No greater consolation can be found for the waning of summer than to go on a berry-picking expedition. Right now blackberries are at their peak of ripeness and abundance in many fields and forest glades. The uses and delights of blackberries, eaten fresh or made into pies or preserves are familiar to most. Less well know are the tender shoots of blackberry brambles, which can be added fresh to salads in the spring, or tea made from blackberry leaves, which is a traditional herbal cure for diarrhea, as is blackberry juice. Any of us might second Walt Whitman’s opinion, in Leaves of Grass, that “the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven.” The “running blackberry” he was referring to is also called the dewberry, a lovely low-growing species that is common along woodland edges and trails, and is somewhat less prolific in fruiting than its taller cousins among the blackberry tribe. All blackberries can be distinguished from the related raspberries, red and blackcap, by their solid rather than hollow fruit, the green undersides of their leaves (raspberries’ leaves are whitened underneath), and their stout thorns, as opposed to the weak prickles of raspberries. As “Bre’er Rabbit” knew, and “Bre’er Fox” learned too late, a briar patch is an impenetrable refuge from predators, as is a blackberry thicket, or “bramble.”
If any plant reminds us how subtle a knowledge of the natural world indigenous people and traditional cultures possess, surely it is the common elderberry. Elderberry can be found in moist soil, often along stream banks, but sometimes also in waste places, and is worth seeking out for a number of reasons. I wrote in an earlier column of how the white flower clusters can be gathered in late spring and made into delicious fritters. Hopefully you didn’t pick them all, though, because now is the time when those broad, flat clusters are full of small, round, nearly black ripe berries.
At first, tasting one of these little elderberries, it’s hard to see how their use became so widespread and popular, not only here, but for hundreds of years in Europe as well, where related species of elder, or Sambucus, are found. The taste is only a little sweet, and strikes many people as a little “off,” nowhere near as luscious as that of a ripe blackberry. The whole shrub, it turns out, with the sole exceptions of its flowers and ripe fruit, is toxic. I have heard of children poisoned by using whistles made from the hollow stems when they were still green, and maple sugar makers by using spiles to tap trees that were made from freshly cut elderberry branches from which the soft pith had been removed. So it seems as though it must have been a special inspiration, or genius, on the part of someone, long ago, to look past the poisonous bark, roots, leaves, and unripe fruit, and past the somewhat insipid, though not toxic, ripe berries, to find out the elderberry’s true virtues. A transformation in flavor occurs when ripe elderberries are cooked, and made into preserves, for which pectin must be added, for elderberries have none of their own. Elderberry jam has a unique taste that some at least find oddly appealing.
Elderberry had an even bigger surprise in store for me when I tried making elderberry wine. Despite my inexperience making wine, and the somewhat laborious processes of separating berries from green stems with a fork, and mashing and straining them to remove seeds and skins (both made more pleasant by doing them outdoors on a perfect late summer day), I found the whole effort quite rewarding. I was delighted to find that, after a few months’ aging, the resulting elderberry wine had a fine, dry, complex flavor that compared nicely with a good Cabernet. But of course, there was a subtle difference, a difference that contained the latter part of a particular summer in my life, in a particular place. Which is how it is with all fruits one harvests oneself, especially, I find, wild fruits: their enjoyment and use can never be separated from our memories of the time spent picking and preparing them.
Richard Parisio is a lifelong naturalist, educator and writer. He currently leads field trips for school classes at Mohonk Preserve, teaches courses about John Burroughs and conducts tours of Slabsides and the John Burroughs Sanctuary for groups and individuals by request. Rich is New York State coordinator for River of Words, a national poetry and art program on the theme of watersheds, and teaches River of Words programs for school classes, grades K-12, by request. Contact Rich (firstname.lastname@example.org) with questions, comments, or suggestions for Nature at Your Doorstep.