When I was a child, those sounds–berries hitting the bottom of a tin pail in Robert McCloskey’s Blueberries for Sal—echoed through the blueberry field behind our Maine cottage. I spent almost as much time looking for signs of Sal’s blueberry-ing bear as I did finding my share of the wild tart orbs my mother had sent us out to pick if we wanted muffins for breakfast or pie for dinner. I saw noisy seagulls eating their way through the patches, sometimes a lone fox, occasionally deer. But never a bear.
It was natural to share with the wildlife, foraging near one another for the blueberry bounty. There was plenty for all, even the slugs.
On days we didn’t pick in the fields, my father and I would walk the edges of the woods and along the abandoned railroad tracks to pick raspberries and blackberries and snag our shirts and prick our fingers and bleed berry juice all over our hands, our faces, our clothes. We spent long happy hours in the middle of huge bramble patches surrounded by bees and birds, breathing in raspberry. After my father died, we found his berry-picking clothes—which my mother had ordered him to discard decades before–tattooed with berry stains, hanging in the back of his closet. They were his foraging flag.
Nowadays the raspberries have vanished, the blackberries are just a dream, and the blueberry field offers more houses and cars than berries. And yet people still come to pick as a way to commune with the wild–whatever little is left of it–the way they do here in Vermont.
Not me. Not anymore. Humans have backed the wilderness up against a wall—and we have choices to make about how and if we want to make amends. As far as food goes, I now leave the wild to the wild.
Instead I am doing what my forager father would have found unthinkable: planting dozens of raspberry, blackberry and blueberry bushes in our orchard. Strawberries, elderberries, cranberries and currants, too. Fenced and netted away from the wild. I am not inviting the deer and coyotes and birds over until we have picked our fill; then I’ll roll up the fences and nets and let them have at it.
Our aim is to grow all the fruits and berries we need for fresh eating, for jams and preserves and cordials and juices and teas, to give away and freeze and dry for the long winter months. It’s amazing how many ways you can use these healthful foods. It’s amazing how much fruit a single currant bush or elder will produce. Even small gardens can yield an extraordinary crop.
Right about now, weeks and months before the first fruits ripen, just when everyone craves a little green, I harvest leaves from many of these bushes—as well as from the birch trees we have planted—to use fresh and to dry for tisanes and infusions. Indeed, fresh birch leaf tea, delicious and incredibly nutritious, is treated by many herbalists as a spring de-toxifying tonic. You can also use the leaves as a compress to soothe cuts and burns. And birch leaf oil makes an excellent massage oil for aching muscles. We spend so much money on elixirs and treatments for our ailments when we could make them ourselves—not from the wild but from what we plant in our gardens.
The same goes for fresh blackberry and raspberry teas—tasty and good for you. According to Backyard Medicine by Julie Bruton-Seal and Matthew Seal (a fascinating book filled with tips, history and recipes), “blackberry truces” sometimes interrupted Civil War skirmishes in the woods so that the men could pick blackberry leaves for tea to treat dysentery.
The new plantings I am most excited about are the elders, common in the wild where the birds devour the berries– and now in my orchard. Few plants have threaded their way through myth and history and folklore as prominently as the elder. Its hollow stem, they say, was used by Prometheus to transport fire from the gods and by Linneaus to fashion a flute. Fairy lore teems with the elder as do medieval herbals. Nowadays we use the flowers to make cordial, tea and wine; the fruit to make syrups and jams.
No, cultivated varieties of the small fruits and berries do not taste as good as their wild cousins perhaps because they cannot ease our longing for the wilderness or rouse in us the romance of ancient times. But they leave the wild to the wild. They taste great. They give us early green. They fill our shelves with their fruitful goodness. And all through the summer my clothes are stained, my fingers bleed berry juice.
Spring Tisanes, Infusions, Tonics & Cordials
What is the difference between a tea and a tisane, an infusion and a tonic? A tea, if we’re being strict about it, is made of the leaves of the tea bush; a tisane is similar in preparation but made with herbs, fruits and/or flowers. An infusion is a tisane left to steep for quite a bit longer for health benefits. A tonic isn’t necessarily liquid at all, but a substance that promotes well-being and vigor and strength. A cordial is a stimulating and invigorating drink, most often a mix of herbs and/or fruit and alcohol, though as in the case of elderflower cordial, that’s not strictly necessary.
Gathering & Drying & Making Tea
Birch, Raspberry, Blackberry, Black Currant and Strawberry Leaves
Pick when the leaves are young and bright green (not leathery). Spread them out on drying trays and place in a dehydrator or on paper or screens away from direct light. Dry the leaves until they are brittle and crumble when rubbed between your fingers. Store away from the light and heat.
To Make TEA:
Use a single kind of leaf or mix them as you like and/or according to their medicinal qualities (for more on herbal remedies, consult a reputable online source or Backyard Medicine). I like birch leaves mixed with calendula and lemon verbena in the morning, and raspberry, black currant and blackberry leaves for an afternoon tisane.
If you have fresh leaves, place 5-6 leaves in a cup (or infuser) and over them pour a cup of boiling water. Cover for five-ten minutes. Strain and enjoy!
For dried-leaf tea, crumble a tablespoon of leaves into an infuser and pour a cup of boiling water over it. Let it steep for five-ten minutes, remove the infuser and enjoy.
Gather on a dry, sunny day, choosing flowerheads that smell fresh and almost lemon-y—the blossoms should be just blooming (elderflowers have a reputation for smelling rank– and they can indeed if grown in damp, shady spots). You can use them fresh in strawberry or gooseberry jam and tarts.
To dry, spread out the flower heads on drying trays in a dehydrator, or on brown paper inside. Once they are dry, remove the flowers from the stems and store away from light.
Make tea as described above.
(inspired by The River Cottage Preserves Handbook)
It’s lovely mixed with seltzer or sparkling wine for a summer apértif. It also adds a tart freshness to a fruit salad.
25-30 elderflower heads, newly flowering, picked that day
Finely grated zest of 3 organic lemons and their juice
5 cups sugar (you can adjust this amount according to your sweetness preference)
1 tsp citric acid (optional—if you want to preserve the syrup for longer than a couple of weeks)
1. Rinse the flower heads and place them in a large bowl with the lemon zest and juice.
2. Boil 7 cups of water and pour over the flowers. Cover the bowl with cheesecloth or fine muslin and let it infuse overnight. (This is the secret to so many great French jams and jellies as well—a one to three-day maceration period.)
3. Strain through the cheesecloth into a saucepan—for a clearer syrup, do not squeeze the cloth; if you do not mind a bit of cloudiness, go ahead and squeeze it to extract as much juice as possible.
4. Add the sugar, lemon zest, juice, and optional citric acid. Heat gently, bringing to a simmer for a few minutes to dissolve the sugar. It should be about 190-195ºF.
5. Pour into sterilized bottles (to an inch below the top if using corks, to 3/8 of an inch if using caps), seal with sterilized corks or lids, and store for up to four months. If you want to extend the shelf life to a year, you must process the bottles in a hot-water bath. See your favorite canning authority on how to do that properly with bottles. Cordial freezes well, too, if placed in freezer-safe containers.
6. Once you have opened the bottles, store them in the refrigerator.