By Lois Hoffman
Summers here in the Midwest offer a sweet bounty all their own, free for the taking. There are so many things to love about summer as a season, but from mid-June to the end of the month there is a special magic in those golden days of summer for me.
It’s when everything turns green, and not just green, but rather countless different hues of the color. Driving through farmland, all the fields are oceans of green, which radiate against the wooded backgrounds of deeper, darker greens. It’s when fireflies make their debut for the season and light up the early night sky. Who needs fireworks with the show they put on!
Though for me, the most special part of these couple of weeks is when the berries begin to ripen. Strawberries are nearing their demise for the season and blueberries are not quite ready, but wild raspberries, blackberries, and other varieties are just beginning to ripen. My favorite, hands down, of all these are the wild black raspberries. Here in southern Michigan and central Indiana where I spend my time, the wild ones grow prolifically and are free for the taking.
I love heading to the woods early in the morning, before the hot sun bakes them for the day and while the morning dew is still on, and seeing what bounty I can harvest for the day. There is a certain solitude about being in the fresh air, one with God and picking the ripe, juicy and sweet berries that he has provided. Never mind that my shoes and pants usually get soaked and my hands are stained for days. What a small price to pay for the sweet bounty.
Of course, the ultimate reward of berry picking is the savory sweet treats that make out-of-this-world cobblers, pies, and ice cream. Sometimes the best way to enjoy them is just straight from the patch. This is an activity that just about everyone can partake in, with only a few rules to keep you safe and successful.
It used to be that wild black raspberries could be found along roadsides, and sometimes that is still the case in some areas. However, they are usually found along fence rows, in overgrown meadows, and along the edges of woods. Unlike other fruits, they do not ripen once picked, so only choose the deep purple ones and don’t tug on the berries because the ripe ones will fall off easily. The clusters that receive the most sunlight ripen first, so the ones on the ends and outsides of the brambles will catch your eye. But don’t be fooled into thinking you have found them all because down in the centers of the foliage is where the largest and juiciest ones are sometimes hiding.
The biggest challenge here is the brambles themselves with their thorns. They like to intertwine, which makes getting into the thick of them a challenge. Always wear long pants and long sleeves to keep from getting scratched on bare skin. Some wear gloves, but they have always been too cumbersome for me; I’ll risk a few thorn cuts to get the treats. I also take an old coffee can with a wire makeshift handle attached. This not only serves to collect the berries, but I also use it to push the briars away in my path.
Unfortunately, we humans are not the only ones in the berry patch. Wasps, mosquitoes, chiggers, snakes, and poison ivy also like to hang out there. Always watch where you are stepping so as not to disturb snakes that are sunning themselves in the cool grass. I usually start out with mosquito spray as I know they are always there. So far, the worst I have come back from the patch with are mosquito bites and poison ivy. Of course, this year you can add ticks to the mix. Always remove clothing when done picking and check for these nuisances.
Some folks have trouble distinguishing black raspberries from blackberries. Both are delicious, but if you are looking for one type in particular, it is good to know the differences. The stems of black raspberries are bluish-white and smooth, whereas blackberry stems have ridges and are angled. Blackberries are totally black in color and come cleanly off the vine, whereas black raspberries are a very dark purple in color and when pulled from the vine leave a cone-shaped receptacle on the plant. Also, the underside of the black raspberry leaves are almost white, whereas the blackberry’s leaves are just lighter in color.
For me, the best ones have always been straight from the patch into my mouth, even though pies and cobblers taste great, too. Washing the berries is pretty simple since all you need to do is rinse them off under some cool running water to remove leaves and other debris.
Perhaps the most important part of wild berry picking is to remember to ask permission before going on someone’s property. No matter how tempting these berries are, it is never an excuse for brash and rude behavior. This year when we went for our first picking we found that trespassers had already taken their share from the private property. The berries had been plucked and the vines were trampled down.
This is so wrong on so many levels. Just because something hasn’t been planted as a crop does not mean it is free for the taking if it is not on your property or if you do not have permission to go on the property where it is. Some of the best things in life are free, but you still have to use common sense and have respect for others. This way it keeps an enjoyable legacy for all.
Our first day of “berrying” is safely tucked away in the freezer (except for those that we bagged in the patch!). Tomorrow and the next few days will be repeated like today and I will enjoy every minute of it. I am always sad to see the short berry season end, but then some other summer delicacy will certainly follow.
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