Director of Research & Education at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation
July is upon us, and it’s high season on the island. When traffic is too much and you can’t find a parking spot by your favorite beach, it’s a perfect time to get out on one of the many trails around the island. We are fortunate that there are so many trails created and maintained by our dedicated conservation organizations. With efforts by the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, the Nantucket Land Bank, the Linda Loring Nature Foundation, Mass Audubon, the ‘Sconset Trust and more, we all have plenty of options to choose from.
July is also the perfect time for berry picking. Whether you want a casual snack on the trail or are in for some serious foraging and pie-making, there is something for every palate.
The native wild edible berries of Nantucket vary in their sweetness as well as in their availability. Some are more like “pie berries” where they are so plentiful you can easily find enough to make a pie. Blueberries fall into this category. Other berries are just as delicious, but are less plentiful. These are the muffin or pancake berries. Black huckleberry fits this description. Lastly, there are the infrequent producers. These are generally plants that produce delicious berries, but only a few per plant or the plants themselves are not easily found. Shadbush falls into this category for me, as well as elderberry. These are “snack berries.” If you are lucky enough to find them, you have to just eat them on the spot and enjoy the treat while out and about.
Many friends have noted recently that this is a banner year for high bush blueberries. High bush are usually the first of the wild summer berries to fruit (not counting the early summer strawberries at the farm). The high bush blueberry bushes (Vaccinium corymbosum) are taller shrubs usually around five to eight feet tall and like to have their feet wet. That means that they like their roots to be in or near water, so check on the edges of wetlands where there is still plenty of sunlight. Really old shrubs can have a gnarled appearance. The berries produced are the fat, juicy blueberries similar to the ones people usually find in the grocery store. However, they are the second most important species commercially. The next bushes to fruit—lowbush blueberry—is the leading source of commercial blueberries in North America.
On a recent walk in the middle moors with my son and our dog, we came upon a perfect patch of lowbush blueberries (Vaccinium angustifolium). These are the tiny berries that grow low to the ground along the edges of many paths. Don’t let their size fool you. They are very sweet and plentiful. These are pie berries. The edible berries are rich in vitamin C and sugars. Lowbush blueberry plants are easy to find along our many open, sunny trails. Tolerant of nutrient poor soils, the lowbush blueberry bushes love the sandplain grassland and heathlands found around the island.
This past weekend while on a walk at Squam Farm my son exclaimed, “Mom, there are raspberries!” I almost let him try it knowing it would be sour and force a pucker on his face, but I felt kind that day. “No,” I told him. “That is a dewberry. Like a blackberry. You need to find a black one for it to be sweet.” We found a few and they were delicious, but it’s only mid-July. The dewberries and blackberries won’t be ripe in any abundance for a few more weeks. Dewberries and blackberries are all members of the Rubus genus, along with raspberries. Some are more viney than others and some grow more upright, but all have that characteristic berry clump. Knowing what color it will be when it’s ripe helps to know if you’ll get a mouth full of sour or a sweet treat. Because the Rubus species on Nantucket are primarily low-growing, they are favorites of our small mammals, rabbits, and birds alike. My son wondered if the turtles ate them as well. As omnivores, I think a spotted a painted turtle traveling the uplands of Squam Swamp would eat a berry or three if it could reach them.
My personal favorite is next in the edible calendar: Black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata). The dark purple/black berries are plentiful since this is one of the most dominant shrubs of Nantucket. Found throughout the moors, south coast, and heathlands, black huckleberries ripen at the end of July – early August. They are slightly sweeter than a blueberry with a similar taste. The tiny seeds can be eaten (just like a blueberry), but have a little crunch to them that adds texture. These are great berries on top of ice cream, in pancakes, or just as a snack while rambling in the moors.
As July wanes and August looms, a new set of fruit will ripen. Beach plums, rose hips, and eventually fox grapes will be visible (if you know where to look). While delicious and plentiful, the fruit of August and September usually needs processing to enjoy. Jams, jellies, and fruit pies are usually in order. That said, I prefer the lazy berries of July. While taking a walk I can just reach out and have a sweet summer treat warm from the sun. It’s a gift from nature and I am truly thankful for this mid-summer ambrosia.
Remember that in addition to us, the local wildlife also enjoy and rely on these berries during the summer months. Birds, small mammals, and even deer relish this summer bounty.
Notes on harvesting/foraging:
Do not eat anything unless you are positive of the identification or you have been shown by an expert.
Only take what you will eat and/or process. Never take all of anything. The fruit is how the plant survives. It is also important to leave some for the local wildlife.
Be careful of the plants. It’s the berries you are after: please don’t trample or damage the plants you’re harvesting from. We want to take care of the plants that are feeding us.
Be aware of property ownership. Make sure you have permission to harvest on the property you are on. Each conservation group has different rules about harvesting and foraging. Be mindful of these rules.
Don’t pick near the poison ivy! I have been berry-blinded myself and jumped right in before realizing there was poison ivy in the mix. Be aware of your surroundings.
For resources on trails all around Nantucket, visit any of the above-mentioned conservation groups’ websites for local maps. You can also check out Walking Nantucket by Peter Brace, available locally at Mitchell’s Book Corner and Nantucket Bookworks.