Photo by Wendy Wilson Billiot
Rushing past thickets of roadside growth, you’ve probably driven by thousands of what might otherwise be considered common briar patches. Upon closer inspection, particularly in February and March when tiny, white, five-petal flowers sprout from these thickets of vines that sprawl unhindered along roadside ditches, wooded areas, and in fields, you’d have been pleasantly surprised to discover otherwise.
This month, those white blossoms will grow into berries—first tiny and green, then, within a couple of weeks, full and nearly black in color. Most folks in South Louisiana refer to these as blackberries, a misnomer for the early-ripening black beauties. They are really dewberries—more specifically, Rubus trivialis, the Southern Dewberry—which abound in South Louisiana and are often mistaken for the blackberry, Rubus argutus.
Although the differences between dewberry vines and blackberry vines are not readily appreciable by the casual observer, a couple of characteristics distinguish the Southern Dewberry from the common blackberry. Dewberries ripen before blackberries, so if you come across ripe berries in April and May, you can trust they are dewberries. Some folks also claim that dewberries are more tart and a little smaller than blackberries.
Stems offer less obvious, but equally reliable, tells. The stems of the dewberry, called primocanes, stand erect the first year and are sterile. The second-year stems, called floricanes, produce flowers and may remain erect, but most often lean toward the ground and trail along, putting out roots at the tip as they continue to spread. Both primocanes and floricanes are covered in prickles, but don’t let that keep you from enjoying your fair share of this free-for-the-picking fruit.
Berry picking is an outdoor event the entire family can enjoy. To make berry picking easy and safe for children, find berry vines that run along fences or the roadside. The best time to go is around mid-April after a rain because the rain sweetens the berries while filling them out to thumb size. Also, bring along a long stick, hoe, or shovel to poke into the thick underbrush before stepping into the berry patch. This scares away any critters that may be hanging out in the cool shade below. Don’t forget your plastic ice cream buckets or small plastic pails for collecting the berries—something with a handle is best. And gardening gloves are a must to protect fingers and backs of hands from the prickles and long-sleeved shirts provide protection while reaching into the underbrush for the choicest fruit.
Lest you lose your picking crew, keep lagging children (and adults for that matter) engaged by reminding them that even a bowlful of berries is enough to make a delicious dewberry cobbler or “dewberry dumplings.” Encourage some eating-off-the vine (Just beware of stink bugs and tiny worms!) or promise them some berries served in a bowl with milk and sugar once you’ve hauled your harvest home.
If you live in an urban area, you will be surprised at the number of berry patches you can find if you just take the time to look. Growing up in the city, my family picked berries every year and we looked forward to the tasty treats they provided us. Once I became a mother, I took my own children berry picking; and to this day, I pick dewberries every year, and make dewberry jelly and jam, like my mother did. To her list of culinary uses, I have added dewberry cordial, while bags of berries go into the freezer for cobblers and dumplings (a link to a recipe is provided below) throughout the year.
For a delicious Dewberry Dumpling recipe, visit bayouwoman.com/dewberry-dumplings.
For more information about all things dewberry, visit http://goo.gl/B4o7q8.