Native dewberries and blueberries offer tasty eating
Published 4:33 pm Wednesday, May 11, 2011
The other day I passed a group of children that appeared to have been wrestling with an army of cats and had come out on the losing end, but I soon overheard that they had just returned from dewberry-picking. Yes, along with the recent warmer weather, the season has arrived for picking these delicious native berries.
Dewberries (Rubus trivialis) are found throughout the southeast. They belong to Rosaceae, the Rose Family, and are often mistaken for blackberries. Although the two plants are closely related, dewberries have smaller, sprawling woody stems that trail along the ground, and blackberries have a more upright form. Dewberries begin producing white flowers in March and April on the previous year’s growth. The flowers develop into small green berries that turn red and eventually into a purple-black, sweet fruit. Leaves tend to remain on the stems in winter, and may even turn a deep red.
Many commercial varieties of dewberries are available for cultivation in your garden although our common native variety does very well in the poor soils found along woodland edges and disturbed areas. Dewberries grow in both full and partial sun. At the Crosby Arboretum, they occur along our service road and the sunnier pathways in our Woodland Exhibit. Many gardeners will be well acquainted with dewberries, as they may often discover sprouts of this thorny plant rambling through their beds. Even though you may not want this plant in your flower beds, a nearby vacant lot just might contain large quantities of mature plants loaded with berries and ripe for picking. So don your gloves, grab a bucket, and get going!
Another native plant found locally that produces tasty fruit is the Elliot’s blueberry (Vaccinium elliotii). It is one of the native blueberries that folks will call a “huckleberry”. Elliot’s blueberry fruit has the smallest seeds of the native blueberries. The plant can be found growing along woodland edges, and commonly grows to about six to eight feet in height. It produces its best fruit in full sun but will also tolerate shadier areas. We can attest that the small blueberries produced by Elliot’s blueberry are fine for eating right off the bush, if you can beat the birds to them, or baked into pancakes or muffins. A syrup made from the berries is also an excellent addition to your pancakes!
Over the past few weeks, several classes of students who visited the Arboretum on field trips have enjoyed learning about how to identify Elliot’s blueberry, and also sampling its fruit. The lacy appearance and green branches of this plant will make it an attractive addition to your wildlife garden. In fall, the leaves turn a brilliant scarlet. Tiny bell-shaped blossoms appear sometimes as early as January, making Elliot’s blueberry one of the few plants blooming in the winter months, and therefore a popular destination for bees and other insects seeking nectar.
One very important point is that it is never a good idea to sample fruit in the wild without knowing that it is safe to do so. One example given to our recent school groups was the fact that a holly called gallberry (Ilex glabra) often grows in the same areas where Elliot’s blueberry is found. Not only would the fruit from the gallberry be bitter to the taste, but at certain times of year, the berry can stain your mouth a deep black color. While this might be entertaining for your companions, it will not be at all fun for you!
If you can make it back to your kitchen with enough fruit for a project, you can use it to create cobblers, slumps, pies, or jams and jellies. Instructions on how to preserve dewberries and blueberries is included in several publications that can be found at www.MSUcares.com, the website for the Mississippi State University Extension Service.
For those of you who enjoy jams and jellies, but are concerned about reducing your sugar intake, see MSU Extension Publication No. 1537, “Sugarless Jams, Jellies, and Butters”. Publication No. 663, “Freezing Fruits”, provides instructions on how to select, prepare, and preserve dewberries, blueberries, and other fruits.
Speaking of yummy local bounty, some of us might be starting gardens for the first time this year to supplement our grocery supplies. You can learn all about the new trend of “sustainable food” – using in-season, locally grown produce for optimum flavor and health – this Saturday, May 14 at the Crosby Arboretum. Long-time Arboretum volunteer and ardent cook Trish Blossman will conduct a fun program from 10:00 to 11:30 a.m. that will demonstrate how you can use the harvest from your garden and “cook with the seasons”. Her dishes will incorporate foods that will be provided by many of our outstanding local food sources. Following the program, we will enjoy a fresh and tasty lunch on the Pinecote Pavilion! The program fee (which includes lunch) is $5 for members and $7 for non-members, and there is still room in this program if you would like to call and reserve your space.
For more information, call the Arboretum office at (601) 799-2311, or visit www.crosbyarboretum.msstate.edu for directions and site information. The Crosby Arboretum is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and is located in Picayune, off I -59 Exit 4, on Ridge Road (between Wal-Mart and I-59.)
FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION: Make a list of some Mississippi native plants found in your area having edible fruit. Note when they are in season.
Find some recipes in your family cookbooks, in magazines, or on the Internet, and then have an adult help you test them out!
Assemble a mini-cookbook with these recipes and give it to a family member or friend. Leave room to add a photo that you will take once the dish is made.