Thimbleberries. Photo by the author.
For the past fifteen years, I have lived on the last block of town before woods take over, in a small, scrappy city riddled with patches of rock and creek. Food used to come strictly from the grocery store, but up here I have learned to eat from my yard and the woods beyond.
When I see the bear scat by the railroad tracks behind our house, dark and filled with little seeds, I know we ate the same raspberries from the bushes I trim back to cane each fall. The squirrels, pigeons, and crows congregate in a surprisingly agreeable community under our apple trees, with songbirds passing through and a chipmunk hovering at the edge close to her brush pile home. They share the fallen apples, the same apples that we gather, slice, and dry in rings in the oven — the sweet, surprising Haralsons and the sharp, almost-crabapples that bite back at your tongue.
Also in our yard is an ancient patch of rhubarb with its clusters starting to seed and send up bundles of important-looking pods. We twist off pink stalks of it in early summer, and in August the last edible bits get fermented into rhubarb pickles, baked with raspberries into large pans of crumble, and boiled into a chilled sour cream-topped soup. Near the rhubarb is a tree that produces sour cherries that my partner bakes into a sauce she pours over ice cream.
I'm always learning the limits of what reaps rewards and what takes too much effort.
Around the side of the house is the patch of ostrich ferns that begin life as dark green, tightly curled fiddleheads that must be caught early in spring. They pop up fast and once they start to unfurl, the edible stage is over. I pick judiciously, just one or two from a cluster, not wanting to overdo. This patch has thrived and grown over the years we’ve eaten from it — taking over part of the lawn along with the moss so that there’s no need to mow along the northeastern side of the house anymore.
In the front yard chives are the first burst of something green in spring, just past snow, and by midsummer they are infiltrated by sprawling spearmint. I hang cut stalks of mint leaves on the back porch in clusters to dry, lightly pressing the brittle leaves into jars to make tea for winter.
Ostrich fern 'fiddleheads' on their way to the table. Note tight curl. [o]
Along the front of the yard, up against the sidewalk, rosehips grow heavy from a row of old-fashioned rosebushes. We pick them as late as possible when they are plump and a blazing red, but not yet withered from hard frost. I will collect these (at the same time the maple tree is bright red) by pinching them off at the base, without crushing, and dropping them into a bowl. My fingers will be sore right under the nail from the pulpy red-orange of the fruit. Pulling off the little crowns I run the rosehips under water and spread them in a pan to dry. Some of it will be used for tea and the rest boiled and strained into a syrup. One year I opened each rosehip to scrape out the seeds, but that was too much. I'm always learning the limits of what reaps rewards and what takes too much effort.
Another foraging obsession is berries, clustered in slender trees and half-hidden patches. In Duluth, where I live, at the far western corner of the largest Great Lake, juneberries come in July; they grow at the edge of the woods, with sun exposure on one side and taller, sheltering trees on the other. The round, dark purple berries are a bit sweet but also substantial, with a crown like a rosehip’s. I have a permanent mind map of juneberry trees near the juncture of Lester River and Lake Superior, lining 61st Street, and up at Hawk Ridge with its panoramic view.
Like juneberries, chokecherries grow on delicate trees, but the fruit looks quite different. Delicious when boiled down into a syrup, it has an intense taste somewhat like dark red grapes — all that the black-hued skin releasing its gravity and colour. The chokecherry is easy to pick and pop right off in clusters, a quick and lazy harvest.
Juneberries and chokecherries are fairly plainspoken, but thimbleberries are a mystery, seemingly sensitive to rainfall, the date of the last frost, and messages on the wind. Their patches of huge, floppy leaves fill the sides of the trail, but some years there are no berries anywhere; only second-year plants bear fruit. The berries are bright red, delicate, tightly woven, and taste a bit like raspberries but with a different texture. In abundant years I collect enough to freeze, and in lean years eat a few while walking.
It’s important to mention the epic fails, like the syrup I made from mountain ash berries. I found the recipe in a reliable foraging cookbook and picked them as late as possible so they were ripe with a colour of vivid hunting vest orange, but the acidic syrup burnt a hole in my stomach. I could feel it scorching a path through my esophagus like the concentrated vinegar I accidentally ate in Russia.
Still, the successes far outweigh the failures. By the end of summer the freezer is packed with berries and ferns that sleep, their cells suspended, until a day in February when they will awake to replenish — fern and fruit moving through liver and kidney, adding nutrient and hormone. All of these systems run beyond my knowledge, yet somehow, curiously, at the same time I am keenly aware.
Among all of the lessons of eating hand to mouth in the great outdoors, perhaps the greatest is to leave most of what I’ve found behind. I take only what I can eat and what the plant can easily part with. And I leave enough on the tree, in the ground, for the squirrels and blue jays and forest gods. ≈ç
The mysterious thimbleberry, au natural. [o]
Recipes for Foragers
Chilled Spinach-Rhubarb Soup
- Three cups chopped rhubarb
- 1 8-ounce package fresh spinach
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 5 cups water
- 1/2 cup sour cream (or yogurt)
- 1/4 cup sliced chives (or scallions)
- 1 peeled and diced cucumber
- 5 sliced radishes
1. Clean the rhubarb and cut into 1-inch pieces.
2. Bring the rhubarb, water, and salt to a boil. Simmer until the rhubarb starts to become soft (about 5 minutes).
3. Add the spinach and bring to a boil. Simmer while stirring occasionally, until spinach is soft and intermingled with rhubarb strands (about 5 minutes).
4. Refrigerate soup until chilled.
5. Serve one of two ways:
a. With an assortment of sour cream (or yogurt), chives (or scallions), cucumber, and radish in small dishes, to be added according to preference. – OR –
b. With all ingredients added to soup. Stir well and serve.
[Recipe adapted from Jewish Cooking in America by Joan Nathan (1995).]
NOTE: this soup can be served as a starter course or alongside hard-boiled eggs and sourdough or pumpernickel bread. Especially nice on a warm day.
- 2 cups sliced ostrich fern fiddleheads (about ½ pound)
- 1 tbsp butter
- 2 cloves garlic (diced)
1. Wash fiddleheads and slice into one-inch pieces.
2. Bring a saucepan of water to a boil and add fiddleheads. Boil for 10 minutes and strain. [Ed.: blanching in three different pots of salted boiled water helps to remove the hard iron taste.]
3. Melt butter in frying pan and add diced garlic. Sauté over medium-low heat until slightly golden.
4. Add fiddleheads and mix with garlic and butter. Sauté for 3-4 minutes, mixing frequently.
5. Add salt to taste (if needed).
[Recipe adapted from Abundantly Wild: Cooking and Collecting Wild Edibles in the Upper Midwest by Teresa Marrone (2004).]
NOTE: To identify an ostrich fern, look for a stalk that is concave on the inside, like a piece of celery. Harvest when the fiddlehead is still tightly wrapped into a spiral. Fiddleheads are delicious served with fish or as a side dish for any meal with which you’d serve asparagus; and when pre-boiled are a good substitute in quiche recipes that call for asparagus.
Wild Berry Crumble Bars
- 3 1/2 cups berries (any combination of thimbleberries, raspberries, juneberries, strawberries, etc.)
- 1/3 cup agave nectar (or sugar)
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1/4 cup cold water
Crust and Topping
- 1 1/2 cups flour (regular or gluten-free)
- 2 cups old-fashioned oats
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 3/4 cup butter
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease the bottom of a 13x9-inch baking pan.
2. Combine berries in a saucepan. Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes or until fruit is tender. Turn off heat.
3. Whisk cornstarch into cold water in a small bowl.
4. Add cornstarch mixture and agave nectar (or sugar) to the cooked fruit and stir. Let mixture sit for a couple of minutes.
5. Turn on heat and stir constantly until mixture comes to a boil. Simmer until thickened (2-3 minutes). Remove from heat and set aside.
6. Mix together all topping/crust ingredients. Set aside 1 ½ cups to use as topping.
7. Press the rest of the crumble mixture into the baking pan.
8. Once fruit is partially cooled, pour it over the crust.
9. Top with remaining crumbs a little at a time, distributing evenly.
10. Bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 35 minutes.
11. For a more solid bar, allow to cool before slicing and serving.
JULIE GARD is an author, poet and teacher. Her stories, essays, and poems have appeared in Gertrude, Clackamas Literary Review, Blackbox Manifold, and other journals and anthologies. Among her academic achievements is a certificate proving she survived a challenging and rewarding year in Vladivostok, Russia as a Fulbright Graduate Fellow. She teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin-Superior and lives a block from Lake Superior in Duluth, Minnesota.
See Julie’s website here.