June can be a hot month in Missouri. It’s prime time for ice-cold lemonade, an afternoon wade in the creek, and berry picking. The search for ripe blackberries begins late in the month, though prospects improve the beginning of July, and continues until the last of these fruits either dry and wither from lack of rain or are devoured by wildlife.
My family can’t wait to pop those plump, juicy berries into their mouths, and they dream of cobblers, muffins, and pies. It is often the third wave of berry picking for us, with gooseberry and raspberry harvests just before. Even with thorn-inflicted scratches and purple-stained fingers, we believe midsummer is the sweetest time of all.
Berry picking is something the entire family can enjoy, and the recipes produced from the bounty are just as much fun as the hunt for the juiciest berry on the bush.
In Missouri, there are six familiar categories of wild, edible berries that grow low to the ground, on bushes, or in cane thickets.
One of the earliest spring-blooming,edibles is the Missouri gooseberry (Ribes missouriense). Reddish-brown, prickly branches unfurl their three lobed leaves just as bright-colored songbirds begin their annual courtship serenades. In April and May, clusters of drooping, greenish-white, slender flowers appear. Soon after, tiny green spheres start to dangle from thin stems. It is when these tart, smooth berries reach a size of approximately a quarter of an inch that they are collected and dropped into buckets. The berries are not ripe, but are considered just right for homemade pies. If a gooseberry escapes the bucket it will become dark purple and less tart.
Gooseberry shrubs grow 2 to 3 feet tall and may be found scattered throughout much of the state. These hardy plants are well adapted to Missouri’s mixture of rocky woodlands, pastures, and forest edges. The green berries can be used to make pies, jams, and preserves, provided that you have plenty of sugar on hand to combat that super tart pucker.
Strawberries are famous for being delicious, but wild strawberries are a real treat. The heritage of many nursery-grown strawberries can be traced to our native plants. Even though the wild fruits are far smaller than those of cultivated varieties, they have a more robust, sun-kissed taste.
A favorite food of Missouri’s box turtles, wild strawberries thrive in sunlit pastures, prairie lands, rocky glades, and open woodland slopes throughout the state. Strawberries begin flowering in April, and by the end of May, a few of the little fruits begin to turn from green to light pink. As June rolls around, strawberries put on their familiar red color that attracts wildlife and children alike. If you come across a patch of these sweet little gems, you will find it hard to wait for desserts to be made. Wild strawberries yield fantastic preserves, tarts, and ice cream toppings, but it takes a lot to make just one pie.
A well-known favorite in Missouri is the wild raspberry (Rubus occidentalis). Also known as blackcap raspberry, this bramble puts on clusters of white flowers as early as April and continues through May.
The tart, unripe berries start out green then turn red before becoming purple-black and sweet at maturity. Since red-colored raspberries are familiar to many, one may confuse the fully ripe berry clusters of wild blackcap raspberries with that of blackberries. However, there are several distinct differences between the two.
Blackcap raspberries have arching branches covered with a white coating that rubs off when touched. This is especially true of young branches called canes. Blackberries do not have this white coating. Most raspberry leaves are made up of three leaflets, the undersides of which are very white. When picked, the quarter-inch to half-inch-size raspberries pop from their stems to reveal a hollow cavity resembling that of a thimble.
Raspberry thickets expand in size each year. As the thorny canes arch, their tips reach the soil, root, and create new shoots. Colonies grow around bluffs, in woodland clearings, and the edges of pastureland throughout much of Missouri. Raspberries provide food for a variety of wildlife, and birds are often the first to harvest the fruits. Wild turkeys are especially fond of the ripe, juicy berries.
Wild raspberry picking is best mid-June to early July. To harvest raspberries, gently take a dark ripe berry between your fingers and it will almost “jump” off the plant. But be careful — the fruiting stems are prickly.
The distinctive taste of raspberries makes them popular for use in pies, jellies, and jams. For a special summer treat, try freezing the aromatic berries inside ice cubes to add flavor to lemonades and teas.
Missouri’s varieties of dewberries look so much alike that it’s easy to confuse one species with another. Some grow in low, wet bottomlands, while others prefer open ground along roadsides. You may find your pant legs caught by the thorns of these low-trailing plants as you hike along sunlit wooded trails and pasture areas. Dewberries bloom between April and June with small, rose-like, white to blush-pink flowers. The blossoms are composed of five petals and stand well above trailing canes and foliage.
Dewberries produce large, black berries in June and July that resemble those of their blackberry cousins. These juicy fruits may be used in the same manner as raspberries and blackberries to make jelly, jam, and other treats. They are fabulous when eaten fresh or as a dessert topping.
Huckleberry, deerberry, and sparkleberry are only a few of the names that have been given to wild blueberries. Missouri is home to three species of highbush and lowbush blueberries that bloom and ripen over a long season, beginning in April and continuing through September. Of these, the lowbush blueberry (Vaccinium pallidum) is considered to have the juiciest and most flavorful berries.
Lowbush blueberries bloom from April until June. These 1- to 3-foot-tall shrubs grow in central and southern Missouri on rocky woodland slopes and glades in well-drained, acidic soils. The oval-shaped leaves are smooth and glossy. Small flowers hang bell-like in clusters and may vary from white to reddish-pink.
Over several weeks during June, July, and August, small batches of lowbush blueberry fruits ripen to a very deep blue. The fruits may be harvested a little at a time and frozen for later use in pies, fruit spreads, and sauces. Morning muffins and pancakes are especially tasty when a handful of these small berries are added.
Missouri is home to several species of blackberries. Popular for their luscious fruits, these brambles grow throughout Missouri in a variety of sunlit habitats. Thorny shrubs, standing 6 to 8 feet tall, form dense colonies within prairie lands, pastures, open woodlands, and fencerows. Large thickets also become established alongside ponds, ditches, and railroads.
Blackberries bloom in May and June, and ripen primarily in July. Their juiciness is often dependent upon the amount of summer rainfall. Although there may be many visible berries high on the bushes, blackberries may also bear fruit close to the ground where shade and moisture often help to produce bigger berries. The berries are useful for making an endless assortment of desserts, including cakes, pies, cobblers, jams, jellies, tarts, and pancake syrup.
Safe Berry-Picking Tips
Summer berry picking can become a yearly family tradition. Before you venture out to gather these sweet treats, there are a few tips to help keep your trip safe and enjoyable.
While there are many edible fruits to enjoy in Missouri, there are some plants that are poisonous if eaten. Be sure to identify the berries that you find. If it is your first outing, try to pick berries with someone experienced with wild edibles. They are also likely to be familiar with the best places to locate berries.
Carry a supply of fresh drinking water, snacks, a first-aid kit, sunscreen, and insect repellant. Ticks, chiggers, and mosquitoes are sometimes found in areas where the juiciest berries grow. Wearing a long-sleeved, lightweight shirt and long pants helps repel biting creatures and protects your skin from thorny scratches. Tuck pant legs into socks and wear closed-toed shoes for added protection. A wide-brimmed hat can give your face shade from summer rays. Many landowners are happy to share wild edibles growing on their property.
Many landowners are happy to share wild edibles growing on their property. Ask for permission before picking, never trespass. It is also a nice gesture to offer some of the berries you have picked to landowners who have granted you the opportunity. If you plan to pick berries on public lands, be sure to acquaint yourself with the rules for those areas.
Enjoy the Harvest
Once you have a bucketful of berries, you are ready to try a recipe or two. Blackberry cobbler is a Missouri favorite. If you are lucky enough to have early berries, you can enjoy this dessert by the Fourth of July.
Wild Patch Blackberry Cobbler
For the Filling:
- 4 ½-5 cups fresh wild blackberries
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
For the Topping:
- 11/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- ¾ cup (1½ sticks) butter
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Combine all ingredients for the filling and spread mixture into a greased 9 x 13 inch baking dish. Mix all dry topping ingredients. Using a pastry blender cut butter into the dry ingredients until mixture is crumbly (you should have pea-sized lumps). Spread the topping evenly over the berry filling. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes or until topping is golden brown. Serve with vanilla ice cream for a super summer treat.
Note: The cobbler will be juicy when you first take it from the oven. It often thickens as it cools.