Brambles are hard to mistake thanks to their clustered globes of fruit (what botanists call an “aggregate of drupelets”) and their even more noticeable thorns. At some time, just about everyone has been a berry forager – picking their way, carefully, through brambles, bucket in hand. But do you always know exactly what you are picking?
The brambles (Rubus spp.) are a confusing group. Their genetics are complex and they hybridize promiscuously. Some authorities recognize over 350 species worldwide; some 700. Their genealogy is less like a family tree and more like a tangled patch of...well...brambles.
To most foragers, this matters little. Brambles all have berries, and they all taste sweet – puzzling out the formal names of each does not make the berries sweeter. Still, learning to at least be able to distinguish between the five major groups of brambles can keep the enterprising forager in sweetness all summer long. There are raspberries, black raspberries, flowering raspberries, blackberries, and dewberries. To tell which kind of bramble you have, first inspect the stem. Dewberries grow on long, trailing stems that lie flat against the ground. Raspberries, black raspberries, and blackberries grow on arching stems called canes. Blackberry canes are thick and angled, with intimidating thorns. Raspberry stems are round with smaller (but no less effective) prickles. The tips of black raspberry canes touch the ground and send down roots, forming new plants. Flowering raspberry canes don’t arch much – if they arch at all. They also have no thorns.
Next, look at the leaf. Flowering raspberries are easy to distinguish; their leaves are simple and maple leaf-like. The other brambles all bear compound leaves. Most have three-toothed leaflets. Even within clusters of plants, though, these leaves can be highly variable.
Finally, the berries themselves are an aid to identification: raspberries and flowering raspberries bear fruits shaped like hollow cups that pull away from their receptacles when picked. In dewberries and blackberries, the receptacle comes away from the bush along with the aggregate fruit.
In spring, blackberry shoots can be peeled and eaten as vegetables. Later, the fresh or fully dried leaves can be steeped as a mild tea. (Avoid partially dried or wilted leaves, which can accumulate unhealthy levels of cyanide.) In May, the first prickly dewberries ripen, followed by the black raspberries in June. Red raspberries can be found for most of the early half of the summer, and as they fade, the blackberries take their place, persisting into September. Finally, the large, tart, dry berries of flowering raspberries finish off the season on the cusp of fall.
Berries can usually be gathered relatively easily from the edges of bramble patches, but serious collecting of wild brambles is enhanced by some protective gear. I wear long-sleeved shirts made from tightly woven material, sturdy shoes for stepping on thorny canes, and – especially if I’m gathering blackberries – chaps to protect my legs and safety glasses for eye protection. This may, at first, seem like overkill, but in large thickets, such gear can quicken the foraging and allows you to reach berries that are otherwise hard to get.
I also carry a tethered pail that hangs around my neck so that both of my hands are free for picking. Usually, I wear a leather glove on my non-dominant hand to move canes aside and leave my other hand glove-free for pulling the fragile fruits. Personally, my favorite way to prepare the berries I collect is not to prepare them at all. I just pop them in my mouth, often before they even make it into my bucket. But if you have a bumper crop, and you’ve had your fill of pies, you may want try making them into homemade fruit leathers.
Homemade Raspberry Fruit Leather Recipe
1. Coarsely mash the fruit and pour it onto a baking sheet covered with parchment paper or some lightly-greased waxed paper. (This purée can be sweetened, but I prefer not to.)
2. Use a spatula to spread the purée to a thickness of about one-eighth of an inch. An even thickness will prevent one part of the leather from over- or under-drying.
3. Leave the trays in the sun on a bright summer day. Start tray s before 9 a.m. to ensure thorough drying. Alternatively, trays can be placed in an oven set to a low temperature (around 120 degrees).
4. Once the leather is dry enough to peel away from the parchment, flip it and dry the other side until it no longer sticks to your fingers.
5. Sandwich the leather between two fresh piece s of parchment. Store in a sealed container.
6. Enjoy a taste of wild summer all winter long.