Summer is the time to strike out in search of native fruits
By Jan Striefel
It should come as no surprise that Native Americans and early settlers made use of native berries and fruits. Many were dried and preserved for winter nourishment, others were enjoyed fresh from the plant and still others require some form of processing to make them palatable. Today, native plants that produce edible berries can be found in wildlands and urban places, and many of the plants are successfully used in the landscape as ornamentals.
Among the most useful and easily prepared berries are serviceberry, Oregon grape, elderberry and chokecherry. I have foraged berries in urban parks, park strips and residential landscapes, as well as in wild and natural places. Serviceberries c
an be used fresh from picking or cooked down, strained and used as juice. I like to crush them, put them through a food mill or sieve and get as much pulp as possible with the juice. They have a small soft seed that is palatable, but you will want to determine whether or not to strain them out.
Oregon grape, elderberry and chokecherry must be prepared to remove the seeds and any stems or other debris. Once the juice is prepared and combined with sweetener, the potential for experimenting with other flavorings such as spices and herbs is limited only by the imagination.
If you gather these berries in the wild, when they ripen will depend on where they are growing. The higher the elevation, the later they are likely to ripen. If they are located near a water source, the berries will be larger and juicer. Birds and other wildlife rely on them, so finding them at the right time and under the right conditions can be challenging. But, it’s a great excuse to roam the mountains and foothills to track down sources that you can return to regularly, or as previously mentioned, all can be grown in the home landscape in urban areas and enjoyed with less unpredictability.
The rule for foraging in urban areas where private land is suspected is to always ask permission. Not only have I never been refused, but I have met some interesting and delightful people. I always return with a gift jar of the final product as a thank you. However, if you come across an appealing berry and are not sure what it is, it is best to pass it by. If you plan to eat it, be sure you know what you are foraging.
Amelanchier alnifolia or A. utahensis
I consider this wonderful berry to be the “blueberry of the West.” It’s a lovely white flowering shrub in the spring with an abundance of blue/pink berries in early summer. The ripe berries are edible fresh from the plant or can be canned whole in a light syrup. The fresh or canned berries make great cobblers, pies, breads or any other inventive desert. Processed into jams, jellies or syrups, they are delicious in tarts, served over ice cream and pancakes, or stirred into yogurt.
Mahonia repens or M. aquifolium
This evergreen shrub with holly-like leaves produces yellow flowers in spring, and blue/grey berries in summer. It is an attractive plant in the landscape and offers an abundance of berries summer through fall. The berries need to be cooked and strained to produce a liquid, then made into jellies, jams, and syrups. I have foraged Oregon grape in both manicured landscapes and natural parks.
Sambucus caerulea or sp.
This medium to large shrub is common in the canyons where it produces white flower clusters in summer followed by dark, shinny purple berry clusters in summer and fall. There are several cultivars available that vary in leaf color and size. While I have only used the berries in jellies, jams and syrups, the flowers alone have long been used for elder syrups and flavoring wine.
This fairly large shrub can also be trained into a small tree. The fruit is very astringent, the seed is large in comparison to the flesh, and the raw taste is indeed “choking.” But when combined with sweetner, it has a unique, earthy taste that is delicious in jams, jellies and syrup. I have also used the juice to make a highly coveted barbecue sauce that is marvelous with chicken or pork.
Many jellies and jams are typically prepared with commercial pectin. I have found that the flavor of the wild berries is intensified if they are simply cooked down to the jelling point without pectin. It takes a bit longer and results may vary, but regardless of whether you end up with jam, jelly or syrup, it will all be delicious. If you prefer the relative predictability of results by using pectin, just follow a good tart fruit juice recipe with regard to the amount of sugar and cooking time.
The recipes that follow are favorites and the ratio of juice to sugar has worked well for me. How much cooking time is needed to reach the jelling point will depend on juice consistency, cooking elevation and how much natural pectin is contained in the fruit. But, do not be intimidated. Experiment and enjoy these native, natural and very satisfying gifts of the Western landscape.
Serviceberry jam or jelly
Yield: about 4-5 half pints
6 ½ cups cleaned berries
3 cups sugar
Combine berries and sugar in a large sauce pot. Bring slowly to a boil, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Then boil rapidly and cook to the jelling point, about 20-30 minutes. As the mixture thickens, stir to prevent sticking. Remove from the heat and skim off the foam if necessary. I ladle the product into hot jars (kept in a 200-degree oven), seal them with canning lids and rings, and turn them upside down for a few minutes. Alternatively, you can process them in a water bath for 15 minutes.
Chokecherry barbecue sauce
Yield: 2-3 half pints
2 ½ cups chokecherry juice with some pulp
1 medium onion, finely chopped (yellow or red)
1 jalapeño pepper, finely chopped
1 green pepper, finely chopped
½ cup honey or maple syrup
1 teaspoon prepared mustard, honey mustard or grainy mustard
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar or cider vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
2 whole cloves
5 juniper berries (optional)
Sauté onion and peppers about 15 minutes until lightly browned. Crush peppercorns, cloves and juniper berries (if using), place in a cheesecloth bag and tie. Pour chokecherry juice into heavy pan with other ingredients. Simmer slowly for 1 hour, then remove cheesecloth bag. At this point, mixture can be pureed until smooth or left with small chunks, depending on preference. Refrigerate for up to 2 months, or process in half pints in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
The recipe can be doubled, and your favorite spices and flavors can be incorporated. You could also use the juice from elderberry, serviceberry, or Oregon grape with delicious results.