Bountiful Berries

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, July 18, 1997

The bountiful berries growing wild and untended around here seduced me nearly 30 years ago when I landed on an abandoned farm in rural Connecticut. Berries were among the easiest of the wild edibles to identify and the most delicious. Their abundance and flavor firmly connected me to the land. This connection still grows and deepens.

As they ripen in the sun, berries get more and more sweet. Finally, when they just can't get any sweeter, they begin to warm up. That's the ideal time to pick and eat them. At that point, they fall right off into your hand and taste - oh, so good - sweet, juicy and delicious. Last week, the blackcap raspberries were near their peak.

We've got a sprawling stand of these wild berries that began on its own, probably assisted by birds, rabbits, raccoons or other small creatures. They delivered the seeds in a little manure package. Sun, rain and soil did the rest. Over the last few years this patch has grown large and vigorous. We do little more than cut back weeds or trees that grow up in it and then pick the fruit. Raspberries grow easily because they are native to this area. They belong here. The people and animals of this region have picked, eaten and spread them for thousands of years. A berry's sweetness is one of its evolutionary strategies for dispersing its genetic information, for propagating itself. Gracefully arching purplish canes make the blackcap easy to identify most of the year.

Blackcap raspberries are pioneers, among the first to take over any disturbed site, such as a burned area, where trees have blown down, or an abandoned field. They spread quickly making a dense thicket which holds soil and builds organic matter in preparation for the trees which follow. With enough shade, they'll die off, having played their role in the evolving ecosystem.

Red and golden raspberries are also bearing now. These cultivated plants are set out and pruned by us, but need little more than a nutritious mulch and enough light in order to bear for many years. These berries trace their heritage to the natural hybridization of local red raspberries with cultivars that were brought over from Europe several hundred years ago. Selective breeding over time has produced the varieties we grow which produce very sweet berries twice a year - now and again in the fall, often bearing then until we have a hard frost.

Many small fruits are native to the Northeast including blackberries, blueberries, cranberries, dewberries, elderberries, grapes, juneberries, strawberries and wineberries. Most of them grow wild and also as cultivars produced from crosses with plants from other lands. We have both wild and cultivated varieties of blackberries, blueberries, elderberries, grapes and strawberries. The wild berries tend to be smaller and to ripen over a longer period of time than the "improved" varieties which may have been selected for larger size, better taste, fewer thorns and/or other desired traits. These types may require more care, especially to produce maximum yield. But they don't take much attention beyond picking to produce a steady supply for the kitchen.

All summer long, one delicious fruit after another ripens. The varieties that grow in profusion provide berries to sell and to pop into a container for the freezer at the Old Solar Farm. These we'll turn into muffins and pancakes in the winter. The others we eat as we pick them, on cereal or on homemade biscuits with fresh whipped cream. Now there's a delicious dessert.

These small fruits contain vitamins, minerals, fiber and even anti-cancer compounds, but their taste alone is enough for us. They are easy to grow and once planted, will produce for many years with minimal care. Many of them can be very beautiful or make an effective hedge or barrier. Most berries are also appreciated by the birds. By growing your own, you avoid the pesticide and disease contamination which is so common in fruit grown commercially in far away places for sale here.

Let locally bountiful berries seduce you, each in its turn. Go picking this summer, let the wild berries grow and plant improved cultivars for your pleasure and health.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth.

This page and its contents are copyright © 1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.