Monday, July 4, 2011

Return of the Native or The Story of a Foraging Revival (Black Raspberries)

We hadn't foraged in weeks. Between a crazy work month in June for Thag, marathon training, Yub Yub's busy social schedule, Ooga's new job, and Ooga's role in a local theater production we'd hadn't even taken a walk in the wilds. So when we travelled down to visit our parents in Connecticut for the Fourth of July weekend, I (Thag) stole an opportunity to get out. Ooga's parents were playing with Yub Yub. I had about two hours time. Where to go foraging in the suburbs? The town where our parents live is nearly wall-to-wall monoculture sod carpeting. I had once witnessed a man unloading nearly a liter of Roundup on a dozen sidewalk dandelions. There was little hope of finding good eats within walking distance.

Even in the most intensively altered landscapes, however, there are islands of wild: a wetland that cannot be developed, a poorly tended hedgerow, the edges of a public park. Steve Brill has made a career out of foraging in New York City. I knew if I looked I would find something. I cruised along the outskirts of the neighborhood until I saw a small stream running through a culvert under the road. I got out of the car. The stream's path could be traced as a meandering line of trees weaving between the houses. There were cattails there. I haven't ever gathered cattail pollen and really wanted to try. But these cattails had already dropped theirs. Across the road I found a handful of black raspberries, just enough to whet my appetite for more. On the other side of the brambles were some dinner plate sized flowerheads on a American elder, but I decided not to wade through the thorny canes in shorts. I got back in the car and kept driving.

Then I remembered the old orchard. Some years ago the town where our parents lived had acquired a derelict orchard with the help of a grant from the state of Connecticut. They had preserved the acreage as an open space in the face of a seemingly unstoppable wave of urban sprawl. I turned down the road and found a place to park by a weather-beaten placard that proclaimed the area closed at sunset. I looked at my watch and the sky. I had about 75 minutes.

The milkweed had gone to flower, but I'd read somewhere that the flowers were edible as well as the unopened buds. They weren't supposed to be very tasty, but we'd never tried them. I judiciously gathered one or two clusters from each plant and figured we'd give them a try and decide for ourselves. Poison ivy grew everywhere. I hopscotched my way out of an overgrown field and into a brushy hillside. Some bright red elderberries hung temptingly, another plant that is purportedly edible but that has not gotten rave reviews from any foragers we know. (Some even contend that the red elderberries are poisonous. Thayer cites evidence that native peoples of the northwest made them a regular part of their diet. All non-berry parts of the plant are assuredly toxic though.) What the hell! If they're terrible, I won't eat them. I filled another bag with the berries. Now I had two questionable edibles and about 45 minutes left before the area closed.

An old trail led through the brush. That's where I found them. Arching canes of black raspberries were just beginning their season. Something about those little black cups of seedy sweetness just brings out my greedy side. Every few feet along the trail was a new bush with another handful. All I had for storage was a plastic bag, but it would have to do. I'd finally hit the good stuff, and I wasn't leaving those berries without a fight.

Forty-five minutes later I sat on the hood of my car, watched the sun set, and enjoyed almost a quart of some of the finest fruit that can be had--wild or domestic. How, I wondered, did I let myself get too busy for this?

PS--Pictured above is a red elderberry (Sambucus sp.) and common milkweed flower (Asclepias syriaca) on the right. I ate all of the blackberries before I could take a picture. Told you it brought out my greedy side.


  1. monoculture sod carpetting...classic description!!!

  2. I've eaten several hands full of red elderberries harvested in Utah this year and have had absolutely zero ill effects. I freeze them and snack on them and add them to cereal. I don't think they are as good as the blue elderberry that grows here but they are good none the less.