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Living on the Earth, July 18, 1997: Bountiful Berries
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
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
This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth
(C)1997, Bill Duesing, Solar Farm Education, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491
Bill and Suzanne Duesing operate the Old Solar Farm (raising NOFA/CT certified
organic vegetables) and Solar Farm Education (working on urban agriculture
projects in New Haven, Bridgeport, Hartford and Norwalk, CT). Their collection
of essays Living on the Earth: Eclectic Essays for a Sustainable and Joyful
Future is available from Bill Duesing, Box 135, Stevenson, CT 06491 for $14
postpaid. These essays first appeared on WSHU, public radio from Fairfield, CT.
New essays are posted weekly at http://www.wshu.org/duesing and those since
November 1995 are available there.