Saturday, August 9, 2008

Rubus Rules

Rubus: Not a country bumpkin but rather a much loved genus in the rose family. Rubus includes familiar old favorites such as blackberries, raspberries, dewberries, cloudberries, and a host of other deliciously sweet berries that beg to be popped in the mouth one after the other; baked in pies; and reduced to scrumptious sauces. Cultivation and hybridization have introduced myriad other varieties: loganberries (raspberry x blackberry), tayberries (loganberry x raspberry), and boysenberries (loganberry x raspberry x blackberry), to name a few.

Rubus "berries" are easy to recognize by their compound fruit, woody stems, and thorns. In botanical terms, the fruit is not a berry at all but what is known as an aggregate of drupelets. And the really great thing about Rubus? None of the fruits in this genus is poisonous. Those thorns are the only drawback. Try cutting the fingertips off an old pair of work gloves if you plan to pick lots of Rubus, especially nasty ones like the Himalayan blackberry.

With all my travels this summer, I missed the salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) fruiting, at least at lower elevations, and nearly missed the thimbleberry hour. Thimbleberries (Rubus parviflorus), native to western North America, are an extraordinary treat: delicate to an absurd degree and complex tasting, with more than a hint of raspberry. Marty says she likes the "yeasty aftertaste," which doesn't strike me as the biggest selling point, but says much about the complexity. Unfortunately, they have a shelf life of like one minute. The best way to carry thimbleberries home is in your stomach—they're a hand-to-mouth berry more than almost any other, falling apart even before they're off the vine. Thimbleberry jam is reputed to be wonderful, but I wouldn't know: the berries never last longer than seconds in my hands.

Yesterday, while walking in a biological preserve among rare coastal old-growth trees, we picked the last of the thimbleberries and then loaded up on native blackberries. It was telling that the natives grew so well in the preserve; usually we find mostly non-native Himalayan blackberries among the ruins of the natural world. (BTW, in my previous post I misspoke: Our native blackberries in the Pacific Northwest are more accurately categorized as dewberries. Unlike Himalayan blackberries and other true blackberry species, they don't produce canes; dewberry plants are rightly called brambles, which is to say they grow more horizontally than vertically, creeping among the undergrowth with trailing vines that hug the ground. Though the term "bramble" is now used commonly to evoke any sort of thorny bush, cane blackberries are not technically brambles. So there you go.)

Like thimbleberries and salmonberries, I never seem to get enough dewberries to put up, but that's okay because when most of these native berries are nearly done fruiting, an imported Northwest tradition is just catching fire...

When we get back from the islands, the Himalayan blackberries—those nastified and decidedly non-bramble brambles—should be on-line all over Seattle. This year I plan to do the berries right: in pie crusts made with lard. I have permission from my normally lard-averse other half who is beginning to see the light on some of these culinary conundrums. More soon.


The Suburban Bushwacker said...

This seems to be a bumperyear for blackberries, herein the UK i'm not the only person to notice that they seem quite a bit 'fuller' than last year. Any ideas why that would be?

Langdon Cook said...

When I lived on SW Oregon in '04 we had a bumper crop of fruits in general: orchard fruits like cherries, pears, and apples, as well as the wild berries, etc. That spring was a mild one, with lots of bees and lots of blossoms. I remember the mercury reaching 90 in March--and this was in the coastal mountains. Also, we got at least one mid-summer soaking, which doesn't always happen. At the time I attributed the fruit bonanza to those two factors, but I'm no crop prognosticator. Anyway, enjoy your plenitude!
Cheers, Fin