Several three to four foot tall bushes with striking purple clusters of small berries grow just outside the staff room doors at the Hairston Crossing branch. I’ve been told that they are called Beauty Berries, a plant I’d never heard of before I saw these. They look succulent enough to eat, and could be eaten, but their taste is such that even wildlife will only feed on them as a last resort. This started me thinking about the berries in my life, the ones outside of a supermarket, that could be eaten as a first resort.
My grandmother first introduced me to the joys of berries, if only indirectly. When I’d visit her we would sometimes walk to the home of her friend Mrs. Gorski who had red raspberry plants growing along the edge of her back yard. Mrs. Gorski would give me a bowl of raspberries doctored with milk and sugar. They were so good that I didn’t mind sitting there on the porch while two matronly women talked at length over my five year old head.
Those red raspberries became for me the standard against which other berries would be compared. Black raspberries, for example. They grew like the weeds that I guess they were among the abandoned coke ovens across the railroad tracks at the bottom of our street. In my eyes the only advantage the black raspberries had over their red cousins was this ability to grow everywhere. They were tart where the red raspberries had a more pleasing flavor and their bushes were guarded with plenty of thorns. Furthermore, picking them meant wearing long denim jeans in the middle of the stifling summer heat to protect us against sticks and scratches and poison ivy. Once in a while we might find a blackberry that was big enough and ripe enough to taste almost as good as a red raspberry; if we collected enough of them in our empty Maxwell House coffee cans they could be turned into pies, possibly a la mode, before the afternoon was over. That nearly instant reward made the heat and the thorns easier to endure.
Blueberries were next on my berry countdown. My Aunt Bib and Uncle Tony owned a cabin in north central Pennsylvania and we would sometimes visit for a weekend. On one such visit they took us to a wide field of nothing but blueberry bushes. I’d never seen them in the wild until then. We were issued our containers but, before we were turned loose, Uncle Tony advised us to be aware of snakes who just so happened to also like blueberries. While I’m sure that there was a kernel of fact to my uncle’s warning, I’m just as sure that he enjoyed watching our eyes get big as he issued it. Aunt Bib turned most of those berries into pies as well, saving enough for blueberry pancakes the next morning.
Those were the wild berries of my childhood. Yes, there was a brief dalliance with an elderberry bush that grew on some undeveloped property at the top of our street but, while it was interesting to know that they could be eaten, those berries were ultimately deemed too small and sour to hold our attention. And I know there are more out there. Thanks to Ikea, I’ve tasted lingonberry jam but that doesn’t really count. Just where are the huckleberries, pokeberries and gooseberries of which I’ve heard tell?
The Library has the following books to aid the intrepid berry enthusiast:
The Berry Growers Companion by Barbara L. Bowling