This post comes from a tradition near and dear to my heart. One of my earliest memories is riding on my Dad’s shoulders as he traipsed through brush near the railroad tracks behind our home. Somehow, my legs still ended up scraped and bloody from the berry brambles, and I remember them stinging when I took my bath that night. But it was worth it, because every few steps he would pause and hand me 3 or 4 juicy blackberries he had picked.
Now, thirty years later, berry picking season is still a major event for me. When my husband and I first got married, I remember driving down the road in February excitedly pointing at the ditches shouting, “Blackberries! Oh, look, more blooms!” And then, several weeks later in late April, we would go back to those same places to claim our reward. We called them our “Jackpot Spots”. Buckets on top of buckets of juicy dewberries were picked first, cleaned, and frozen for later. A few weeks after that, the smaller blackberries were ready and we went back for them, too! In fact, we almost always brought a bowl with us in the car just in case we found a good spot!
All Summer, Fall, and Winter, berries were dug out of the freezer and cooked down to make pies, cobbler, pancake topping, and blackberry dumplings.
Berry picking is pretty much all the foraging I do, besides picking dandelions out my yard. I’d love to be that person that can tell which mushrooms are edible in the middle of the forest BUT I am not! Maybe one day…
For now, I am content to scope out berries wherever I go. In Louisiana, dewberries and blackberries grow wild and free in just about every country road ditch. Blooms are easy to identify. In early Spring, you can easily spot the multitude of blooms from your car window. Dewberries, as I mentioned earlier, are like blackberries that grow very close to the ground. They ripen first, around late April. We actually planned our vacation around the ripening of the dewberries so we could make sure to get some to bring back home. They are somewhat bigger than wild blackberries and make a beautiful bright reddish sauce when cooked down. They are far and away my favorites, although I am no berry snob. I pick ’em all! Blackberry plants, on the other hand, like to climb and bush out. The fruits will still be little and green while you are picking ripe dewberries. They tend to be smaller and more compact than dewberries, and they also render a dark purplish sauce when cooked down that is somewhat more dull in luster than dewberry sauce.
As a kid, Momma would hand my sister and I each a small 12 ounce sour cream container to fill with berries. The rule was, You pick one container full and then you can play. Talk about instilling a strong work ethic at a young age! I remember looking at that container and thinking to myself that I would NEVER fill it. Now, we bring all the GALLON containers we can carry, just in case we hit the mother lode. Funny how time really does change everything, especially our perspectives.
So let’s say you have found a good country spot to pick berries. Now what? Why should you pick them? What are the dangers? Let’s get in to that now.
First of all, you should definitely pick them. Berries in ditches along country roads where you’re not actually in front of someone’s house are perfectly ok to pick. Sometimes you’ll find people let wild vines grow along the ditches of their home properties for their own personal use. That’s a no-no. But alongside a corn field: that should be a-ok to pick by. The advantage to picking these wild fruits in the country is 1) they probably haven’t been sprayed with any pesticides because it’s a ditch and most people don’t care about those, so I’m gonna say they are organic-ish, 2) they are FREE, 3) you get to enjoy nature and fresh air while getting some nice exercise (just try straddling a ditch while trying not to fall in the mud below and you’ll see what I mean: you’ll stretch and flex muscles you didn’t know you had), 4) berries are full of vitamin C and antioxidants, so they make an awesome snack, 5) because the country is usually less densely populated, the berries have usually been exposed to less harmful chemicals and gases like those found in car exhaust, and 6)when you forage and pass that skill on to children, grandchildren, friends, etc, you keep a special tradition alive!
So what are the dangers? In short, bugs and snakes and scratches from briars. And poison ivy maybe. Growing up as we did, none of these things bothered my sister and me much. You went into it knowing you would get scratched up, but scratches heal. And a few scratches were the low price we were willing to pay to get an amazing product! Same with bugs. Growing up in Louisiana meant we lived with bug bites, be they mosquitoes (this was before we knew about West Nile virus and Zika virus, mind you), fire ants, gnats, etc. You just dealt with it. I’m a little more careful about mosquitoes with my own kids these days. Honestly, the best way to combat bugs is the wear long pants, good shoes, and long sleeves. I usually do the long pants. But then I turn around and wear flip flops, sooooooo… I have also heard you can make your own natural bug spray with neem oil and water, but I haven’t tried that yet. I did a quick search on Amazon for all natural insect repellant. Here’s what I found.
Poison ivy is a little different, seeing as how some people are highly allergic. In my experience, wild berries usually go hand in hand with poison ivy vines. So definitely check your “spot” to determine if there are any poison ivy vines and plan accordingly. I am only mildly affected by it, so I just pick and then deal with the consequences later. I think by now ya’ll are getting how serious I am about my berries. 🤣
I mentioned snakes being a danger. I should add that they are only SOMETIMES a danger. I spent most of my childhood in the woods and overgrown fields and levees. My experience has always been that the snakes hear you coming and leave just as soon as they can. I’m sure there are exceptions to this general rule. But usually by making enough noise and poking around where you are about to step with a stick, you can avoid an unpleasant confrontation. It also helps me to remember that most species of snakes that will not do you any harm. Depending on where you live, you may only have 2 or 3 species that are venomous. So the chance of you meeting a venomous snake on your foraging adventure are slim.
Now that you know how to deal with possible obstacles to your berry picking you’re ready to go. Just grab a big container and have fun! When you bring your bounty home, make sure to wash them with a gentle soap and cold water. Drain them well. You can use them right away, or freeze them for later. If you choose to freeze them, you can either do what I do and just throw them in a freezer bag or you can line a shallow pan with them, freeze them individually, and THEN throw in a freezer bag.
Here’s an easy recipe for if you want to use your berries right away!
4 cups fresh dewberries or blackberries
1/2 cup white sugar (plus more if you like it a little sweeter, just make sure you add it a little at a time to get the flavor just right! You want to have a little tart taste in the filling by the time you’re done.)
1/2 tsp. Ground cinnamon
2 Tablespoons cornstarch + enough water to make a slurry
Pie crust, either homemade or storebought (We make a homemade sweet crust my grandmother used to make. The sweet crust + slightly tart filling = a delicious pie!)
Directions: Preheat oven to 375. While oven heats, add berries and sugar to saucepan over medium heat. Stir frequently. When mixture has cooked down to make a watery “sauce”, reduce heat to low and prepare your slurry. In a small cup or bowl, mix 2 Tablespoons cornstarch with a Tablespoon of water at a time until you achieve a loose pourable mixture. Slowly add slurry to berries WHILE STIRRING SAUCE. That’s important. If you pour and then stir, you will end up with cornstarch lumps in your pie and that’s not very appetizing. (Speaking from experience here.) Your filling will begin to really thicken. Remove from heat and cool. You don’t have to cool it completely, but don’t pour it into your pie crust piping hot.
Once you’ve poured the filling into the crust, you can pop it in the oven for about 30 minutes or until the crust turns golden. Remove and cool completely. Slice and serve by itself or add vanilla ice cream!
Blackberry pie is a treat that my Mom’s family has been dishing up since I can remember. It never gets old. When my Mom wants to do something special for my Uncle Tommy, she fixes him a pie, because he loves them that much. I guess that’s part of the reason I love berry picking so much. It’s not just food. It’s love. It’s family. It’s togetherness. It’s home.
And I hope you take the time to experience that for yourself. It’s time well spent and memories well made. And it’s a very enjoyable step in the homesteading way of life.
Thanks for joining me again! Next week, visit YouTube.com and find my channel “OneStepAtATimeHomestead” to watch my first video on how to raise dairy goats! My sister and her goats will be the special guests! I will still have a blog post up next Sunday, so check that out too! See ya next week!
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