Thimble or Berry?
By Anita Carpenter
Summer is a berry-lover’s delight. It’s the season when black raspberries, red raspberries, and blackberries are ripe for picking throughout Wisconsin’s landscape. Just thinking about fresh fruit salads, berry pies, and jams makes me excited about the upcoming season.
These three species of berries can be found throughout Wisconsin. They are related to each other as they are members of the rose plant family, Rosaceae, and genus Rubus. Characteristics they all have in common include showy, white five-petaled flowers and multi-seeded fruit.
A lesser known family member in the same genus is thimbleberry. It may not be as sweet as the others, but it is juicy and worth picking. However, it may be more challenging to find as its distribution is restricted to the north woods.
How does one locate a thimbleberry patch? Drive along rural forest roads looking for sun-dappled roadsides or sunny forest clearings.
Thimbleberry plants are fairly easy to identify as they grow into erect 2 to 4 foot-tall shrubs which are often found in large, spreading colonies. Examine their unique leaves which resemble wrinkled maple leaves. Each leaf has three to five good-sized pointed lobes. The large light green leaves often measure up to 10 inches across.
Thimbleberry, Rubus parviflorus, blooms from late June into early July. Conspicuous white flowers grow in a cluster atop a long stalk. Each showy white blossom measures 2 inches across with five white petals surrounding more than a hundred stamens. Flowers are insect-pollinated.
The fruit appears in early summer and ripens in mid-summer. The fruit is red but duller in color than that of a red raspberry. Thimbleberry fruit is fuzzy and “flatter,” about 1/2-inch thick, as compared to the more spherical red raspberry. As its name implies, a plucked thimbleberry placed on the end of a finger resembles a thimble.
Thimbleberry fruit is soft and delicate. Don’t grab and squeeze the berry while picking it because it will squish easily, with juice flowing down your hand. Gently remove it and eat it immediately. The juice may be sweet, a bit tart, or even tasteless. It can be made into jam, but because of its fragile nature, commercial sale of fresh thimbleberries is not feasible. The only way to eat them is to pick them yourself.
Growing in disturbed areas, black raspberries, Rubus occidentalis, grow as a bramble. A bramble is defined as a sprawling, vine-like shrub with arching or upright branches that are generally thorny or prickly. Brambles often form impenetrable thickets, as anyone who has tried picking raspberries knows. Black raspberry stems or canes possess sharp, curved thorns. These berries ripen in early or mid-summer, generally before red raspberries and well before blackberries.
Red raspberries, Rubus idaeus, also form dense bramble thickets. These canes are prickly, but without thorns. The delicious berries ripen in mid-summer.
Blackberries, Rubus allegheniensis, are the latest berries to ripen. They also form bramble thickets. Their arching or upright canes are smooth, with large, sharp, nearly straight thorns. Blackberry fruit is longer than it is wide.
Berry-picking season runs through summer with challenges to avoid those pesky thorns or prickles. Thimbleberry may not be quite as tasty as the other three, but picking thimbleberries is easier and safer because there are no thorns or prickles to snag clothing or scratch unprotected legs or arms.
I can’t resist any of these berries when I discover them. They are so-o-o-o good to eat, and are a gift from nature. However, I must remember to leave some for the critters.
Happy searching and eating!
The e-mail photo is from Walter Siegmund, Wikipedia. He says “Thimbleberry, the fruit is 1-1.5 cm wide, the ripe berry at the center is surrounded by berries that are not yet ripe.”