Of Berries and Black Bears

June begins the berry season with ripened strawberries. By late June you may have noticed red and black raspberries growing on the canes and be stepping on the prickers of dewberries forming in the fields. July into August marks berry abundance when many of our confusing-to-identify cane and ground-pricker berries ripen, as well as the beloved low- and high-bush blueberries.

Low-bush blueberry, Vaccinium angustifolium in Ericaceae (also known as the heath or heather family) is a native low spreading deciduous shrub growing up to 2’ tall as an understory flora in acidic-soil forests.  The green leaves are thick, oblong, and glossy, almost leathery in texture, and will turn red in the autumn. The small white bell-shaped flowers bloom in May and the fruit will begin to ripen by late June and certainly through July. The fruit is a small, sweet dark-blue smooth round berry. A similar specie is the northern highbush blueberry Vaccinium corymbosum which grows 6-12’ tall and has slightly larger bright blue berries. Blueberries are full of antioxidants and flavonoids particularly anthocyanin, high in fiber, and a beneficial source for vitamins C and K and manganese. Foods rich in antioxidants can protect your body from cancer-causing free radicals which are basically unstable molecules in your body that can damage your DNA. Anthocyanin helps regulate insulin sensitivity and glucose metabolism So, eat blueberries!

Juicy jewels among the thorns.

Ah, the confusing canes. Which is who? All three of the berrying brambles: red raspberry, black raspberry, and blackberry are native North American members of Roseaceae (rose family) and have alternate, compound leaves, white 5-petaled flowers, and a range of prickle types from small, short bristles to thick stout thorns. Though called a berry, it is actually an aggregate fruit, comprised of tiny drupes, like beads, held together by hairs and waxes, forming a roundish pack. All these brambles can easily grow in disturbed soil, both in shade and sun, though they will thrive in more sunny areas. All three of these berries are nutritious, containing vitamins C and K and manganese. They are low in sugar and fat and high in fiber and contain health-boosting antioxidants. Leaves can also be harvested for tea for similar health benefits. Use fresh or dried leaves and steep in water for a nutritive uterine tonic, to help lower blood sugar levels, and as an antibacterial mouthwash. Blackberry leaf tea can also alleviate diarrhea. Take care, because if you overdo consumption, due to the tannins, you could experience an upset stomach or liver issues. I recommend consulting with an herbalist when working with the medicinal properties of plants.

Red raspberry Rubus ideaus and Rubus strigosus have bristly thorns on round canes that have a glaucous coating. R. ideaus is Eurasian whereas R. strigosus is native to North America. The black raspberry rubus occcidentalis have prickly thorns on round canes, also having a glaucous coating. A glaucous coating is a white film or powder naturally occurring on many flora. When occurring on wild edible leaves, such as the underside of both lamb’s quarter and raspberry, it is safe to consume. Two observable differences include: red raspberries ripen to red whereas black raspberries ripe to black and red raspberry canes tend to stand erect whereas black raspberry canes tend to arc, arching back into the ground, re-rooting itself. Blackberry Rubus allagheniensis has sharp stout thorns on red-purple ridged thick canes. The drupes are purple-black when ripe. Another way to tell raspberries from blackberries is where the torus or stem ends up when harvesting the fruit. When plucking raspberries, the stem stays with the cane, so you will notice a hole in the berry where the stem was, whereas when picking blackberries, the torus/stem stays with the fruit.

And then there are the ground-creeping native prickly dewberries Rubus hispidus and Rubus flagellaris. These are trailing blackberries with bristly ground-trailing vines and, when ripe, dark blue-black berries.  You can find dewberries in fields and acidic wet conifer forests. Your feet will notice them first as the vines can trip you up on your walk.

Enter the black bear.

Black bears have been known to sit in all matter of berry bushes, scarfing up the sweetness. Sporting thick black fur, bears appear to be immune to prickers and will plunk down to consume large quantities of berries. Ursus americanus in Carnivora, stand around 3’ tall when walking on all fours or a little over 5’ when standing on hind legs to reach for something they find interesting.  Black bears weigh over 200 pounds, more when they are packing on the weight in preparation for winter hibernation, less when they wake up in the spring. Black bears are omnivorous and opportunistic and will eat just about anything a human might and then some. Black bears are fine with eating insects while many humans in the US might turn noses up at that opportunity. Black bears are also highly nimble-fingered and can open and get into all sorts of things and spaces we wish they would not. When summer turns to fall, bears will start eating ripened nuts and fall berries. One might consider the main difference between our two species is that they decide to sleep the winter away while we stay relatively active. Meanwhile, during the summer months we are all out in the fields collecting berries. There is really no choice but to share the bounty.

Enjoy the blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries while they last. Soon enough we will be turning our attention to cranberries, nannyberries, false Solomon seal, acorns, chestnuts, and walnuts. But that is another story – also involving a black bear… and a distracted couple.

Happy foraging.

Arianna Alexsandra Collins, naturalist, poet, writer, wild edible enthusiast, and Wiccan High Priestess lives in Ashfield, MA.

Into the Outside by Arianna

Into the Outside is a bi-monthly feature in the Ashfield News. This article appeared in the July 2021 edition of The Ashfield News.

Like Hearken to Avalon on Facebook and learn more about the magical world and natural history of plants and the Faie, and human interactions with them.

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