth of health benefits carried by S. nigra, it follows that S. canadensis may actually have many of those same benefits. Not only does elderberry make an excellent pie (one in my household actually prefers it over cake for his birthday), but S. nigra allegedly has anti-viral properties and is a common dietary supplement used when one feels they are coming down with something. Pliny, the Roman naturalist, claimed that the berries could dye your hair black, and through history, others have made claims about the elderberry including cures for everything from facial blemishes to worms, and toothache to swooning. A miracle food if ever there was one! It is also said that it is bad luck to burn the elder wood, or to cane a child or animal with its stick. If you are in Ireland and you cut down an elderberry, the wee folk get angry and will take revenge…If you are lucky enough to have some wild blackberries volunteer for duty in your yard, prune each fruit-bearing cane to the ground after the harvest, and trim all canes by about half in the winter or very early spring. This way, they won’t take over your yard and you can enjoy plenty of these scrumptious, jeweled berries. I’m not lucky enough to have cultivated raspberries, but I have seen them in well-kept gardens all over the island. They deserve a protected spot where pickers can keep an eye on them, and visitors cannot purloin the coveted fruit. Care requirements vary between species, but the most important gear you need are a good pair of gloves and a long-sleeved shirt, both for maintenance and for the harvest.

Relatively unknown by many, this berry is nearly inedible in its raw, ripe form. A generous addition of sugar brings out the full flavor in the form of a pie or jelly or wine. It is found in sunny spots, by the roadside, in undisturbed areas and overgrown ditches. Every June, as I’m driving around, I try to scope out the distinctive flowers, so I know where to pick in September. Around Labor Day, the berries on the bush (I use that term loosely… they can grow to 15 feet) in the back yard start looking really ripe. All summer, since the flowers have left, the green berries have been standing upright on their umbels (think “umbrella” to imagine the shape of an umbel of berries), and when they ripen, the umbels hang downward. I let the birds eat the berries at the top, but I can collect a couple grocery bags full of umbels with a pair of scissors in only a few minutes. Then, the fun starts. I pick out a good movie (without subtitles) and cover the floor with newspapers, and very carefully, tease the berries off the tiny stems into a large pot. Why all the newspapers? Well, elderberries stain. Badly. As a result, in my youth, we were relegated to the back porch where it didn’t matter that a few errant berries “missed” the bucket and got ground into the dirt. Oh yeah. Elderberries turn your fingers purple, too.

If you choose to grow elderberries (some might say that elderberries choose where they want to grow), pick a spot with soil rich in humus, somewhere they can have their feet wet. A swampy area is a great place to get some established. In fact, the seeds dropped by birds that have ingested them often will germinate in those very areas. Sambucus is also available from nursery catalogs. This particular plant thrives on neglect, so once it is established, don’t do anything until it’s time to pick, and then be sure to get there before the birds do.

Possibly the most widespread native fruit in the Americas is the blueberry. North to the Arctic and south to Florida, varied species of blueberries can be found on mountains, in swamps, in back yards, and especially in commercial production. Native Americans consumed blueberries as an integral part of their diets and used the roots and leaves for medicinal purposes. They ate them dried and fresh, and used them for fabric dyes. Modern culture is starting to catch on to what the Native Americans knew all along, as blueberries are now deemed to be a “super food” with many in the medical community suggesting we eat blueberries every day. They are high in anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants (the deeper the blue, the more antioxidants), they act as an anti-inflammatory, and they are loaded with vitamin C. Maine boasts the highest production of blueberries in the United States and has the most blueberry festivals. Indeed, many Down East towns claim to be “The Blueberry Capital of the World.” Here on Nantucket, there are no commercial growers, but there are thousands of wild Vaccinium shrubs to pick from each summer.

Vaccinium angustifolium (the low-bush blueberry) is widely found in the moors. Topping out at about two feet, but often only eight to 10 inches tall, this species flowers from April to June, and its berries ripen to a deep blue with white flesh. It is often found in combination with poison ivy, so watch out if you go picking. V. corymbosum, the high-bush variety, can grow to reach 10-12 inches tall and it flowers in May and June. Everyone seems to have an opinion about whether the high-bush or the low-bush fruit tastes better, but my family says “Who cares? Just make the blueberry buckle, please!”

Again, our woods are strewn with both the high-bush and low-bush varieties, but the majority of those go to the birds. We’ve observed robins, cedar waxwings, woodpeckers and chickadees hanging around the blueberries when they begin to ripen. There is so much variation within the wild species that some of the bushes produce berries that are simply “OK” (making them excellent for attracting birds), while others are juicy and sweet (making them perfect for us.) Early on, we decided to plant some cultivated varieties to ensure a good harvest. There are plenty of varieties to choose from: Jersey is one of the oldest and most widely-grown varieties for home enthusiasts. It is easy to grow in our sandy, acidic Nantucket soil and is consistent in giving high yields and very sweet fruit. The berries are small to medium, making them perfect for baking. The bush grows to about seven inches and is very hardy. Bluecrop has larger berries, tops out at about six inches and provides beautiful red foliage in the fall. Blueberry bushes should be planted with lots of good-quality compost, like Coast of Maine Shrimp and Lobster Compost. Choose a fertilizer like cottonseed meal that is specifically for acid-loving plants. Fertilize in the spring and again mid-summer and your berries should grow to give you a delicious healthful yield for many years.

An edible landscape is satisfying on several levels. The ornamental nature of most berry bushes in spring and early summer is a delightful reminder that those bushes will be bearing delectable fruits later in the summer and fall. Knowing that we’re providing food and shelter for the birds is ever so rewarding, and there’s nothing like fresh blueberry buckle on a summer evening.

Hilary Newell is the greenhouse production manager at Bartlett’s Farm and compiles “The Farm Dirt” each week.