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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

On picking wild berries

Himalayan blackberry (Rubus discolor), most probably.

Berry picking season is here.

I made my second haul on Saturday -- 6 cups of plump juicy blackberries a mile from the house, enough for one and half pies.

The harvest with improvised cane-hook. 

Many years ago I inducted my family into the joys of berry picking and its sequelae. That was back in Northern Virginia.

In spring we always had an eye out for swarms of white blossums -- prospective berry patches -- and when summer came we gave the bears and catbirds a run for their money.

Blossums first appear in spring and continue into summer.

The girls were good berry-pickers, but even better pie-eaters.

When we could enlist house guests, graduate students, and volunteers we could forage truly respectable amounts.

By August, plastic bags of sugar-packed berries filled the freezer, but the redhead guarded the larder like a commissary officer.

She preferred to bake the pies when we had overnight house guests, but in good years there would often be a surplus of frozen berries in late spring.

If we were good she'd bake a pie or crisp before picking season.

A few words on berry brambles as wildlife habitat.

With or without berries, briar patches are wildlife waystations and hotbeds of trophic ecology.

In other words a lot of animals eat and get eaten there.

First you've got your berry browsers -- birds, rodents, raccoons, possums, and bears.

And then there are the consumers of the berry browsers -- deer flies, mosquitoes, ticks and chiggers (not to mention bees and wasps).

The black raspberry strip up on Dickey Ridge always gave me a case of chigger bites, but that didn't stop me.

Out here the only snakes to fear are the rattlesnakes, but you don't have to worry (much) if you poke and tap with a stick before you step into the brambles.

Which brings me to a few tips.

Dress for the occasion.

Wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and boots, and anoint exposed skin with insect repellent.

Tucking cuffs in your socks is a good measure to delay the ticks' arrival at the promised land in your knickers.

Wear old clothes. They'll get snagged, torn, and stained.

Have good containers.

In a pinch any non-breakable container will do, but the ideal one is a pail with a handle and a tight-fitting lid.

Drop the berries in a small opening cut in the lid. If you drop the container -- and that happens, you won't lose your payload.

I've tried to fashion containers to attach to my belt or hang from my neck. This would give me two free hands, but nothing of my invention works very well.

Carry a stick..

You need it to fight off the bears and other berry pickers, and to expose berries, move thorny canes out of your path, or pull berry-laden canes within reach.

Also use it to test unseen ground under the brambles before stepping and to brace yourself when a thorny bramble pulls you off balance.

Bring an old pair of gloves.

The stick never substitutes for a hand with an opposable thumb, which you need to expose berries for the picking hand. A gloved bramble-hand will save you scratches and pricked fingers.

First aid kit

It won't hurt to bring anti-itch creme and band-aids for the "owies", especially if kids are helping.

And a cooler with soft drinks and ice is a nice way to end the venture before your drive home.

If you treat the chef with great consideration during the outing you just might get a heavenly treat after dinner.

Now get your buns out there and start picking. 


brdpics said...

My mouth is watering!!

randomtruth said...

I used to have to keep the blackberry bushes at bay in the pastures of my Dad's little farm in Washington. Boy did they grow fast. In a blink they'd be 6 foot high and across.

But the berries... In August they'd hang as long as your thumb and be as sweet as cane sugar. Good thing too. They and the pies most would become always made me forget the scratches on my forearms by the next time I had to hack at 'em.

Thanks for the fond reminder Codger.

JoEllen Arnold said...

I was berry picking with a friend recently and was impressed with her berry picking container which she hung from her belt: a gallon milk jug, which already has a built-in handle, with the opening widened to receive berries. She picked for a while, then deposited the berries in small stiff Tupperware type containers with lids for transport in her kayak. We were intrigued by a Canadian goose who lurked expectantly behind her as she picked and wondered if geese eat berries.
Thank you for your blog--I always enjoy it and will forward the berry picking and pie eating entries to my berry picking/cobbler making friend!

Seagull Steve said...

I lived for many years in coastal Humboldt County, where the Himalayan bushes conveniently grew everywhere and made field work in the fall much tastier than other locales. But as a biologist I have to mention.....this is an invasive species, albeit delicious, and does a great job of crowding out native plants (such as California's native blackberry), particularly in sensitive riparian areas. It's particularly annoying when you need to go from point A to point B and theres a huge, thorny berry patch in your way. But as something you can control in your backyard....you cant go wrong with this one.

Camera Trap Codger said...

Thanks for the input. I'll visit the patch again tomorrow, and will give the plastic milk bottle a try. I've seen blackberries growing in the eastern tip of the Himalayas (actually the Chin Hills), but they were nothing compared to these brambles. Maybe they weren't Himalayan blackberries. You are right, Steve about the way they take over.