Berry Unusual

It’s sloppy out here this time of year. The usual tedium of farm work is aggravated by the amount of water in the soil. Snow melt plus spring rains equals pancake batter. The potter at the throwing wheel has nothing on me: my entire body is covered in clay. My cut-off shorts and farm-grade T-shirt hang heavily and cling coldly. My bare feet are slick inside plastic gardening clogs. Inevitably, the shoes will torque around until I’m walking with inverted footwear, and I’ll kick them both off. Nevermind, feet are dispensable this time of year.

Spring is transplant season, when I walk on my knees between raised beds, stopping every couple of feet and bending low—like some severe religious practice—to plug grateful plants into their permanent homes. By the end of the day, my knees will be capped with thick, slowly cracking mud, as though I’d visited a boutique spa for a highly specific and unusual beauty treatment. This is my invaluable soil: Wadsworth silt loam, according to the USDA soil map, relinquished by a retreating glacier 10,000 years ago just for me on my future farm. Soil scientists describe my soil as “somewhat poorly drained.” Tell me about it.

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During this time of year, my typical charges include tomatoes and leeks, okra and celeriac, and other seedlings that I start indoors when spring is an abstract concept. But 2017 was a bit different. I had been awarded a grant to transform a portion of my little farm into pollinator insect habitat. I seeded about a tenth of an acre in native perennial wildflowers. Another chunk of land will host 250 pollinator-friendly shrubs, with another hundred or so scattered around my property. Ordered in bulk, they arrived as bundles of twigs with bare roots in need of immediate transplanting. The sodden soil will help them establish.

Receiving word that I’d been awarded the grant, a savvy friend said, “You know, blueberries are a great pollinator shrub.” I got the hint. Blueberries are native to North America, fulfilling one of my criteria. And people know and enthusiastically buy blueberries. I could use the grant to benefit pollinators as well as my finances. Never one to heed a smart business move, I went with my original plan, planting interesting native shrubs few people know, which produce berries that are edible, if not particularly delicious.

Serviceberries

The majority of my transplanting was dedicated to plants of the genus Amelanchier. Related to apples, cherries, and other rose-family fruits, the scrawny twigs will one day produce berries that you’d swear are under-ripe blueberries, blue with a rose blush, and borne on an overgrown bush or small tree. The first time I threw a handful into my mouth, I expected the creamy sweet-tart fruitiness of blueberries and was disappointed with bland sweetness and relatively large, nutty seeds. My perception might not be universal; I’ve read several claims of deliciousness, the discrepancy perhaps due to local variation.

There are many species spanning all of North America. I planted three of them: Amelanchier alnifolia, which is widespread across western North America; Amelanchier arborea, the species most likely encountered in Ohio and ranges across the eastern half of the United States; and Amelanchier canadensis, which is common in swampy areas along the East Coast from Canada to the Deep South.

Common names for Amelanchier are diverse and reflect their role in local environments and value to local cultures. Shadbush (or shadblow) because the shrubs in New England bloomed in early spring, when the shad were returning to their upriver spawn runs. Juneberry, because the fruits begin to ripen in June. With not many other berries available that early, juneberries were a valuable food source for foraging Native Americans, pioneers, and explorers. Saskatoon, an anglicized take on the Cree name for the shrub. And Serviceberry (or sarvisberry), a name of some ambiguity and dispute, is usually attributed to the spring bloom time, when traveling preachers could make it over Appalachian mountain passes for Easter services and/or the ground had thawed enough to bury those who had perished over winter, their caskets to be decorated with the abundant white blossoms. Nice thought.

Serviceberries offer us a mystery, a case of a missing food in our eclectic cuisine. The berry is gaining ground in some alternative farms in the U.S., but the prolific berry bushes have been bred and cultivated much more widely for a longer time in Canada and (especially northern and eastern) Europe. Their absence from our diet is more puzzling given their prevalence in the American landscape and history, being once an indispensable food. Native Americans gathered the early berries in such enormous quantities that they could eat them fresh by the hand or in soups and cakes throughout summer. They still had enough left over for winter provisions as dried berries or mixed with animal fat and meat as pemmican. In addition, the leaves and flowers were used for medicinal or nutritious teas. Their use was similarly adopted by early explorers, miners, trappers, and homesteaders.

But in modern times, Americans have valued the bush for its flowers—an explosion of white blossoms before the emergence of leaves—and brilliant red autumnal foliage. In other words, Americans who know serviceberry mostly know it as a decorative landscape shrub that periodically attracts notable numbers of insects and birds. For my purposes, the promise of food for my family, birds, and insects, while adding color and scent to my landscape is an overall win, worth my messy springtime toil.

Chokeberry

Aronia melanocarpa has remained relatively obscure even as more Americans are consuming it in greater quantities. Unlike serviceberry, the berries of aronia are not insipid. They are potently astringent, earning the species its more common, but less marketable, name “chokeberry.” Nevertheless, chokeberry was thrust on the superfood pedestal when it was discovered that the almost-black berries were nearly three times higher in the antioxidant anthocyanin, that made blueberries a star, kicking off the blue-fruit craze. And so, aronia juice became a common ingredient in many bottled super juices. While I’ve read accounts of native peoples use of aronia as food, primarily from the Northeast and upper Great Lakes, much of my experience with chokeberry comes by way of Russia, specifically via my wife, Tatiana. Along with serviceberry, aronia is planted around summer cottages and throughout St. Petersburg neighborhoods. I’ve seen them reaching impressive sizes. They can be 10 feet tall, in apartment courtyards. Tatiana recounts a childhood eating these mouth-puckering berries in large purple-stained handfuls over long summer days of outside play. The astringency is cut when chokeberries are mixed with other fruit and sweetened to make verenye, the syrupy whole-fruit preserves that Russians adore, especially in winter. As I slopped around in syrupy soil, I envisioned a future winter eating my own aronia preserves.

Nannyberry

Viburnum lentago was awarded the common name “nannyberry” because the fruits look like goat droppings. These develop from clumps of white flowers and consist of thin wrinkly black flesh covering one relatively large pit. As an inhabitant of wet areas from the Northeast to the upper Midwest, it should do well along my creek and small ponds where I planted it. In my copy of The Forager’s Harvest, author Samuel Thayer cites Thoreau’s fondness for the fruit. He also claims that he finds the fruit in such quantities in northern Wisconsin that he processes it into thick “butter” that tastes like a cross between bananas and prunes, with enough to can, freeze, and dry into fruit leather. I know of only one small patch near me that I visit each November, but I’ve rarely been able to reach what few sweet fruits are produced. Perhaps one day I, too, will have a profusion of “wild raisin,” its other less funny, but more appetizing, common name.

Pin Cherry

The pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) likes dry open sites (sandy soil preferred), and so it wasn’t an obvious pick for my farm. But the fruit’s extensive use by Native Americans and the high praise among foragers for pin cherry jam made it irresistible. Thankfully, my heavy soil hides a secret: It rests on sandstone bedrock, and there are places on my seven-plus acres where this sandstone is exposed. A small creek that cuts across my property works on that sandstone, depositing nearly pure sand where the current slows. With a rusty, cracked wheelbarrow, I haul this sand around my property to build well-drained hillocks, large enough for one tree. Some of these now host pin cherry seedlings.

Pin cherry’s typically small stature and short lifespan belie the tree’s unique and important ecological role in the Great Lakes region. Bees love the clustered white blossoms. Birds love the small tart fruit and invariably “drop” the pits into open fields. With abundant sunshine, pin cherries grow and establish quickly, to stand alone as pioneers, in ecological parlance, in an otherwise treeless landscape. Their crowns create islands of cool, moist shade. Accumulations of their fallen leaves are ideal nurseries for germinating seeds of longer-lived forest trees, such as sugar maple or beech. As these larger trees grow, they inevitably shade out and replace the pin cherries. Thus, the pin cherries facilitate their own replacement and the transition of field to forest. But pin cherry offers us a comeback story. Their seeds can remain dormant yet viable in the soil for a century, accumulating and waiting for the inevitable devastation wrought by a forest fire.

Buffaloberry

Buffaloberry is a quintessential American berry, whose small petalless flowers nevertheless attract native bees, which visit individual male and female plants. Shepherdia argentea predominantly ranges across the short-grass prairies of the Dakotas, Montana, and adjacent Canada, where the buffalo roam. George Catlin, the Pennsylvania-born explorer who lived among the Plains Indians in the 1830s, described buffaloberry bushes as “producing . . . fruit in incredible quantity, hanging in clusters to every limb and to every twig . . . being exceedingly acidic and almost unpalatable until . . . bitten by frosts of autumn, when they are sweetened and their flavor becomes delicious.” The berries, he observed, were used to make jams, dried for winter use, boiled with meal to make porridge, and made into sauce to flavor bison meat.

The bushes are related and look very similar to the invasive Eurasian shrub autumn olive (Elaeagnus umbellata), with leaves, twigs, and red fruit adorned with mesmerizing silvery scales. One notable difference are the two-inch long spines, a trait they share with another related bush growing on my farm, sea buckthorn, whose profuse orange fruits are born tightly to branches that poke holes in my hands and arms as I harvest them. Hopefully, one day soon, I’ll pay similarly for buffaloberry jam.

With my work complete, a small soggy and eclectic farm in Geauga County became a little more diverse and a little more nature friendly.

Last October a new study was released showing a 75% decline in flying insect numbers in Germany in what were supposed to be nature preserves. Prompted by the news, other studies came to light that broadened the scope of insect decline. Insects are foundational (along with plants) to entire food chains and are critical pollinators of much of the world’s vegetation. Their decline adds to (and perhaps partly explains) worldwide declines in songbird populations, as well as those of amphibians, mammals, and fish—the unraveling of ecosystems.

From my little farm, I look out and watch the world spinning recklessly along the edge of a precipice. It’s easy to complain of feeling anxious and helpless, or post sad faces on social media—all clichéd and insignificant responses to humanity’s unprecedented situation. And yet, do I think a few days of sloppy springtime toil will help the situation?

It’s spring again and I’m out in the muck, doing what I can. Telling myself that, as I sow seeds of perennial wildflowers and plant spindly twigs of trees, I am also planting thin slivers of hope.