After a wet and deeply depressing June-uary, a sunny get-down-to-the-beach-and-rock-out July has come as a shining relief. Summer! People are out skim-boarding, biking, hosting noisy backyard BBQs, and enjoying life! Not to be outdone, mother nature soaks up the summer heat and busts out her brightest colours. So what if everyone’s lawn turns brown! Flowers are everywhere! And, along highway ditches and dog-walking paths, hidden inside the labyrinthine foliage of scrubby bushes and knotted vines are The Three Sisters of Summer: salmonberries, thimbleberries and blackberries… But hang on, I should explain…
Back in South-Eastern Ontario the native people have always referred to corn, beans, and squash as “The Three Sisters”. The nickname refers to the affinity each of the three species of veg have, and the benefits the natives received by planting them nearby each other. Corn makes poles for beans to climb, beans adjust the nitrogen in the soil, squash provides low shade and mulch, each one helps the other two. It’s symbiosis!
I’ve always thought of the West coast’s native berries as “The Three Sisters” for many of the same reasons. All three berries grow together in unison, and to an extent provide help to each other in the form of shade, structure upon which to grow, and free advertisement to passing animals who eat ’em and spread seeds. Each of the three sisters has a different window of weeks in late summer when they ripen to their peak size, colour and sweetness, so there’s not much competition. Salmonberry is the oldest sister, ripening to perfection first around late June, thimbleberries pop next around mid-late July, and the baby sister blackberries finally crawl out of bed and face the world in late August. (Just to clarify, I’m referring to the native BC “trailing” blackberries here, not the invader species known as “Himalayan” blackberries)
So it’s the end of July now, and the hikers and bears have made short work of the salmonberries, and the blackberries have yet to fully flower. For whatever reason the poor middle sister thimbleberry is left to redden on the vine, largely ignored… But not by me! Diving into thimbleberry thickets, hands stained red, and emerging with a mouthful of tart little bits of sunshine is a quintessentially summer experience.
Berry-picking isn’t like mushroom-picking, no rubber boots and deep-woods mosquito repellent necessary, just a flick-knife, a couple of ziploc containers, a roll of paper towel (berry picking is messy business!) and that’s about it. Time to go meet the middle sister!
You’ll find the sisters in urban areas, along trails and anywhere the earth has been distressed by construction or logging. Salmonberry bushes should catch your eye from a distance due to their height (at the right of the pic above), and once you find one, chances are you’ll find a shorter thimbleberry bush nearby (just a bit farther down the trail, still on the right). The thimbleberry shrub grow 2-3 meters tall with long cane-like stalks and small, flat, light green leaves that resemble wrinkly maple leaves. In full sunlight the leaves will go from light green to golden much faster than the other shrubs, so much the better to help spot ’em. The best news for berry pickers is that thimbleberry plants have no thorns!
The shrub produces flowers with five white petals and a furry pale yellow heart (much like the raspberry to which it is closely related). Throughout June the flowers will produce a “composite fruit” (also like raspberries, they’re not a real berry) that will ripen from white, to pink, to a deep clown’s-nose red. Once removed from the flower, the thimbleberries really do look like thimbles with little hollow backsides.
Only pick the deep red berries, and avoid any with discoloured spots, squished edges, or too many spiders cocooned around them. Because thimbleberries are incredibly delicate you have to be really careful when reaching into the shrub to pick ’em. Too much pressure with your fingers and your prize will be reduced to a juicy red smear. Worse, if you jiggle the stem too much, the berries can just fall off the flower to be lost in the tall grass. I find it best to reach out with your container under the berries, just in case. After an hour’s worth of picking I ended up with a full Ziploc container, about 4 cups. In a day’s time, another container’s worth of berries will ripen, so I’ll be back a couple times during the week.
Ripe thimbleberries have an subtle honey and elderflower aroma, and a sweet/tart taste similar to a raspberry. The texture is a little fuzzy, and there are many little seeds that will find their way into the spaces between your teeth. But juicy! Boom! The minute you bite down you get an intense berry hit. Nice aftertaste too, subtle and a bit “dusty” like a raisin or dried cranberry.
Most recipes you’ll find for thimbleberries involve simmering and straining them to extract the flavour, but avoid the seeds. Thimbleberry jam is pretty classic, as are pies, strudels, preserves, and all manner of other pectin-packed sweet treats. Being more of a savoury over sweet guy, I’m thinking I’ll get a fatty cut of pork or a nice duck breast and use the berries to make a sauce.