Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Wild Fruit

I track the progression of summer by the free food available in my neighborhood. When strawberries ripen in the meadow across the street—or in my yard if I don’t mow often enough—I know that summer is upon us. The berries are copious, and could provide for many shortcakes but for one problem: these are woodland strawberries, and they don’t have much flavor. In fact, they’re not even juicy.

I Googled woodland strawberry, and found many references that describe these berries as sweet and tasty… apparently, references written by someone who has never eaten Lewisburg’s woodland strawberries. I would describe them as crunchy and bland—something I’d eat as a survivalist, but never if the domesticated equivalent (or nearly any other fruit for that matter) were available.

Shortly after strawberries ripen, black raspberries darken to a deep purple. These grow along hedgerows and in fields beneath low bushes and trees. In early summer, you can tell local black raspberries are ripe when bird droppings in your area are purple rather than white.

I love the flavor of black raspberries, and I pick what I can find in the wild places near my house. I don’t care for crunchy fruit, so I juice the raspberries to make jelly and ice cream. I also mix the juice with other fruits to fill pies or make what I call fruit punch jam. Compared to cultivated, commercial raspberries at $4 per pint, wild berries are like money growing on thorny stalks.

As the black raspberries fade (the best picking lasts about two weeks), ripe blackberries emerge. These grow in nearly the same places as the black raspberries—but they seem to favor open spaces away from the tree line; in a small meadow, black raspberries grow around the edges, and blackberries grow near the middle.

While they look similar to black raspberries, blackberries are bigger and crunchier. They have a distinctive flavor, and even a little blackberry juice mixed with other fruits can overwhelm the other flavors. I like the flavor, but I’d choose black raspberry jelly over blackberry every time.

Blackberries hold on for a solid month, and as they pass their prime, elderberries come into their own. Elderberries grow on tall wooden stalks—tree-like bushes. The ends of the stalks sport white flowers in early summer. These give way to green berries that ripen near mid August into large clusters of deep purple spheres—about the size of tapioca balls. Each ball has a large seed in its center, so elderberries are at least as crunchy as blackberries. Flavor-wise, elderberries appeal to me about as much as woodland strawberries: I’d eat them to avoid starvation in a crisis—as enthusiastically as I’d eat Brussels sprouts.

Autumn fruits don’t grow wild in the neighborhood, so elderberries mark the end of the free food season. Still, it’s awesome to find so many free things to eat so close to my front door. Nature is a terrific provider.

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