Florida Blackberries

Cultivated blueberries in Florida are receiving their annual abundance of attention. This delicious summer fruit overshadows, often literally, the scrumptious native blackberries that ripen slightly before most of the blueberry crop. It’s not unusual to find blackberries growing amongst the cultivated blueberry bushes, unless fastidious growers have culled them out to protect their customers and employees from being scratched by thorns.

Sadly this year, however, the native blackberries were stunted by the spring drought. Plant failed to thrive and although many made a valiant display of flowers, the fruit succumbed to the dry conditions and withered. Have heart, though, this hearty perennial will wait out the summer, redouble its efforts, and strive for fruit next spring.

The Rubus species of the Rosaceae family are abundant and have a long history as both a food source and a medicinal. Euell Gibbons tells us that fine distinctions between blackberries and dewberries are best left to botanists, and for the rest of us, who are mainly interested in enjoying this plants bounty, it suffices to know that blackberries tend to grow upright and dewberries are trailing vines. I concur. I’m less interested in knowing which is which and more interested in popping the ripe fruit into my mouth.

Native species native include the common R. cuneifolius (sand blackberry), R. argutus (sawtooth blackberry), R. trivialis (southern dewberry), and the less common R. flagellaris (northern dewberry). R. niveus, an escaped cultivar native to Asia, is sometimes found in Miami and Dade County (Wunderlin and Hansen).

Sand Blackberry (Rubus spp.)
Sand Blackberry (Rubus spp.)
Wild blackberries and dewberries can be used interchangeably, although the blackberries are usually plumper and sweeter. They are easy to identify but less so to gather because of the thorns. Wear long sleeves and old clothes as a morning of blackberry gathering will result in scratched arms and torn garments. Look for blackberries along sunny creek banks and streams, on disturbed sites, open fields, and in your own Florida garden! It took several years of fighting with these well-armed “weeds” for me to realize that I might as well let them have some space along the inside garden fence where they get plenty of water and protect the rest of the garden from the irascible bunnies that munch eat our vegetable seedlings and lettuces. Blackberries are hardy and resilient and truly can be found in just about any Florida habitat from deep shade to sunny prairies and fields, and from moist ditches to dry sandhills.

Rubus species are thorny, thicket forming perennials with compound leaves of three to five teardrop to oval-shaped leaflets with toothed margins. The white, five-petaled flowers appear in early to mid-spring and are borne in clusters on terminal branches.

Your choices of how to use these native berries are limited only by your imagination. Juices, jams, pies and cobblers, cordials, and wine are traditional uses for the Rubus berries. You can also add them to lemonade, throw a handful over some vanilla ice cream, toss them into summer salads, or turn them into a marinade or chutney for meat dishes.

Fruit and flower petals are edible with the exception of Rubus occidentalis, which is not native to Florida. The leaves of native Rubus can be used as a pleasant astringent tea and also has medicinal properties. More about that later.

The young shoots of blackberries can be de-thorned, peeled, and then eaten as a novelty or survival food as the preparation is not worth adding this food regularly to one’s diet. And in this case, be sure you know exactly what you are foraging because you are collecting an edible before you can positively identify it.

Nutritionally, blackberry fruit is high in bioflavonoids, antioxidants, fiber, folic acid, and omega-3 fatty acids (seeds). Leaves contain magnesium; calcium; potassium; phosphorus; and vitamins A, B1, and C. The leaves and roots are also high in citric acid, oxalic acid, glucosides, and resins.

Medicinally Rubus species have long been used as astringents, particularly for ailments affecting digestion and elimination. The high level of tannins make blackberry leaf tea an excellent and nearly instantaneous remedy for diarrhea, and a good cure for other damp conditions such as bleeding, postnasal drip, mouth sores. While Rubus leaves have traditionally been used for “women’s complaints,” it wasn’t until the 1940s that researchers discovered an alkaloid in the plant called “framamine” that strengthens and tones the pelvis and uterus.

Native American people used a decoction of the root bark to treat diarrhea and dysentery, while Europeans favored the leaves of their native R. fruticosus for these purposes. Blackberry leaves are cooling, and the root bark is more astringent than the leaves. (Note that overconsumption of blackberry root or leaf tea may cause constipation due to its high tannin levels.)

There are so many wonderful uses for the blackberry from foods and beverages to teas, vinegars, mouthwashes, and skin tonics that perhaps next time you inadvertently get tangled in its briars, you’ll be less frustrated and more appreciative of this native plant’s gifts.

Reference

Wunderlin, R. P., and B. F. Hansen. 2003. Guide to the Vascular Plants of Florida. 2nd edition. Gainesville FL: University Press of Florida.

Botanical Books of Interest to Herbalists

A couple of interesting books have come my way, and so I am sharing some thoughts.

The Plant Lover's Companion
The Plant Lover's Companion
First, The Plant Lovers Companion: Plants, People, & Places by Julia Brittain  (David & Charles, 2006; $14.99). (Note that this book seems to have been published under two slightly different titles: actually the title and subtitle reversed.) Regardless, this compact encyclopedia has almost everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the history of plants and the people who have studied and collected them from Bartram and Linnaeus to Nuttall, Culpepper, and Monardres. Countries have entries as do organizations and botanical gardens such as the Royal Horticultural Society, Kew Gardens, Nymans, the Aboretum Kalmthout in Belgium, and Boskoop in The Netherlands.  (The U.S. is lumped together with North America.) There is a decidedly British slant on the contents, and botanical gardens in the U.S. (and other countries) are rarely mentioned. Perhaps the author feels we do not actually have any of note. Or perhaps this mini-pedia is a compilation of her favorite places, people, and plants in her native and not meant to be comprehensive at all.

But considering that most of the great botanical discoveries were made by our ancestors who traveled from Europe with the wave of settlers and returned to their native countries with curiosities from the New World, the focus of this book of factoids is appropriate and meaningful, albeit less than international. However, the great purveyor of cider whom we can thank for the spread of apple seeds throughout the New World is sadly missing.

Plants that are named for special areas, regions, or people are also listed, although do not expect any consuming amount of information; the majority of entries in the small book are a few sentences, although some entries such as countries, famous botanists and gardens, and well-known gardens are provided more generous space.

Look for a companion volume called Plant Names Explained: Botanical Terms and Their Meaning.

Lives of Trees
Lives of Trees
Also on my reading list this summer is a sweet little volume called Lives of the Trees: An Uncommon History (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010; $19.95) by Diana Wells. The author is an historian and not a botanist, which makes clear right up front.

The stories, delicately illustrated  in black and white by Heather Lovett, are delightful little praises to a hundred of the author’s favorite trees. Kudos to the book designer for a simple and elegant layout that draws you into each tree as you page through the book. They are in alphabetical order and you can start at Acaia and proceed to Yew, or you can use the index or table of contents to select your favorite tree by common or botanical name.

The lore of trees is fascinating and clearly Wells enjoyed her research which is full of interesting botanical tidbits. Linnaeus, for example, named the Cinchona (from whence we originally obtained quinine) for the Countess of Chinchon, the wife of the Spanish Viceroy to Lima, who was said to be have been cured of malaria by taking the powdered bark of this tree.

A Botanist Tackles Spurge Nettle for Lunch

The latest issue of Palmetto, the quarterly journal of the Florida Native Plant Society, has an amusing and informative article by Francis Putz, Ph.D., about Cnidoscolus stimulosus, a much-despised plant for Floridians hiking about in sandals. Every part of this plant has protective needles save the well-hidden root, which can be as deep as three or four feet. And the sting lasts for hours.

Note: Rubbing a bit of plantain (Plantago spp.) on the irritation often relieves the burning itch. Luckily, plantain is usually abundant at the same time of year as Cnidoscolus.

Several years ago, when we invited southeastern herbalist Doug Elliott to present a day-long foraging seminar here in north Florida, he was so excited by the abundant C. stimulosus (also called spurge nettle and tread softly) that he insisted we dig some up for lunch. Well dig we did. He kept promising we soon find the root. Paul went to find a sturdier shovel. After what seemed like an hour, we uncovered an ugly, jointed tuber. That, Doug told us pointing at the monstrosity, could be lunch!

Cnidoscolus stimulosus
Spurge Nettle

We tried it under his instructions: Boil until very soft–two or three times changing the water each time. Mash through a sieve and serve with butter. Actually it was quite tasty. But the effort to obtain it? My husband and I agreed: definitely a survival food!

Dr. Putz and his son Antonio came to a similar conclusion in their experiments to prepare the prickly leaves as a pot herb, although he writes favorably about C. acontifolius and C. chayamansa, related species that he sampled in Costa Rica.

Read “Trying to Eat Tread Softlies” in the current issue of Palmetto, which is available to members of the Florida Native Plant Society, and also more than likely in your public library.

Wild Fermentation

What a delight to spend an evening with Sandor Katz, and to hear all about his latest methods of fermenting foods. His 2003 book, Wild Fermentation, is a well-worn reference on my cookbook shelves, and I was so excited to actually have the opportunity to hear him talk.

His seminar drew a large audience for Gainesville, Florida, where he set up a table with some fermented foods at an alternative reading room called the Civic Media Center. Sandor jumped right in with some background about fermented foods, reminding us that fermentation and drying were the original ways of storing food. All cultures, he said, developed ways to “culture” milk products in various ways with various names.

One such culture called “yogurt” became popularized world-wide through the efforts of the Dannon Company, originally founded in 1919 in Barcelona, Spain, by the Carasso family who obtained cultures from Bulgaria and the Pasteur Institute, where the bacteria strains were first isolated by Elie Metchnikoff, a Nobel laureate who attributed the long life of Bulgarians to one of the two bacteria that converted milk into yogurt.

Sauerkraut is the most common “ferment” in the U.S.; however, the commercial sauerkraut available in supermarkets may be fermented, but it is also pasteurized, which sort of begs the issue of the health benefits of live microorganisms.

There are much more exciting options for fermenting food than just cabbage and yogurt,  as Sandor soon showed us. He had already cut up all the vegetables because he told us it would be pretty boring to watch him chop and slice and if he tried talking while chopping, well, who knows what might end up in the fermentation!

While he acknowledged Sally Fallon’s Nourishing Traditions method of using whey for fermentation, which he says will speed things up, he advocates just using the vegetables own juices and a little bit salt. How much salt? He said it depends on your tastes.

He reminded the audience of about 100, most of whom seemed familiar in some way or  another with the process of fermentation, that this stuff keeps forever and he noted that he has a 55-gallon drum of fermented vegetables in his basement at home in Tennessee. He even brought some for us to try, a delicious, pungent mix of various vegetables and cabbage.

Why should you ferment vegetables?

Lots of reasons including improved digestibility; additional nutrients formed by the fermentation process; long-term storage of fresh food; enhancing your immune system by promoting microbial diversity in your body; and for many, the sheer enjoyment of the taste!

Ferments are typically stable due to the salt and the acidity.

And it is safe to ferment just about anything–even meat, but there are special more complicated processes for this that are best left to professionals or the very conscientious.

For successful fermentation, remember this important rule, which applies to infusing herbs as well:  Keep the material out of the air, that is, keep it covered with liquid.  Exposed parts grow mold which will ruin a good ferment.

Sandor’s latest  “no fuss” fermentation process:

  1. Use glass or ceramic jars or crocks.
  2. Chop, grate, or use a food processor to cut up vegetables.
  3. Add salt (not mandatory but better because the salt holds the water out of the vegetable through osmosis).
  4. Bruise the vegetables with a rolling pin, or your hands (about five minutes or so).
  5. Press vegetables down into their own juices and put something heavy (and non-reactive) on top.
  6. Do not fill jar to top and do not seal jar! (Keep vegetables covered with liquid.)
  7. Leave your vegetables out at room temperature. Look at your ferment everyday and taste it. The tartness of the ferment is personal, and you should slow the process when you think its right. (You do this by placing the ferment in the refrigerator.)
  8. Keep mold off the vegetables. A little whitish top mold won’t hurt anything if you catch soon enough. Brightly colored molds can be dangerous, so throw out the ferment, sterilize the jar and start over. One of the participants suggested putting a slice of onion on top the ferment to further retard mold.

What can you ferment?
Just about anything. Cabbages, of course! Radishes, beets, celery, turnips, onions, beans, ginger, garlic, carrots, and the white part of bok choy and other Asian greens. Herbs, including dills heads and seeds, celery seeds, seaweed, and caraway seeds, can be added for flavoring.

Greens can be fermented, but they are not so crunchy. Sandor does not recommend fermenting tomatoes unless they are green, but some red ones may be added for color or flavor. They don’t hold up well, he told us.

And don’t forget fruit! You make a fruit kimchi with a variety of fruit, and adding spices such as garlic cloves, hot chilies, cilantro, and/or ginger. You can add nuts, too! Sandor mentions adding the juice of one lemon in this fruit ferment he learned from a neighbor in Tennessee, Nancy Ramsay. Peel the fruit if you like or not. Leave the grapes whole, but chop everything else and prepare as you would the vegetables, adding water if needed to cover mixture.

My neighbor Joni, who joined me for the evening talk, got so excited about the fermentation process that she attended an impromptu community fermentation workshop the following Sunday. “It was great,” she said. “What a perfect winter activity.”

Especially since the last 10 days continuous days of nighttime temperatures below 32 degrees here in Florida  have pretty much wiped out our typically abundant winter gardens.

Time to  harvest and preserve. Toast the New Year with a glass of kavass!

Meanwhile, it’s Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop, so join in the fun,  learn lots, and eat well!