[ FORAGING ]
Wild Brambles: Sweetness and Thorns
Brambles are hard to mistake thanks to their
clustered globes of fruit (what botanists call an
“aggregate of drupelets”) and their even more
noticeable thorns. At some time, just about everyone has been a berry forager – picking their way,
carefully, through brambles, bucket in hand. But do
you always know exactly what you are picking?
The brambles (Rubus spp.) are a confusing
group. Their genetics are complex and they
hybridize promiscuously. Some authorities recognize over 350 species worldwide; some 700. Their
genealogy is less like a family tree and more like
a tangled patch of...well...brambles.
To most foragers, this matters little. Brambles
all have berries, and they all taste sweet – puzzling out the formal names of each does not make
the berries sweeter. Still, learning to at least be
able to distinguish between the five major groups
of brambles can keep the enterprising forager in
sweetness all summer long. There are raspberries,
black raspberries, flowering raspberries, blackberries, and dewberries. To tell which kind of bramble
you have, first inspect the stem. Dewberries grow
on long, trailing stems that lie flat against
the ground. Raspberries, black raspberries, and blackberries grow on arching
stems called canes. Blackberry canes are
thick and angled, with intimidating thorns.
Raspberry stems are round with smaller (but no less effective) prickles. The
tips of black raspberry canes touch the
ground and send down roots, forming
new plants. Flowering raspberry canes
don’t arch much – if they arch at all. They also
have no thorns.
Next, look at the leaf. Flowering raspberries
are easy to distinguish; their leaves are simple
and maple leaf-like. The other brambles all bear
compound leaves. Most have three-toothed leaflets. Even within clusters of plants, though, these
leaves can be highly variable.
Finally, the berries themselves are an aid to
identification: raspberries and flowering raspberries
bear fruits shaped like hollow cups that pull away
from their receptacles when picked. In dewberries
and blackberries, the receptacle comes away from
the bush along with the aggregate fruit.
In spring, blackberry shoots can be peeled
and eaten as vegetables. Later, the fresh or
fully dried leaves can be steeped as a mild tea.
(Avoid partially dried or wilted leaves, which can
accumulate unhealthy levels of cyanide.) In May,
the first prickly dewberries ripen, followed by the
black raspberries in June. Red raspberries can
be found for most of the early half of the summer, and as they fade, the blackberries take their
place, persisting into September. Finally, the large,
tart, dry berries of flowering raspberries finish off
the season on the cusp of fall.
Berries can usually be gathered relatively easily
from the edges of bramble patches, but serious
collecting of wild brambles is enhanced by some
protective gear. I wear long-sleeved shirts made
from tightly woven material, sturdy shoes for
stepping on thorny canes, and – especially if I’m
gathering blackberries – chaps to protect my legs
and safety glasses for eye protection. This may, at
first, seem like overkill, but in large thickets, such
gear can quicken the foraging and allows you to
reach berries that are otherwise hard to get.
I also carry a tethered pail that hangs around
my neck so that both of my hands are free for
picking. Usually, I wear a leather glove on my nondominant hand to move canes aside and leave my
other hand glove-free for pulling the fragile fruits.
Personally, my favorite way to prepare the berries
I collect is not to prepare them at all. I just pop
them in my mouth, often before they even make
it into my bucket. But if you have a bumper crop,
and you’ve had your fill of pies, you may want try
making them into homemade fruit leathers.