Wisdom Among Wild Fruits

Here Connell takes a comprehensive look at the wild fruits – and especially the wild berries – of the Southern Vancouver Island. “Berrying in the hills is a psychological phenomenon, an expression of country love and the desire to get back to old Mother Earth and her direct products.”

From the Victoria Daily Colonist, November 14th, 1937-

In one of Emerson’s short poems he pictures himself among wild blackberry vines by a riverside where, as he eats the “Ethiops sweet”, he contrasts the world of “fraud and force” with the “pleasant fancies” that come to him, and wonders “what influence moves him to dreams thus beautiful.” In his fancy the blackberry vines reply:

“Dids’t thou deem no wisdom from our berries went?”

In a similar sense, let us see what wisdom we can find in our wild fruits and their story.

Hips of the dog rose (Rosa canina), 2019

The other afternoon as I drove with a good friend along the roads of Saanich I rejoiced in the vivid display some of them made in the hedges, mile after mile, and in the rich and amazing profusion there displayed to the most casual glance. To think that in November we can delight our eyes with such a triumph of autumn, and with the green buds of spring appearing in places beside them, is to appreciate in some measure what our climate is. Without going so far as another good and wise friend of mine who says every day in Victoria is a fine day we may agree that, taking it all in all, there are few places so fortunately situated.

Still in the Thickets

However, it is not only in climate we are blessed. The wild flowers we may leave on one side, but the wild fruits are suggested by those we still see in the thickets and the borders of the woods and on the open hillsides. Many species are, it is true, over and done with. They ripened midway in the year and played their part in the economy of Nature. But others, either by reason of the later habit of the flowers, or because of their own slow process of maturing, are still with us; some, indeed, will linger on all winter if unmolested by bird or beast. What a difference it would make in the landscape if the more showily-colored fruits disappeared, and what a difference to birds and beasts if the succulent ones were no more!

A word or two about the term “fruits” will not be out of place. The botanist will tell you that a “fruit” is the ripened ovary with or without the calyx attached to it. Thus an acorn is a “fruit” because the “nut” part of it is a ripened ovary originally with several cells and ovules, but with only one cell and one ovule surviving. The “cup” is the result of the development of a cluster of bracts about the base of the flower. In a rose the “fruit” is the succulent calyx-tube together with the dry “seeds”, which grow on the inner wall and which are individual “fruits”, each being a ripened ovary with its seed within. Similarly a strawberry is the succulent receptacle of swollen end of the flower stalk with the real “fruits” on the outside or imbedded in it. In an apple if we cut it across we see the seeds in five cells, making a core, which is surrounded by the succulent, fleshy calyx tube. In a plum the single seed is enclosed in a stony case which, in turn, is enclosed in the sweet, juicy flesh with a skin outside. A gooseberry has many seeds without stone coverings and enclosed in the succulent flesh. An acorn is a nut, a rose-hip is an aggregate fruit, so is a strawberry or a blackberry; a plum or a peach is a drupe; an apple or a pear is a pome; a gooseberry or an orange is a berry. All of which is very technical, no doubt, and I only give it here lest someone should be like Johnny, who coming home from school full of new knowledge, corrects his mother for calling for calling the ripe, red fruits from the Gordon Head fields “berries”.

Good Old Saxon Word

“Berries” is a good old Saxon word, and curiously enough the Saxons called the grape the “wineberry”, with their own spelling of it, the same name popularly given to our red huckleberry. In ordinary use a “berry” is any small, more or less juicy or succulent fruit, as is easily seen from the addition of it to so many names which have thus become the popular titles of the whole plant. Thus, when we speak of planting a row of strawberries, we mean the plants not the sweet, swollen fruit receptacles. We have more than a dozen native true berries of an edible character included under gooseberry, cranberry, wineberry, elderberry and blueberry, and we have another set of so-called berries, really aggregate fruits, in strawberry, thimbleberry, salmonberry, blackberry and raspberry.

Many of these berries have more than one species, and the cranberry’s name covers two plants of entirely different families. The true cranberry grows in muskegs, a small trailing plant with bright red acid berries, much superior in flavor to its large relatives imported from the Eastern part of the continent for a companion to our Christmas and Thanksgiving turkey. The other is a bush found up Jordan River among other places and its fruit is not really a berry but a drupe having a single flat stone-enclosed seed. It is often called the high-bush cranberry as is another species of the same genus which grows on the Mainland around Agassiz and the Shuswap Lakes. This is the wild representative of our garden guelder-rose or snowball, which is derived from the European high-bush cranberry, called in England the wild guelder-rose. Our local one is known as squashberry and mooseberry. It makes an excellent jelly, at least the Prairie fruit does, but with an odor like burnt leather while cooking.

“In Labrador Tea (and high-bush cranberry) Land, Jordan Meadows, V.I.” by Robert Connell, 1942

There Are Many Species

Out of some forty-four species of small fruits native to this Island about half are edible. This is not to say, however, that no one need starve if lost because of this abundance as I saw suggested in the newspaper the other day. In the first place they are only to be found in a wholesome condition for a comparatively brief time after all; many of them only for a week or two before they are either stripped by birds or drop off. This is particularly true of such fruits as the salmonberry, thimbleberry, blackberry and black raspberry or “black-cap”. Those of the blueberry group last longer, and I have eaten the fruit of the evergreen blueberry at Ucluelet at Christmas time and found them very sweet and pleasant. But even they are frequently stripped by the bears, and over large tracts none are to be found after these visitors. Then, not only are there long periods of the year when no berries or other fruits are to be obtained, but there are large tracts where scarcely any grow, and one might wander far in the great forest without finding enough to quench thirst, let alone appease hunger. And then, although fruit may be edible and in small quantities wholesome enough, the same may not be true when eaten to satisfy the appetite, and some of the native small fruits such as the blueberries might in large quantities produce harmful results. The bog blueberry, called in Britain the bog whortleberry, the blackberry or great bilberry, which also grows here, is said to produce giddiness when eaten abundantly, a suggestion of the narcotic properties of some of the heath family to which it and the other blueberries belong.

A Word of Advice

But while I suggest that travelers in the wilds of this Island are better to take a plentiful supply of necessary food, and to put little trust in wild fruit except as an agreeable variant to the bannock and bacon, I must say a word about “berrying” and its pleasures. It is one of the points at which the line of Nature and that of our civilized life still meet. When the [Indigenous people] held undivided sway here their women folk were great collectors of wild fruit; they are still, and they have carried their experience over into the acres of cultivated small fruits. But while with them berrying was and is a business matter of adding to their food stores, whether directly or as now by way of wages earned, with our people there seems to have always been something of the “gypsy” about it. “Berrying “meant going out into the country to make a day of it, the fruit-gathering serving as a practical excuse and salve for the conscience trained not to waste time. Out on the primitive prairies the old-fashioned picnic parties, for such they were, gathered the luscious Saskatoon on the coulee sides, filled pail after pail with raspberries from the silt-covered flats of the great rivers, and sought out the strawberries whose presence was shown by the red stains on the wagon wheels. There were longer journeys to the spruce-covered hills, where the blueberries grew in rich profusion, and after the first frost the scent of the mooseberries drew the berry pickers to the hillsides in the precious days of “Indian Summer”.

The Dwarf Blueberry

Berrying must have occupied a similar place in the community in the early days on this Island. Once upon a time the dwarf bilberry or blueberry attracted the wise to Beacon Hill Park, when it was less sophisticated than now, and since that pleasant fruit still grows or did until quite recently on the slopes of Gonzales Hill, no doubt they filled their baskets there also. The blackberries have long been an attraction. On the logged-off slopes above Jordan River village you might come across dozens of women and children among the tall fireweed’s spires of rosy pink, where the long vines trailed across the fallen trunks. The charms of berry-picking seem to have been peculiarly consonant to the quiet leisureliness of horse-and-buggy days. It might be expected that with the ability to run twenty miles out of town in less than an hour greater advantage would be taken of the wild fruit opportunities, but berrying in the hills is a psychological phenomenon, an expression of country love and the desire to get back to old Mother Earth and her direct products. Else why not be content with a basket of blackberries from the greengrocer?

Of our wild fruits a word about their uses and qualities. The salmonberry, one of the earliest, is, in my opinion, delicious eaten when just ripe. It has a cherry-like flavor then. Over-ripe it is disagreeable. Some bushes bear dark, almost black fruit, instead of the customary orange-yellow. There is no particular difference in taste, however. Our wild strawberries are good, but particularly the species which grows by the sea. Some years they are quite plentiful.

Some fine specimens of salmonberry (Rubus spectablilis) showing the variations of color in the ripe fruits. Photo credit: https://botanyphoto.botanicalgarden.ubc.ca/2015/05/rubus-spectabilis/

Some More Edible Fruits

The thimbleberry is not a particularly interesting fruit in flavor, though this is often a matter of individual taste. Thus, to me the black raspberry or black-cap is insipid, yet many people are very find of it. Our two wild gooseberries differ very much in both flower and fruit. One has flowers like dark red and white fuchsia blossoms, and deep red fruit covered with a sticky skin and glandular hairs. If the skin is carefully removed the flesh within is quite pleasant, but most people find the trouble involved too great for the prize attained. The other gooseberry is more like our garden species and the fruit is small, purplish black and sweet. We have two black currants, the one known as blue-currant from its glaucous, glandular blue-black is the commoner, but there is another found on the West Coast which is less powerful in odor and has hairy berries. They differ in leaf and flower, and are neither of them perhaps of much attraction to those who know our milder cultivated kinds. Among the heath family the salal fruit is pleasant to the taste of most people and makes a most excellent purple-black jelly.

Among the vacciniums or blueberries the species known as Vaccinium ovalifolium, or the tall blue bilberry or tall blueberry, is found in large quantities along the valley of Jordan River as well as in the high mountain forests. It is a large berry with a pleasant taste. The red and the evergreen huckleberries are not really “huckleberries” at all, that name belonging properly to a species on the east side of the continent; that is, if possession be nine points of the law; for it so happens that “huckleberry” is a corruption of “whortleberry” by way of “hortleberry”. These last two are old English names of what we call a “blueberry”, also known in Britain as “blaeberry” or “bleaberry” and “bilberry“. In an old book I find this charming little picture of bilberrying on the moors:

“One of the prettiest sights that greet our eye in the districts where bilberries abound is that of a party of rustic children ‘a-bilberrying’ (for the greater portion of those that come to market are collected by children); there they may be seen knee-deep among the wires, or clambering over the broken grey rocks to some rich nest of berries, their tanned faces glowing with health, and their picturesque dress or undress – with here and there bits of bright red, blue or white – to the painter’s eye contrasting beautifully with the purple, grey and brown of the moorland.”

“Gathering wild fruits”, a 19th C British book illustration

The Oregon Grape

Both the local species of berberis, known as Oregon-grape, the name more properly belonging to the taller one, have exceedingly acid berries that have long been valued for their jelly. The little cranberry, the real one, of the muskegs is as I have before said a superior berry to the large one of the stores. An old English writer says that in his day “in the single town of Longtown, Cumberland, £20 or 30 worth were sold every market day throughout the season.” In the eighteenth century they were sold by cart loads in Norwich. It is said that they can be preserved for a long time in bottles if places in them perfectly dry and closely corked or otherwise fastened down, without any of the usual cooking preliminaries. Of our wild cherries the chokecherry is too scarce and the bird-cherry too bitter. The Saskatoon is too dry in this climate. The crab apple is an excellent fruit for preserving when it can be obtained. The tree grows still within the limits of the city, but the great thickets of it are to be found in moist places. The blue-fruited elderberry has the same uses as the cultivated one, but the red-fruited one’s berries are too strong.

There are many other fruits of a more or less fleshy character that for one reason and another are unsuited for food, although few are positively poisonous. Some of them are remarkable for their color such as the two snowberries‘ pure white , and the red-barked dogwood’s ready white fruit. Then there are the blue-black fruits of the buckthorn from whose bark the cascara segrada of the druggist is derived. The native thorn has black haws, and the osoberry bunches of purple fruits like tiny plums. The twin berry has large shining black berries, and the two twining honeysuckles have each red berries. The fruits of the yew are a beautiful shade of red with a soft texture; those of the juniper are blue. The soapalallie berries are a yellowish red in color and yield when beaten a pink froth of slightly bitter taste.

Roughly speaking then, there are some seventeen of our succulent fruits red in color and fifteen black, with three white and one, the crab apple, red and yellow, making thirty-six in the neighborhood of Victoria, or within a dozen miles.


Published by Ben C. Baker

The best stories, I think, are those that connect us to place, and as an historian this is the focus of my interest and work here in Victoria, BC, Canada.

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