The highs and lows, trials and tribulations of a professional berry picker!
When I was probably 4 years old, my gramma lived on a mountain in a heavily wooded area about an hour from where I have my farm now. This was in Elco, Pennsylvania, a very small and rural town. She lived with my grandfather and aunt and her kids and they lived rather primitively. For at least a while when my father drove and deposited the trailer on the land they purchased, there was no indoor plumbing from what I remember. Until the trailer was dropped, there was an OLD outhouse for doing your business near an old shed and a nearby spring to gather water. My cousins and I would fill gallons of plastic jugs with the water and carry it back to her trailer. We made a lot of trips back and forth.
At that time, I remember going to the general store in town and she purchased a bunch of peeps. Looking back on it now, I don’t understand why they weren’t put into a fenced in area at that time, but I remember chasing around a little peep trying to catch her and it having a heart attack and dying. In my memory, it sort of exploded which was traumatic and my first memory of chickens. but this story is about berries, so we won’t have any more dying chickens here. It is just a memory I have of the same time period I am describing so wanted to share that.
On that mountain I was taught to pick blackberries with both hands and carried a container that must have been tied to me. I just loved picking the warm, ripe berries and after we were done with the picking, we would get a bowl of berries topped with sugar and milk. It was the most delicious treat.
I would watch my gramma make pie crust from butter and flour and she baked many blackberry pies and made jam and jelly.
On this mountain there were probably more than a hundred acres of beautiful land and the woods were filled with blackberry bushes. We could wander anywhere we wanted. There were no neighbors, only a gun club at the top of the hill, but no one there ever seemed to notice or be bothered by us as we were playing on the rocks and picking berries.
Because blackberries have very harsh thorns, or jaggers as we call them in our part of Pennsylvania, we had to be fully covered with long sleeves and pants while picking despite the humid summer temperatures. I would always get a lot of scratches on my hands and face but I never remember suffering from poison ivy as a child. That change to my tolerance happened in my late 20s. I had moved to Ben Avon and found a walking trail where I took my dogs and I was delighted to find blackberries.
The heat, mosquito bites, poison ivy and scratches are a small price to pay for all this free food though and to this day I feel that exact same way. Despite having to get Prednisone every year at least once, if I see ripe, wild berries growing somewhere, I WILL submerge myself into the thicket come what may!
I have been known to get out of the car while waiting in traffic to get into Star Lake Amphitheater in Burgettstown and yes, I know it isn’t called that any more. If you are local to Pittsburgh and over 35, you know where I am writing about!!!!
Anyway, along route 50, the back way into that place, I have left the car, grabbed a plastic bag that inevitably would be under the seat for potential dog poop needs and go pick berries until we were moving again. I have been golfing a few times too and inevitably there are wild blackberries growing along the wooded areas and I have stopped and pick some then too. I just can’t help myself.
Don’t even get me started about visiting my family in Bellingham Washington. They have bike trails EVERYWHERE and bordering all those MILES and MILES of trails are the most giant blackberries I have ever seen. They are a different varietal than we have here in PA and apparently are a nuisance there because they are so prolific, can you believe it? The first time I saw them I thought, I need pickers! I need to move here and hire pickers. No one wants for blackberries in that beautiful place and probably never has to buy one single berry.
I am pretty sure I blogged about the yellowjackets that I stepped on while picking berries on my grandma’s mountain when I was about 9 years old. I didn’t know they lived in the ground and as I stepped on them, they attacked me and I panicked and kept jumping up and down on their nest and aggravating them. 30 stings later I enjoyed my bowl of berries, milk and sugar once I calmed down and didn’t die from all those stings. Today, I carry an EpiPen with me as I am also now allergic to bees, yellowjackets and mixed vespids. I’m still picking berries and keeping bees though. Those are some of the more severe and dangerous trials and tribulations that I meant in the title!
Over the years I have picked millions of blackberries, tens of thousands of black raspberries and now I am on a huge elderberry kick.
Back on that mountain there were some elderberries, but I don’t remember there being a plethora of them. I remember grandma making some elderberry pies and jams but not too much. The taste was different than a blackberry for sure and they were so rich and PURPLE. I did like them but largely I forgot about them for decades.
Anytime I am hiking the dogs in a new place, I am always looking for more blackberries and was thrilled to see so many wild dormant berry bushes when we first looked at the farm. I could certainly recognize those bushes even in winter. The previous owner also showed me the berries he had planted. In addition to a row of dilapidated grapes, there was one elderberry bush, two gooseberries and some honeyberries. I had never heard of, seen nor tasted gooseberries or honeyberries but I was thrilled to be the new owner of such interesting and unique berries. Turns out, honeyberries are similar to a small blueberry and the gooseberries are unlike anything I had ever experienced. I will say when you pluck them from the bush, they come off with a small stem that needs removed before you do anything with them so those are a bit of a pain to actually use in any capacity, but I still enjoy them.
Last fall, I was visiting a friend up near our cabin. This woman and her husband are true lovers of everything green. They have a nursery at their home and sell tons of starter plants of all kinds.
I told them I was looking for more elderberry as my Mother Earth News magazine and the annual fair we attend had gotten me interested in making healing elderberry wellness syrup. I decided to do that, I needed more bushes. Why buy berries when you can grow your own, right?
They sold me one small plant and told me about a wild bush about 5 miles away right on the main road. I was excited and immediately got my berry picking gear and went searching. After some scouting, I did see them and the bush was COVERED with clusters of wild elderberries but they were probably 8 to 10 feet high and a few feet into the woods with no clear path to get to them. I knew it would be impossible to get them so left them for the birds.
Back in my younger days, I would have considered somehow catapulting myself to get to the center of the berries, but I am over 50 now and decided I better not. If you have ever been deep into the woods where I find myself pretty much daily, you’ll know it is tricky getting through all those ‘jaggers” and all kinds of old thorny trees to get to the good stuff. Nowadays, I also have to diligently look for poison ivy too and there are ticks EVERYWHERE and all matter of tangled trees, vines and whatnot grabbing at you. Picking wild berries is definitely not for the faint of heart and you better not be afraid of spiders or their webs. So many varieties of nature’s beings are trying to trip you up and the birds do not like you stealing their sustenance, so 40 + years of berry picking has resulted in all kinds of injuries, stings, bites and various booboos. As I said earlier though, these are FREE and gifts from God, so I just plow through literally, to get to those giant luscious berries, but I TRY to be careful!!!! I’m tough or crazy or a little of both!
Anyway, seeing those wild elderberries lit a fire in my belly and I decided I needed to stop focusing on blackberries and see if I could find some wild elderberry bushes near the farm. I mean, there must be some. So, back home I took a really good gander and found 3 or 4. I was excited. I have no idea how I hadn’t seen them before. One was smack dab in the middle of a really good blackberry patch and 3 were planted around this old pony barn that is falling down. The whole thing needs torn down and eventually we will get to that but for now, I could see some decent bushes and I was so excited.
Then as I started to really recognize what the bark and the leaves looked like, I found one more. This one was near the pond and covered on all sides by some really thick thorny bushes, but I figured, I could cut my way to it to harvest. I was motivated.
I showed Mitch all of these telling him that as he is clearing some old crap around the farm, he is never to touch these. To me, these were like the fabled unicorn, something magical and I was beyond blessed to have found these.
Well, 3 weeks ago, Mitch went up to the pony barn to tear down the one part that was really falling down and while I did momentarily think I should remind him about the elderberries, I honestly never thought he would touch them. I knew where he was going to be working with the backhoe and thought, only one was in the way and I was pretty emphatic when I gave the instruction to leave them. Spoiler alert! My next blog is going to be called Can You Hear Me Now and deal with Mitch’s significant hearing loss. But suffice it to say, when I went up the hill to see what he had done, I almost cried. I could not believe he had mowed down 3 beautiful bushes. I went running back down to tell him what he did and I knew he felt terrible but I was so MAD and hurt that those things that were so important to me, he just didn’t see them. Metaphor for larger things? Maybe, but maybe not. I took my snips and went back up to try and salvage pieces. I was going to attempt to root them and make a whole slew of new bushes from those. I was also able to pull the old roots out of two of them and Mitch helped me pot all the pieces and parts. They are now in various stages of either dying or surviving and I told them that I will keep them in those pots until next spring and keep them under the grow lights and tend to them every day through winter if they will just PLEASE DON’T DIE. We will see how all that goes. I read a bunch of articles online and am hopeful at least some of them will take.
In the meantime, I started clearing a big area opposite our house. It is still early spring and it will be easier to do this now than in summer and I needed something to do while the seedlings grow. Outside work is still my favorite and though it has been largely chilly, we have had some decent weather days.
As I was clearing, I was struck by a few long stems with leaves that were emerging and looked so familiar. Could it be? Was this an elderberry? I went up to the one planted in the grape field and compared them. My heart started beating fast. I thought YES. So, I then opened my eyes and kept clearing and low and behold, I uncovered more than a dozen elderberry bushes in this area from a few feet to taller and with many shoots like they had been here for YEARS!!!! At this early spring stage, there is not much growing yet so they truly stood out like a sore thumb. Now that I WAS LOOKING for them, I could see what I had been missing. I put little fluorescent flags at the base of each one and Mitch cleared out several old and gnarly trees that were blocking the sun from them and over the past two weeks, we have really cleaned up Elderberry Grove. Mitch is forgiven and I told him maybe everything does happen for a reason. If he hadn’t chopped those ones down by the pony barn, I wouldn’t have really looked at those plants in early spring and known what to look for. Now, I am finding some more small ones here and there in the woods and marking each one so I can measure their growth and planning my new elderberry business. I can’t wait to blog about the mountains of berries I will be picking. Good times are coming!!! #berrypicker #farmlady #wildforallberries