Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Wild versus Tame, rev.

(So, if you ever have a chance to meet Missouri's best botanist, the author of The Vasculum (link located to your right), do so. Justin Thomas remains one of the most engaged and interested people in the field of ecology I've ever met. He's passionate about natural history, and Missouri is lucky to have him in the state. To boot, he's an all around great guy, very cool, and best of all, he's not a pretentious prig. He's wicked smart, and he follows my writing periodically. I remain grateful when he corrects my identification, mainly because he's not obnoxious about it and he knows I'd like to know myself.

The exotic little raspberry I found in the White River Hills is actually the exotic Rubus phoenicolasius, a problem plant back east, and it's spreading throughout White River Hills country. While I only saw it on roadsides, he and Dana discovered it on a ridgetop in the Mark Twain. Drats.)

I didn't grow up during The Great Depression, of course, but I also didn't grow up in a Louisiana-based family that could afford to feed three growing little girls bucketfuls of fresh berries each summer. We had melons, plenty of melons, melons out the nose since they all grow so well in our sandy, alluvial soils. We had summers full of the best danged okra ever grown, porch sessions shelling buckets of purple hulled, black eyed and crowder peas, homemade peach ice cream, good sweet corn, and then there were the cucumbers that never stopped coming into the house (thanks to my now-stepfather who grew cucumbers but didn't like eating them). But I can't remember ever eating fresh blackberries or raspberries as a child unless they were gathered singly from the dusty railroad right-of-way at my grandparents' house in West Monroe.

In light of that, I've turned into a berry hoarder.

In the Ozarks, berries grow extremely well. In your native woodlands, dewberries come first, the little tart guys found throughout the Ozarks in early June. Then the native raspberries ripen, delicate amber fruits that don't pack well into an empty Nalgene bottle; it is incumbent on the gatherer to eat them on the spot, berries warmed by the mid-June sun since they make lousy pies and cobblers (delicate berries whose drupes fall apart with jostling). Blackberries ripen here in mid-to-late July all over the state, the size of each berry dependent on the summer's rainfall.

So in July 2003, my first summer here, I recall being absolutely stunned by the blackberries that my colleague brought in from his farm in Chillicothe. Holy cow, a single blackberry practically covered the surface of my palm. "Well, them are tame berries..." No clue what that meant, "tame" berries, I thought they weren't really blackberries at all. But actually, in the Ozarks, horticultural cultivars, those berry canes grown without thorns and capable of producing monster-sized fruit are called "tame" vines. I like the term, and now I use it. Well-grown tame berries are tasty, but different from wild berries. The tame varieties can be overwatered and overfertilized to the point that they taste like tapwater. As those living in berry-producing regions know, growing tasty berries isn't easy.

Nevertheless, I have an entire freezer downstairs filled with 5 and 10 pound bags of tame berries ready to pull out in December for cobbler-making. I'm a hoarder when it comes to berries (and Rainier cherries, marzipan-filled Stollen, and wine).

Earlier this summer, during a foray into White River Hills country for my bird survey, I happened upon a steep dirt road lined with berry canes, red raspberries just dumping out all over the place. (I officially called a halt to my survey to collect a few pounds of these delicate and perfectly ripe berries.) But the canes, growing wild on a roadside, were tame. No gnarly thorns, just soft bristles, and a distinctively different cane and leaf than the native raspberry.


Rubus phoenicolasius, a cultivated red raspberry wasn't known from Missouri's native landscapes in Steyermark 63. Now, it's spreading along roadsides in the White River Hills. Like stiltgrass, sericea, or the other really threatening non-native invasives that barged into our native landscapes quickly and while few were watching, this one may start spreading just as rapidly. I did my part to keep the seeds from spreading by removing all fruits from the canes, surely upsetting some local rural resident who returns to the same roadside patch every summer. It's a MoDot right-of-way roadside, likely to be hit by the road grater, so fair game. A bumper crop, too. I felt a little guilty about taking the first flush of berries, and a mere 1 pint of the two pounds collected made their way to Columbia, with the rest eaten by me, by the handful.


The Ozarks are home to a delightful native raspberry, Rubus occidentalis, an elegant plant with a distinctive white stem and scattered thorns along the canes. Found in open woodlands, bluffs and thickets, our native black raspberry can be located throughout Missouri, barring the southeast Missouri lowlands. The native variety doesn't produce berries as prolifically as R. phoenicolasius, but, as Thomas Jefferson would say of American wine grapes, "different" from the European varieties, but "doubtless as good." R. occidentalis fruits hold up to cobbler building and don't require the sort of coddling required by the tame varieties.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

would you ever consider a trade: cobbler for wild flower honey?

Nathan said...

I wish we had raspberries and blackberries at such ready reach. We went as a family to a blueberry patch this week (see our blog), and we've planted strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries around the house, but so far, we haven't had much luck. Raspberries are divine.

Allison Vaughn said...

I fully support the barter system--honey for cobbler sounds great! Send me your email (I won't post it) and we'll hash out details. I'm spending lots of time behind the steering wheel lately.

Scott Namestnik said...

I haven't seen Rubus phoenicolasius yet, thankfully, but I've often wondered if I would know it and be able to distinguish it from the common Rubus strigosus that grows primarily in the dunes region of northwest Indiana.

I agree with your Justin Thomas assessment wholeheartedly. If I hadn't worked with him at Chilton Creek in 98, spending evenings walking the dirt roads around Peck Ranch while drinking "The Champaigne of Beers" and botanizing, or looking at unknowns while drinking "The Champaigne of Beers," or watching Happy Gilmore and drinking "The Champaigne of Beers," I'm not sure I would even be interested in plants today. Justin's passion for botany and natural history is undeniably infectious. Oh, and he's got a pretty cool wife and kid, too!

Allison Vaughn said...

It looks so much like strigosus to me.
I should remember that he's a champagne of beers guy rather than an 07 pinot noir guy. I always show up with the wrong thing...dang. I wish we had more of the Thomas' in the field.

Scott Namestnik said...

You're probably okay... I think his tastes have changed a bit in the last 12 years...

Allison Vaughn said...

I think he's probably onto the making-a-living-wage fancy Schlaflys or something now. But the real question is, what does he bring on a float? Most of my canoemates revert to early college choices...

Justin Thomas said...

You two are wwwaaaayyy to kind! Be careful what you say about me, I may start to believe it.

For the record, there is currently an assortment of Schlafly, Miller Lite and Corona in my refrigerator and the store room has a freshly arrived case of '07 August Norton. When it comes to drinking, I'm a generalist.

"River soda", like in college, has to be cold, cheap and expendable. What I wouldn't trade for a river soda, a bag of seeds and an inner tube right now.

Allison Vaughn said...

So, you're an Aster pilosus sometimes? I'm heading out to the Alley-Powder Mill float with all kinds of steel containers of random but sturdy cabernets. Save some of those 07s until they're five years old. My girlfriend from college is having a hard time cellaring Nortons; she's holding them for a week, maybe two, when it should be for two years. Save at least one for five years. How does Miller Lite age? Does it improve with time in the can?