Some itchy, sweet tales of summer berry-picking

by Kate Shunney

Two things come to mind when I think of berry picking as a kid – chiggers and cobbler.

No matter what clothes Mom made us put on before we headed out to the blackberry bushes – long-sleeved denim shirt, jeans, tall socks – I got attacked by chigger bugs. The bites itched terribly, no matter how much clear nail polish we painted on them.

Ripe blackberries.

Still, for a couple of sweet weeks in the mid-June sunshine and heat, we’d head to hillsides and along the edges of dirt roads to pick soft black berries and drop them in empty ice cream, margarine or peanut butter buckets wedged under one arm.We kids got to pick the easy edges. As we got to be teens, we got tougher and pushed further into the fields, fighting the prickly canes for the darkest berries and passing up any red ones, or berries that held on when we pulled with our fingertips.

Back then, it seemed like my mom made blackberry cobbler continuously for several weeks. Juice bubbled up around the golden-brown cakey batter on top of the fruit. We scooped it out still warm from the oven, and had it with vanilla ice cream. I don’t remember us having leftover cobbler, so I don’t know what it tastes like cold. Warm, it was sweet and tart and speckled with seeds that crunched in your teeth.

Berries ripen in waves, thank goodness. We went at them hard as soon as any of the berries on the vines looked the right color. If we were lazy or in a hurry, we’d pick everything – even the unripe berries. Then we’d have to pick the hard ones out of the buckets. I learned to leave those on the canes if they weren’t really ready.

One of the grandest parts of berry time as a kid in Great Cacapon was the promise of blackberry ice cream at the annual 4th of July Fireman’s Festival in “The Grove” – the fire company’s festival grounds.

After eating a ham or chicken dinner at the picnic pavilion, we’d line up to get ice cream at the end of the pavilion from one of the men scooping it at the big chest freezers. There was vanilla and chocolate, but I never remember choosing those over the dark purple blackberry ice cream made just for the festival. It was a once-a-year treat.

Berry-picking time stretches out over a month or more in Morgan County. Before the different blackberries hit their ripest, wild blueberry bushes are filling up with their dusty purple fruit.

Blueberries grow well in acidic soil. Sandstone – the rock that makes up much of our mountain slopes – makes the soil acidic, perfect for blueberry bushes. The bushes grow on the sides of Cacapon and Purslane and Sleepy Creek mountains, and many other places.

Wild blueberry will fill in areas that have been recently timbered, making a thick, reddish-green undergrowth of shrubs. Bushes get bell-shaped blooms in the spring that later give way to small hard green berries. Each bush can hold hundreds of small fruits. These aren’t the blue monsters of the grocery store. Wild blueberries are petite – not much bigger than a peppercorn up to berries the size of a fingernail, if you’re lucky.

Picking local wild blueberries.

Any area with a lot of wild blueberry bushes will also be a place bears and snakes like. On hot days, snakes will seek out the shade under the bushes. A good stick comes in handy when picking. It won’t help with bears much, but they won’t generally stick around to snack while you’re in the area. One June day, when the blueberry bushes were in full fruit along the Ziler Trail at Cacapon State Park, I heard a rustling off trail. Expecting to see a deer step out through the branches ahead, I was greeted, instead, by the small face of a baby black bear. As soon as the cub saw me, it pulled its head back into the thick cover and hustled off. Knowing a cub in sight meant a mother bear nearby, I very loudly told mama bear, wherever she was, that I was Most Definitely Leaving The Berry Patch Right Now.

In and amongst the blueberries, especially on Sleepy Creek Mountain, wild huckleberries grow. Huckleberry bushes look a heckuva lot like blueberries and grow interspersed with them. When the fruit is ripe, huckleberries are a darker purple – almost blackish – and shiny compared to the dusty look of the blueberry. Huckleberries can be more tart, and don’t have the spiked crown at the bottom of the berry like their blue cousins. Plenty of times I’ve picked both and left them mixed together in the jug. A few huckleberries in a blueberry muffin or jar of jam never did anyone harm.

There are several kinds of blackberries around – some with more seeds, others with less, some with bigger lobes or a tighter look. Truth is, some of those aren’t blackberries at all, but that’s what we call them until someone tells us otherwise. Some varieties ripen later, meaning you could pick wild berries for the best part of June and into July a bit.

After that, our woods here have elderberry to look for. The big masses of dark purple fruit hang down off tall shrubs. Famous for wine-making and homemade cough syrups, the elderberry stretches out berry picking even further.

Ripe wild blueberries.

Double-check through books, knowledgeable people or a reliable website that the berry you want to pick is edible. No sense making jam out of something you can’t eat.

And be aware of where you are. Don’t pick a mess of berries from someone’s private land without asking first. On public land, follow basic principles of stewardship – take only what you’ll really eat or use and leave plenty for the critters that rely on berry bushes for their food.

Watch out for all critters who like the bounty of berries just as much as we do. Give yourself a good spray of bug repellant to keep off the gnats, mosquitos and ticks while you’re outdoors. When you’re back home with the buckets of berries, give yourself a once-over to check for ticks.

I can’t tell you how to avoid chiggers. I never did figure that out. But it seems I got less sweet as I got older, since they don’t bother me now. That could be one advantage of leaving tender youth behind — lots of sweet memories and no chigger bites.