When All Else Fails…The Blueberry Prevails!

Whats more American than blueberries? In fact, blueberries symbolize American fruit

Even ripening is a favorable characteristic which makes for quick pickin’…

culture more than any other fruit and they’re one of the few commonly cultivated fruits which hails from this continent. They’re not only indigenous to North America but also heavily populated in the state of Michigan. The west side of the state is known for its blueberry farms and just like Maine is known for its wild lowbush blueberries(Vaccinium angustifolium), so is northern Michigan for its wild highbush blueberries(Vaccinium corymbosum). Blueberries are unique and varied in their tolerances and habitat preference… with lowbush blueberries in the northeast flourishing on rocky outcrops and highbush blueberries in the midwest growing in boggy wetlands, all the while cultivated blueberries find their happiest home in well drained sandy loams. But when speaking of wild highbush blueberries growing in Michigan, we almost always refer to them growing in wetland ecosystems. They like the high organic matter and steady moisture supply. Another factor, too, is the soil acidity found in these environments. Any gardener or farmer who has grown blueberries knows they prefer a low PH. This is their neediest of needs and the one condition they won’t perform well without.

Wild blueberries have the sweetest, most pronounced flavor notes, that not even the tastiest of cultivated blueberries could compete…

This season has been magical when it comes to blueberries. One of my clients who lives just minutes away has a beautiful wooded site with several acres. On the back part of the property a maple forest transitions to a boggy wetland and Chris(the homeowner) took me on a walk back there last year and pointed out a nice patch of blueberries that her and her kids had been harvesting from for the past few years. She invited me back to come picking and this year I took her up on it. My business partner and I made our way back there for the first time a few weeks ago and we spent a couple days picking. It was wonderful. A 2″x12″ plank meanders far enough above the ground as to keep one’s feet dry(in a wet year at least)while walking through the bog. We were grateful that she allowed us to pick from her spot. Many days ago when out picking we decided to explore the area more thoroughly. Through our exploration we came upon a much larger stand of wild blueberries. When I say large I literally mean 4-5 acres of almost entirely highbush blueberries! The expansiveness leads me to believe that the ecosystem is relatively stable and could’ve likely been this way for 50-100+ years. This is something you’d only dream of. For the first day or so I could hardly fathom the reality. Hundreds of mature, fruit laden bushes— waiting to be picked by some hungry birds, bears, or…humans! The blueberry gods blessed us indeed.

High plant density makes it difficult to truly depict the magical nature of the blueberry bog…
Fruit cluster with berries at varying stages of ripeness…

The thing that fascinates me most about these types of systems is the incredible amount of diversity. Since its an entirely feral ecosystem, all of the bushes grew from seed. This means each plant is genetically different from one another and represents a totally unique set of genes. Plant size, fruit size & color, flavor, disease resistance, and ripening time all vary drastically. On the contrary, in an agricultural setting clonally-propagated cultivars grow independently. We must remember, though, diversity is the spice of life, and every single cultivated blueberry variety ever developed was either selected or bred from these wild ancestors. If you’ve ever harvested wild blueberries then you probably know that the berries are smaller then the cultivated ones. My friend pointed out the other day how she’s thankful for modern agriculture because of the improvements made in berry size and productivity. I agree with her, but at the same time I treasure what these wild ones have perseveringly brought to this world. Plus, picking their fruit is a good practice in patience and allows one to become more in-tuned with nature. I love wild blueberries.

This specimen boasts particularly large berries…
A diverse gene pool makes for wide variation in berry color…

You may be wondering why this post got the title it did. Well, if you’ve read my previous posts then you realize that its been an odd year in regards to weather patterns. Early flowering, late frosts, and extended drought have caused some of my favorite fruits like cherries, mulberries, serviceberries, and black raspberries, to have very poor seasons. So, even in the roughest of years, the blueberries prevail (amongst others like currants and blackberries)! This attests to their adaptability and reliability. I recall Lee Reich mentioning in one of his books that blueberries, out of all the fruit crops, were one of his all-time favorites for this very reason. Currently I don’t have any blueberries planted in my garden, however they’re an up and coming addition! This spring I purchased six cultivars from Hartmann’s Plant Company in preparation for fall planting. Its smart to prepare your blueberry bed a few months in advance; this allows time for any appropriate PH adjustments to take place, unless of course you already have acidic soil.

Monilinia vaccinii-corymbosi  mummifies immature berries and is one of the few fungal disease which blueberries are susceptible to.
Blueberries ripen over an extended period allowing for many weeks of picking…
My buddy Mark picking from a wall of blueberries!!!

I fancy fresh blueberries. Eating them out of hand is perhaps one of my greatest pleasures. The light semi-acid, yet complex, fruity flavor is something to write home about. After I eat blueberries I always feel energized and fully satisfied. This must have something to do with their high antioxidant properties. They’re also very cooling on a hot summer day.  I’ve been eating fresh handfuls daily for the past 2+ weeks but I’ve also processed ’em into ice cream and more recently into blueberry-lavender jam(stay posted for recipes)!

Good genetics give this variety darker fruit and a lovely-aromatic flavor…

Golden raspberries, wild blackberries, and wild blueberries…BERRY NICE!

It looks like the blueberry season will go for another 1-2 weeks and blackberries are coming into full swing. Fortunately the blackberry crop this year is looking mighty fine. More to come on that soon. I’m still harvesting what appears to be the last ripening flush from the primocane crop of golden raspberries; be on the lookout for golden raspberry jam!!! Until next time…

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Rubus Diversity and Obscurity…Batology!

Today is special for two major reasons. It is a new moon and we’re receiving a much-needed steady rainfall… atlas bringing a halt to the desiccating drought. These rainy days are so pleasant; its a good time to be indoors and bring order to things within. I want to share some recent thoughts about caneberries, brambles, or to be more taxonomically correct— the Rubus genus. Being apart of the Rosaceae family the Rubus genus is a  widespread group of plants with species found growing on all continents. Rubus spp. have been used for food and medicine since ancient times and some very prominent fruits like blackberries and raspberries are members of this genera. Most folks are only familiar with black raspberries and the two previously mentioned, but there are many other interesting Rubus species worthy of examination and cultivation. There seems to be a term for just about everything… it turns out there’s even a term for the scientific study of members of the Rubus genus— batology. No, not the study of bats. In exploring batology you’ll find that the most commonly cultivated brambles come from a complex lineage…

Rubus phoenicolasius, or Japanese wineberry, is a species native to Asia that has

Japanese wineberry cluster…
Photo Courtesy Wikipedia

naturalized in much of eastern North America. Wineberries are sought after fruits, which like most caneberries, are born on second year canes (floricanes). Apparently the canes can reach 3-6 feet in height and are notorious for spreading quite rampantly. Wineberries are regarded as ‘gourmet raspberries’ and can be processed into jams, jellies, and pies just like regular raspberries.  I’ve yet to try fresh wineberries, although last year my friend and colleague, Kevin Brennan, was kind enough to send me a jar of wineberry jelly. Kevin lives on the east coast and loves wineberries. Here is a post he wrote about them a while ago on his blog, The Suburban Trip. Kevin sent an email explaining wineberries and this is what he said:

“The best thing about wineberries is that they are just so abundant. The almost furry berry clusters contain up to 10 berries each and they are super easy to pick in large quantities. I once picked 2 gallons in 15 min. The wineberry produces fruit on 2 and 3 year canes and layers it self and creates large patches. Some spots I go to are in full shade and are still producing a ton a berries, I would really like to try to promote the growth of wineberries in wild gardens for selling to restaurants and farm stands because of the ease of picking. I would like to try saving seed from jelly making and then just throwing them out in slightly tilled areas, or even shitting the seeds like the birds to make patches.”

I love Kevin’s last statement about seed propagation. In fact, he sent me a bag full of seed last year, and I sowed the seeds earlier this spring after a few months of cool-moist stratification in the refrigerator. For a while they didn’t do anything and finally germination occurred. Voilà! No sparse germination either, these babies came up with fury. Now I am potting them up and eventually will plant out my own wineberry patch!

Wineberry transplants and mother flat…
Like most members of the Rubus genus, wineberries sport thorny stems…
Wineberries and blackberries…
Photo Courtesy Mark Angelini

Another Rubus character of particular interest is R. ursinus × idaeus, or boysenberry. This is a complex hybrid which came about as a cross between European raspberry (R. idaeus), common blackberry (R. fruticosus), and loganberry (Rubus × loganobaccus). The hyrbid was originally developed during the late 1920’s in California by a farmer named

Boysenberries have a tangy sweet flavor.

Rudolph Boysen. He abandoned his farm and years later the hybrid was found and named by two horticultural explorers and berry enthusiasts, George Darrow and Walter Knot. Now nearly 90 years later boysenberry plants are readily available in the nursery trade. I got my boysenberry from a nursery in Ohio and I’ve been growing it in a container. The plants are trailing and entirely non-erect, so they require a trellis if you intend to keep ’em off the ground. This year my plant has ripened a few handfuls of delicious berries which are best described as a combination of a blackberry and raspberry…with the tart blackberry flavor and more of the raspberry phenotype. Like all caneberries, boysenberries are an etaerio or aggregate fruit containing several drupelets. An aggregate fruit develops from the merging of numerous separate ovaries from one flower. On the contrary, a simple fruit, like a grape, develops from a single ovary. 

Notice the aggregation of drupelets and how some break apart…
Boysenberries grow in tight clusters which ripen unevenly.

Amongst the hundreds of caneberries some other obscure ones are thimbleberries, purple flowering raspberries, dewberries, and loganberries. I’d love to hear about your experience growing or harvesting these luscious drupes!

Currant Affairs 7/9/12

After being gone for a few days up north I was disappointed to return and find my ‘Rovada’ red currants and ‘Primus’ white currants had almost entirely disappeared. I’d been waiting to harvest them at their peak ripeness, but apparently I waited too long and the birds beat me to it. Even with the red currants being haphazardly netted the birds still found a way to devour. Bummer. Can’t stress it enough when it comes to harvesting: TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE!

All that was left of my ‘Rovada’ and ‘Primus’ currants…those robins! 7/4/12

Fortunately mother nature had a back up plan and the local ‘U-Pick’ red currant put on a bumper crop which the birds haven’t bothered (yet). ‘U-Pick’ is a bush I found a few years ago at a friend’s house and have been trying to uncover it’s origin. It was planted some 27+ years ago by the previous homeowners. For not being pruned and fending for itself, she’s managed to produce a bountiful crop for the past several years. Stay tuned for an upcoming red currant jam recipe. In the meantime check out how my friend Mark has been using red currants in some gourmet fixins!

What I refer to as ‘U-Pick’ is an unknown cultivar of Ribes rubrum…possibly ‘Red Lake’ or ‘Red Dutch’? 7/6/12

Thankfully I was smart enough to pick the last of my ‘Pink Champagne’ currants before I went on my trip north. Otherwise they too would have been gone I suspect. Guests ate the currants and everyone enjoyed their sharp tanginess! I juiced the left over berries and mixed up a currant cosmopolitan with vodka, currant juice, lime, and a touch of sparkling water. Twas a lovely cocktail.

My not-so-pink ‘Pink Champagne’ currant harvest… 6/30/12
Herbal tea infused with fresh red currants…about 95% of the taste tests were positive! 6/30/12

My everbearing golden raspberries are ripening their first flush of fruit for the season. I have been eating a generous handfull daily for the past week. There has been a lot of interest in golden raspberries at the Clarkston Farmers’ Market lately. Its always fun to show people an unusual version of a food they’re already familiar with.

‘Fall Gold’ raspberries have a delicate flavor with tropical notes and a rich honey-like sweetness. 7/4/12
Golden raspberries and red currants spiraling atop damsons…

The black raspberry season has been unusual thus far; there appears to be a good fruit set but they’re taking their sweet time to ripen. So there has yet to be any golden opportunities to cash in on the harvest. However, when I was out looking the other day I came across a stunning patch of wild bergamot and some happy, happy bumble bees!!!

Monarda fistulosa AKA bee balm is a great nectar source for bees and other beneficial insects.

One of the biggest thrills yet has been the blueberry harvest. Highbush blueberries are ripe for the picking and I will dedicate an entire post to that SOON!

Walking the plank through the enchanted blueberry bog… 7/5/12

Berries, berries, and more berries!

The heat of summer is in full swing, and the berry season is starting to pick up. With such a strange winter and spring the ripening times aren’t ‘normal’, or more accurately aren’t as they’ve been in years past. With that being said, tis the season for berry picking! Take it when it comes and do your darndest to best utilize mother nature’s abundance of nourishing and tasteful summer fruits! I’ve been doing just that…

Several days ago on a bike ride with my friend Paris Rae, we came upon a lovely patch of Ribes odoratum, or clove currant. This is a black currant species  indigenous to NA with large, shiny black berries that are highly aromatic with a wonderful spicey-sweet flavor. A truly delectable roadside find!

Antioxidant-rich clove currants…
Clove currant gets it’s name from the profuse, clove-scented flowers which perfume the air in early spring. A few years ago I found this large and in charge specimen LOADED with flowers, once again on a roadside…

For the past 3-4 weeks I’ve been consuming plenty of European black currants (Ribes nigrum) of which I absolutely indulge upon and relish their complex ‘foxy’ flavor! Five varieties grow in my garden which all ripen at slightly different times, and today I picked the last of ’em from ‘Consort’. The bushes hold onto to their fruit quite well for the duration of picking season, which is a nice characteristic. This cannot be said for softer fruits like raspberries. I was meaning to make a batch of black currant jelly, but instead ended up eating them all fresh out of hand and mixed in salads. I love to let visitors try the black currants and observe their reaction. Most people enjoy them.

Handful of mixed black currant varieties.

On hot days like today I like to make a refreshing iced berry drink. Today I made one with black currants. It is a simple recipe and you can alternate black currants with any other berry. This is all you’ll need:

  • 1 cup fresh berries
  • 1 cup crushed ice
  • A spoonful of organic raw honey never hurts

I use a magic bullet with the heavy duty blade; you can use a blender, vita-mix, or whatever you’ve got! Mix the ingredients and blend. Sometimes you’ll need to add a small amount of water or other liquid to get the blending started.

I like to add a few sprigs of fresh mint! Yum…

Blackcaps, or black raspberries, are reaching their peak season. They happily grow wild around here and if you know a good spot then there is usually never a shortage of berries. I like to freeze them for use in pies and smoothies during winter. They also make a delicious low-sugar jam.

Black raspberries at different stages of ripening…
In just a short period you can collect a considerable amount of black raspberries. They go well with oatmeal in the morning!

I expect the next two weeks to be the ideal time to collect a lot of these gems for freezing and preserving. Once you familiarize yourself with these fruits you’ll learn that its all about timing and it surely pays to keep a close eye on whose ripening!

A subtle mutation gives these black raspberries a golden color. This was exciting to find growing wild around here, somewhat of a rarity.
Interestingly enough golden fruited variants often times express golden tinged foliage and stems. For breeders and selectors this is one way to tell if you might have a golden-fruited specimen before fruiting occurs. As the wood lignifies on these black raspberry floricanes it too gains a yellow hue.

In my garden it is an ‘in-between’ year for strawberries. My strawberry bed was renovated this spring so it won’t be in production again until next year. Fortunately I have a lot of alpine strawberries still producing. Alpine strawberries are the wild european strawberry. Similar to the woodland strawberries you find growing here. Small fruit that packs a serious punch. Red and white-fruited varieties exist and their everbearing tendency keeps fresh berries comin’ all season! The ones in the image below were picked from a local edible landscape installed by Roots To Fruits. Stay tuned for a coming article on alpine strawberries

These ‘White Soul’ alpine strawberries have a pineapple-like flavor and are extremely sweet.
These clove currants were intentionally planted in this edible landscape with alpine strawberries.
A better view of the edible landscape featuring alpine strawberry, clove currant, and birds foot trefoil (a nitrogen-fixing groundcover).
Speaking of white and golden fruits, my golden raspberries are just starting to ripen their first flush of berries. These are a real treat…still a week or two off from any substantial harvest.

One of the nice things about white-fruited berries vs. red,purple/blue hues is that they appear to be less noticeable to birds. Birds tend to recognize red and purple as something to go for where white and yellow, from my experience- are left alone. White alpine strawberries and golden raspberries are great from that regard. Another nice white-fruited berry is white currant. Technically white currants are just a variant of red currant (R.rubrum). I have a few varieties in my garden and most of them are all gone by now as they ripen much faster then reds(which are just starting to ripen). However a later ripening variety by the name of ‘Primus’ lives in my garden, and she is just now starting to ripen her berries(no currants are not dioecious!).

‘Primus’ has firm berries which ripen evenly and rate high in flavor and productivity…
My espaliered ‘Pink Champagne’ currant is covered with ripe fruit right now. They dangle in clusters like little jewels with the sun shining through them! Beauty…
Although this plant was labeled as ‘Pink Champagne’ when I got it four years ago, I have suspicion that it was mislabeled as the berries never really turn fully pink. Hmm…

It has been a sad season for my gooseberries. I set out nearly 15 new bushes this year and they’ve had a rough go thus far. But its mainly my fault. They were planted in an area where horses and deer live and apparently the fencing system was not adequate. Aside from being trampled on a few times, there’s also been a serious outbreak of small green worms which defoliate a plant in a number of days. Not sawfly, still needs ID. If anyone knows please share.

Ripe gooseberries…but whats missing? FOLIAGE…yikes!
On a better note, about 95% of this seasons apple grafts have successfully took and are putting on oodles of new growth!
My ‘Frontenac’ grape vine wasn’t phased by the shifty spring weather. Nice fruit set…
BUT, the foliage is covered with these Japanese beetles…yikes.
Wild hazelnuts growing on the side of a dirt road…lets see if we can get them before the squirrels!
Beautiful image of  bumble bee ecstatically burrowed within a purple-flowering raspberry blossom…