Foraging for Thimbleberries in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

COPPER HARBOR, MI — It embarrasses me, after all the things I’ve found to recommend the Keweenaw Peninsula, that it was an overpriced jar of jam that first launched me on my journey here. Or at least I thought it was overpriced at the time: $25 for what looked to be one cup of jam, made from a fruit I’d never heard of before called a thimbleberry.

It turns out that thimbleberries won’t be tamed, a quality that attracted me to them immediately.

I was at American Spoon, a foodie-black-hole chain based in in Charlevoix, MI that is essentially the firmament of condiments. For a good 20 minutes I shamelessly hoovered up samples from their smorgasbord of jams, and pickles and mustards and chutneys and fruit butters and curds. High quality was the characteristic that tied them all together. (That and some slick lifestyle-porn signage.)

Despite my posh surroundings, I was startled by the cost of their wild thimbleberry jam. I hadn’t seen it on the condiment buffet, and once I flipped it over and spied the price tag, it made sense why. (I didn’t spring for it, but my relentless questioning did ring up a sale to a more pecunious woman in earshot.) I learned from the saleswoman that thimbleberries won’t be tamed, a quality that attracted me to them immediately. Their stubborn refusal to grow where people want them to means all thimbleberry products must be hand-foraged, and thus the price.

Standing in my first patch of thimbleberries in Copper Harbor in late August (thimbleberry foraging video) I learned how to harvest the fuzzy domed fruits through what must have seemed, to the chatter-scolding squirrels, to be comedic trial and error. I don’t say ‘pick’ when I talk about thimbleberries because they are so elusive it’s almost like they pick you. The flavor makes it worth it, though: a muskier and more interesting variation on a raspberry.

Thimbleberries have one of the highest ratios of leaf area to berry I’ve ever seen, and you practically have to be a magician to get them into your container. I only got into one thick, head-high patch that I’d call easy pickings in several outings. The rest of the time I felt like I was hiking between plants. I’d spy one of the red berries winking out from a thick patch of the maple-shaped greenery and ask myself if it was worth walking all the way over there to get it, or up that steep hill through some unrelated underbrush. I’d convince myself that single specimen probably had some friends in hiding, and head on over.

  • First lesson: Thimbleberries fly. Or that’s how it seems when you go to pick a ripe one. Make sure your hand is positioned under and not above because they’re eager to flutter to the forest floor in a hail of good-natured curse words.
  • Next lesson: sometimes they look ripe but they aren’t ripe. These not-ripe ones cling tenaciously to what botanists call the “receptacle” that the berry forms around, much like raspberries, which start ripening earlier, but overlap thimbleberry harvest.
  • Third lesson: Besides being far apart and not inclined to capture, thimbleberries are delicate. So you have to pinch ahold of them firm enough that you keep them from escape-flying, but not so firmly they squish. But if you put too many in the same container, they squish anyway. So, easily bruised.

If you’re making jam, squishing a thimbleberry or two is not as big a deal, because they’re gonna get squished anyway, but I was trying to protect their integrity long enough to throw them in my watercooler half-full of white vinegar. I made a batch of pickled thimbleberries and also a thimbleberry shrub, a 1-1-1 ratio of fruit to sugar to vinegar that can be mixed with oil for a salad dressing, integrated into a fancy cocktail, or just added to seltzer water for a refreshing sweet and sour soda.

I perched a few of my thimbleberries atop a thimbleberry donut I got from Jamsen’s Fish Market and Bakery. Recently, I mixed some of the pickled berries into a chicken salad I took to Copper Harbor’s Gaslight on Halloween. In my next post I’ll show you how to make Thimbleberry shrub and in a future post, will discuss the various permutations of Keweenaw thimbleberry jam and share a jam-making video with local forager extraordinaire Meg Vivian North.

Until then, here’s me giving my nouveau-expert advice about how to maximize the number of thimbleberries you come away with at each patch:

A few thimbleberry facts:

  • Scientific name Rubus parviflorus
  • Grows both from seed and through “rhizome spreading”
  • Thrives on disturbances, including fire and soil disruption
  • Can grow as tall as 10 feet!

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