Eat the Weeds
Anyone who forages will eventually collect blackberries and blackberry scratches. These aggregate fruit are among the best-known berries in North American, if not the world.
As a kid I can remember collecting wild raspberries long before wild blackberries, though I don’t know why. Blackberries are standard foraging fair (see my article about Dewberries.) What most people don’t know is that blackberries are a two-year plant, some say three years. The first year it sends up a tall cane, replete with thorns. The next year it flowers and has blackberries then dies. Some would add that the cane stays on another year and with its thorns to protect the patch. (I should add though that there are some naturally thornless blackberries.)
Blackberry leaves were in the official U.S. pharmacopoeia for a long time treating digestive problems, particularly diarrhea. Their dried leaves make an excellent tea even when you’re healthy. We presume blackberries have been eaten for thousands of years by native American Indians and used medicinally. The ancient Greeks considered the species good for ailments of the mouth and throat and for treating gout. Interestingly blackberries were found in the stomach content the Haraldskaer Woman, an iron age bog body found in Denmark in 1835 but killed around 500 BC. Her last meal was millet and blackberries. Scholars think her death was probably a religious ritual. The millet would have been standard Iron Age fare. Maybe the blackberries were a special treat. Those blackberries would have also put her execution in early summer, perhaps to ensure a good fall harvest by appeasing an agricultural god.
For all their antioxidants and vitamins blackberries will mold within a couple of days of picking if not refrigerated. Do not wash until time of use because that, too, promotes mold. They ripen around June in the south, July in the north, give or take a few weeks. Locally they can be ripe by early May or totally past season by the Fourth of July. Picked unripe berries will not ripen. Black berries are also a good source of potassium, phosphorus, iron, and calcium. The seeds have Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids.
Insects and wildlife like the blackberry as well. This includes honeybees, bumblebees, Little Carpenter bees, Nomadine Cuckoo bees, Mason bees, Green Metallic bees (my favorite) flies, wasps, small to medium-sized butterflies, skippers, hairstreaks, and several species of moths. Fowl like the berries such as the Greater Prairie Chicken, Wild Turkey, Bobwhite, Ring-Necked Pheasant, and various mammals from the bear to rabbit. In fact I recently saw a rabbit nibble on blackberry along a local bike trail.
In the rose family, just how many species of blackberries there are is anyone’s educated or non-educated guess. Some argue a few species with a lot of varieties and others argue for 250 or so species. Generally, ones that crawl are in one group and those that form canes are in another group. Then there are numerous unintentional and intentional hybrids, such as the Loganberry, Youngberry and the Boysenberry. Even the raspberry is a Rubus. The name, Rubus (ROU-bus) is the Dead Latin name for the blackberry and it means red hair. There are several native local species. R. argutus, R. cuneifolius, R. flagellaris and R. trivialis (see the above Dewberry entry.) The ones I harvest annually I think are escaped cultivars in that they produce large, sweet berries consistently year to year.
Russia grows most of the world’s commercial blackberries, some 24 percent. Next is Serbia and Montegegro at 23%, the United States with 13%, Poland 11% and Germany 7 percent. Blackberries are native to every continent except Australia and Antarctica. However, in Tasmania and Australia the species are officially noxious weeds. Think about that: And edible plant on the noxious list. Must not be too hungry in those countries. In 2003 the Blackberry, Rubus occidentalis, became the official fruit of Alabama.
Lastly there is one interesting note about aggregate fruit. At least one expert says 99.99 percent of aggregate fruit are edible (such as blackberries, mulberries, logan berries et cetera.) Personally I would have liked to have seen listed the non-edible .01 percent.Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile
A woody shrub with canes that grow up but often bend over sometimes re-rooting. The canes grow the first year and fruits during the second year, then they die. Canes are 3-6′ tall; green at the growing tip, elsewhere brown or reddish brown with stiff prickles, straight or slightly curved. Can be am inch through at the base. Leaves alternate, usually trifoliate or palmately compound; long petioles. Leaflets up to 4″ long and 3″ across; can be twice as long as wide. Leaflet is usually oval with coarse, doubly serrate edges; may have scattered white hairs on the upper surface, lower surface light green and hairy. Flowers, to an inch across, have 5 white petals and 5 green sepals with pointed tips; Petals longer than sepals, rather rounded, often wrinkly. Numerous stamens with yellow anthers. Blooms late spring to early summer for a month; little or no fragrance. Drupes, actually aggregate fruit, develop later in the summer; ¾” long and 1/3″ across,size varies with moisture levels. Berries at first white or green eventually turn red then black. Seedy, sweet.
TIME OF YEAR:
Depending on climate, spring to late summer
Full sun, neither too wet or too dry, mesic conditions
METHOD OF PREPARATION:
Numerous:; Fresh, frozen, canned, used for wine, making ice cream, juice, pies, jelly, jam, and best of all when eaten fresh on the trail. Dry leaves can be used for tea. Leaves can be dried as is or fermented which improves the flavor significantly. Fermented or not they should be dried. Young shoots can be peeled and boiled in one or more changes of water. Running the fresh leaves through the rollers of a pasta machine is a good way to crush them for fermentation.
Your nose will definitely help you confirm that you have found wild onions, Allium canadense, AL-ee-um kan-uh-DEN-see. Also called Wild Garlic and Meadow Garlic by the USDA, walking through a patch raises a familiar aroma which brings me to a foraging maxim:
If a plant looks like an onion and smells like an onion you can eat it. If a plant looks like a garlic and smells like a garlic you can eat it. If you do not smell a garlic or an onion odor but you have the right look beware you might have a similar-looking toxic plant. For example, we have a native lily here in Florida that looks like an onion but has no aroma. It is toxic.
All parts of this particular Wild Onion/Garlic are edible, the underground bulbs, the long, thin leaves, the blossoms, and the bulblets on top. The bulblets are small cloves the plant sets where it blossoms. Harvesting them is a little easier than digging for bulbs but those are easy to find also. They’re usually four to six inches underground. The bulblets are on the tippy top of the plant. It’s called both names because while it is a wild onion it has a very strong garlic aroma.
Onions and garlic belong to the Lily family. The most common wild one is the Allium canadense. It has flattened leaves and hollow stems. On top there can be bulblets with pinkish white flowers or bulblets with sprouted green tails. When it sets an underground bulbs they will be no bigger than pearl onions. (See recipes below ITEM panel.) They were clearly on the Native American menu.
It is often said the city of Chicago’s name is from an Indian phrase that means “where the wild onions grow.” That is quite inaccurate. Chicago is actually a French mistransliteration of the Menomini phrase Sikaakwa which literally means “striped skunk.” We would say ‘the striped skunk place.” The skunks were there because Allium tricoccum (Ramps) were growing there. Skunks know good food when they smell it. The nearby Des Plains River was called the “Striped Skunk River.” Incidentally because of man’s intervention that river flows backwards from it original direction.
While northern Indians used the Allium species extensively there is no record of southeastern Indians using them, though various southern tribes had names for the onion. Some of the tribes considered onions not edible. Ramps, A. tricoccum, (try-KOK-um) right, are also in the onion family, and very common in Appalachia. Farther north they are called “wild leeks.” Unlike onions and garlic, ramps have wide leaves but are used the same way.
Allium was the Latin name for the onion. An alternative view is that it is based on the Celtic word “all” meaning pungent. “Alla” in Celtic means feiry. Canadense means of Canada, but refers to north North America. Tricoccum means three seeds. Roman’s called garlic the “stinking rose.”
Allium canadense in large amounts can be toxic to cattle. Lesser amounts can flavor the milk.Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile: Wild Onion
IDENTIFICATION: Allium canadense: Grass like basal leaves, small six-petaled flowers, odor of onion or garlic, stems round, older stems hollow. Underground bulbs look like small white onions. Ramps, however, have two or three broad, smooth, light green, onion-scented leaves. Also see another article on a European import, the dreaded Garlic Mustard.
TIME OF YEAR: Depends where you live. Ramps in spring, onions through the summer, bulbs in fall. Locally we see bulblets in April then into the spring.
ENVIRONMENT: Like most plants onions like rich soil and sun but can grow in poor soil with adequate water. Leeks like rich leaf-losing woodlands and can grow in dappled shade. Locally all of the Wild Onions I’ve seen grow in damp places, or, places where run off gathers before seeping in.
METHOD OF PREPARATION: The entire plant is edible raw or cooked, in salads, seasoning, green, soup base, pickled. You can pickle them using red bay leaves, peppergrass seeds, and some vinegar
Recipes adapted from “Wild Greens and Salads” by Christopher Nyerges
Onion Soup On The Trail
Two cups onion leaves and bulbs
Two cups water or milk (or from powdered milk)
1/4 cup chia seeds (optional) or grass seed
four bottom end tips of cattails
A Jerusalem artichoke
Two table spoons acorn flour (or other flour)
1.4 cup water
Put chopped onions in 1/4 water and boil for five minutes. Add the rest of the liquid, cattail and Jerusalem artichoke. Cook at low temperature. Do NOT boil. When artichoke is almost done add flour and chia seeds. Mix. Salt and pepper to taste. Serves three.
One cup onion leaves and bulbs
1/2 cup Poor Man’s Pepper Grass or Mustard leaves
One cup chickweed or other mild green
Two diced tomatoes
Juice of one lemon
Tablespoon of oil
Salt and pepper to taste
Collect onions, dice, add other green items torn into small bits, added tomatoes and other ingredients, toss.
I used to get a lot of dates using mulberries.
Not to sound sexist, but most women like men who can cook. And when the mulberries were in season I would ply a young lass or two with mulberry pie or sorbet explaining this was a delicious concoction unavailable anywhere else, kind of like me ….hint-hint, wink-wink. It worked so well that every season (before I owned my own land) I would scout out available mulberry trees and ladies and plan to match them up for gastro-amorous intentions. Now I own a highly-productive mulberry tree… and the romance is still working.
Mulberries, in my case, Morus rubra (MOE-russ RUBE-ruh) are full of life. One spring I trimmed my mulberry and used the branches for stakes. They rooted and grew. Not one to get in nature’s way I dug them up, gave them to a friend, and they are still growing.
Mulberries are native to North America and also introduced. Their berries are extremely healthy, and other parts of the tree have medical uses as well. The berry is used in pies, tarts, wines and cordials. Cooked, such as in muffins, they are much like blueberries in flavor. The Black Mulberry and Red Mulberry, the latter native to eastern North America, have the strongest flavor. The Asian Mulberry, naturalized in urban areas, is edible but a clear distant third in taste. Mature fruit of all are packed with reseveratrol. Unripe fruit and mature leaves have a white sap that’s intoxicating and mildly hallucinogenic. White Mulberry tea quite popular in Japan. White Mulberry leaves are also the sole food source for the silkworm (Bombyx mori, named after the Mulberry genus Morus). The worms are edible cooked but not that tasty.
Mulberry leaves can help regulate blood sugar levels, and reportedly play a role in losing weight by controlling sugar cravings. They are also is a source of Vitamin C and carotene. Mulberries have anthocyanins which are edible pigments commonly called antioxidants. Young leaves cooked are edible
As for the name, Ruba is red. Morus is a bit more involved. A Babylonian story later incorporated into Greek mythology attributes the reddish color of the mulberry fruit to the tragic death of lovers. The Greek god Moros, who drove men to their fate, arose from that and where we get the English word, through Dead Latin, “morose.” Contemporary Greeks call the mulberry Mouro and southern Greece, Peloponnese, is often called Mora because it is roughly shaped like a mulberry leaf.
At one time the Paper Mulberry was grouped with other mulberries, and is closely related, but is now called Broussonetia papyrifera (broo-soh-NEE-she-uh pap-ih-RIFF-er-uh.) Its fruit is edible and it can grow into a very large tree. Here in the South, it’s a linden-like tree that often defies identification. Its young leave are also edible when cooked, however, they are chewy. To see a separate entry on Paper Mulberry go here.
Nutritionally, the mulberry berries area powerhouse: They’re low in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium, high in Vitamin C, Vitamin K, iron, dietary fiber, riboflavin, magnesium and potassium, about 4.5 carbs per 100 grams, 120 calories. Mulberry leaves are consider animal food if not intoxicating to people. But young leaves are edible cooked, boiled or stir-fried. Fresh mulberry leaves are 71.13 to 76.68% moisture, 4.72 to 9.96% crude protein, 4.26 to 5.32% total ash, 8.15 to 11.32% Neutral Detergent Fiber (NDF), 0.64 to 1.51% crude fat, 8.01 to 13.42% carbohydrate and 69 to 86 kcal/100 g for energy. Ascorbic acid ranged from 160 to 280mg/100g β-carotene from 10,000.00 to 13,125.00 μg/100 g, respectively. Iron, zinc and calcium ranged from 4.70-10.36 mg/100 g for iron, 0.22-1.12 mg/100 g for zinc, and 380-786 mg/100 g, for calcium.
The following recipes from Living off the Land and Wild Edibles by the late Marian Van Atta, whom I knew some 35 years ago:
Mulberry Pie: One baked 9″ pie crust. 4 c. Stemmed mulberries. 1/4 c. Cornstarch. 3/4 c. Sugar. 1/2 c. Water. 2 T. Lemon or Lime juice. — Add sugar to mulberries in a saucepan. Mix cornstarch with water. Add to berries. Add juice. Cook over medium heat until mixture thickens and juice becomes clear. Pour into bake pies shell. Cool and serve.
Mulberry Vinegar: In a large bowl, place 3 quarts clean mulberries. Mash and pour 3 cups of boiling-hot white vinegar over berries. Cover with a towel and for 3 days, mix fruit with a wood spoon. Strain juice trough jelly bag. To each cup juice add one cup sugar. Boil together for 5 minutes. Pour into sterilized jars and seal. When ready to use, pour 2 T. Mulberry vinegar in an 8 ounce glass. Fill with water and ice.
Mulberry Sauce: To four cups of mulberries add 1 1/2 c. Brown sugar, 1 t. each of cloves and allspice, to mashed berries. Bring to boil. Simmer until thick stirring often. Bottle and seal.Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile
IDENTIFICATION: Mulberries are fast-growing but rarely exceed 40 feet, easily trained to be short and easy to harvest. Leaves alternate, simple, often lobed, toothed on the edge. The fruit is about an inch long changing from white to red to dark purple or black. Reminds one of a long blackberry, will stain your fingers purple.
TIME OF YEAR: Fruits in late spring, what ever that might be in your climate.
ENVIRONMENT: Likes moist soil and prefers hardwood forests. However, in Florida they frequent abandoned truck farms and other fields. Often are found growing by hotel and apartment complexes parking lots, and roadsides.
METHOD OF PREPARATION: Out of hand or for anything one would use a blackberry, strawberry or blueberry for. Young leaves of any of the mulberry species cooked, though they can be tough.