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Foraging forest fruits for food & fun

Out See Go by Chris Engle, contributor

Chelsea raised her eyebrows at me from the passenger seat as my head swiveled excitedly to the tree line passing in a blur outside the car window.

“How can you even see the berries from here?” she asked.

To be honest, it’s pretty hard to spot the blackberries themselves when I’m going 55 mph behind the wheel of my dust-covered station wagon. It’s the telltale thorny vines, reaching upward in patches and clumps like city skylines, which spur their addition to my mental list of places to pick.

July is the month for wild raspberries. For those I simply walk the perimeter of my yard each day dropping the biggest, ripest berries into a tupperware container. Paige helps (and subsequently eats her fair share) while Miley nibbles them straight off the vine with canine teeth.

By August the raspberries give way to blackberries and now is the time to gather this wild fruit.

Being good at foraging blackberries starts with having a keen eye for their plants. This is best learned in May and June when they are in full blossom and patches of the thorny vine are covered in clusters of bluish-white flowers. This is where you’ll need to return come August because each flower will eventually become a berry.

A blackberry bush loaded with ripe berries. Photo by Chris Engle

A blackberry bush loaded with ripe berries. Photo by Chris Engle

Some of the best picking is conveniently located within sight of the roadway because blackberry bushes love full, direct sunlight. It’s not that you’ll be picking on the shoulder of M-32 or any other major roadway; rather, you’ll want to look for powerlines – the high-tension ones are best – and gas-well service roads and two tracks. Anything posted with signs is obviously off limits without permission so respect property owners by not trespassing.

High-tension power lines are great because there’s often a public easement for a snowmobile or ORV trail running directly underneath the crackling wires, which means foraging for berries is OK too.

Much of the public land around Gaylord and across Otsego County is also home to hundreds of oil and gas wells, each one graced with a two-track road that offers easy access (and much-needed sunlight) to blackberry patches. If one trail turns up empty, there’s always another just around the corner.

Plants are recognizable for their deep green leaves and long, curved stems. This time of year, especially with the drought we’ve had, lower leaves have turned yellow and orange. Stems have nasty thorns that scratch skin with the softest graze. My arms and legs look like I moonlight as a cat wrangler which, I assure you, I do not. Definitely mind the thorns and consider wearing long pants and shirts when you pick.

Ripe berries are a deep purple color and grow in clumps on the vine. They are not single round berries but a cluster of “drupelets,” which is one of my favorite words relating to plants. Unripe berries are pink or red; very young berries are green, and a berry can go from pink to ripe in a single day so check the patch often.

There are different grades of ripe berries. Some are small and dense, meaning they’ll be mostly seeds when you eat them. The fatter berries will have drupelets swollen with juice and will give you a bigger bang for your buck. Those will usually be found in shadier spots than their sun-baked counterparts.

A tub of berries ready to go into a pie. Photo by Chris Engle

A tub of berries ready to go into a pie. Photo by Chris Engle

When all is said and done, hopefully you’ll have a good haul of berries to take home. Chels eats them daily in her oatmeal and yogurt and they’re also good in leafy salads. Pies and crisps are an excellent use as desserts go. Jams are great too; though seedless jellies take a LOT of berries to pull off.

Personally I’ll freeze them, unrinsed so they don’t clump together, and add them to pancakes well into winter. I’m also planning on brewing another “Forager Porter,” a home-brewed beer I made a couple years ago with about half a gallon of wild blackberry and raspberry juice. I gave it away for Christmas and everyone seemed to enjoy catching a blackberry buzz without a scratch to show for it.

Happy picking, and enjoy the well-earned fruits of your labor.

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Chris Engle is an avid outdoorsman and outdoor columnist. He is a stay-at-home dad in Hayes Township, Otsego County. Contact him at englemobile@gmail.com.

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