Our Window on Nature

. . . exploring the world around us

A Rose By Any Other Name

Filed under: Flowers — Lowell Christie -- December 12, 2015 @ 4:51 pm

RoseIn our many years of travel we’ve always enjoyed foraging for wild foods – often native plants but sometimes escapees from civilization just like us.  In order to safely eat some of the items that others would consider just part of the scenery we’ve had to give ourselves a crash course in botany, learning to identify families of plants and discovering which ones tend to have edible species.

To our continuing enjoyment we’ve found that many of the easiest to identify, and often the most beautiful when in bloom, were related to the rose.  What may surprise you is how many “roses” you already know.  Robert Frost said it well in the first lines of his poem The Rose Family.

The rose is a rose,

And was always a rose.

But the theory now goes

That the apple’s a rose,

And the pear is, and so’s

The plum, I suppose.

Frost didn’t mention the delicious peaches and apricots or bright red cherries.  Or that an almond tree is a member of the rose family.  And he left out our favorite trailside snacks, the raspberries, blackberries, and wild strawberries.

At the first hint of spring we start looking for the blooms of the various family members, both for their beauty, and to note their location for later visits when the fruit ripens.  This sometimes takes a little coordination of travel plans, since many trees and shrubs produce their outstanding displays in early spring, while harvest time may be as late as fall.  A solution is to keep a “Harvest Notebook” listing locations to visit as the season progresses.

One of the early native “roses” to bloom is the wild plum, growing in 43 of the lower 48 states and extending far into Canada.  There are about 30 different wild species of plum in the United States.  As with most members of the rose family it has five-petaled white flowers which appear in April and May.  The fruit ripens in August and September.  The plum often grows into a thicket, providing cover as well as food for wildlife.   And if we find it before the animals, it makes an excellent jam.

Although wild plum, blackberries, and strawberries are native and widespread, many of the foods we find, although originally grown as commercial crops or landscape plants, were transplanted by our friends, the birds.  Stealing fruit from your backyard garden, these unintentional avian gardeners spread the seeds far and wide, and if the conditions are right, a new plant takes root.

We’ve found apple and cherry trees in the most unusual places, and even some plants with large seeds may grow in the wild when the pit is thrown away by picnickers.  And then there are the crops left behind at abandoned homesteads that keep growing year after year, long after the original caretakers have left.  Last year we were hiking in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California and followed a trail that wound through an abandoned apple orchard.  There was no sign of a structure, but plenty of fruit ready for picking.  And pick we did.

It’s not necessary to visit the backcountry roads and trails to find apple orchards to stock your pantry.  Inside Capitol Reef National Park in Utah the pioneer community of Fruita has been preserved as a Historic Rural Landscape.  The original residents evidently liked the rose family as much as we do, since their orchards contain cherry, apricot, peach, pear, and apple trees in abundance.

The National Park Service now owns and maintains the orchards, and each year opens them to the public (for a small fee) as a pick-your-own fruit orchard surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery in the country.  The orchards are in bloom throughout the spring, and the various fruits start ripening with the cherry crop in June and ending with apples in September and October.  It’s one of our “must-stop” places whenever we get near Utah.

The larger fruits of the rose family are undoubtedly the most useful, but our favorites are still the smaller berries that can be found throughout the country.  But we have mixed feelings about one that we truly love – the Himalayan blackberry.  This delicious fruit isn’t a native, and despite its name, it actually originated in Armenia.  It was introduced into North America in 1885 because, although similar to native blackberries, it is larger and sweeter.  Unfortunately it soon escaped from cultivation and in many places is considered a serious invasive species.

It can now be found in the wild in all of the western states, as well as a good portion of the east.  Many of the articles on the Internet that deal with the Himalayan blackberry call it a “noxious weed” and give tips for trying to get rid of it.  But it’s too late; this plant is now a part of our environment.  About all we can do to help stop its spread is by eating all the blackberries we can find.

In our many taste-tests of the wild fruits of the rose family, for pure enjoyment it’s hard to beat the wild strawberry.  Maybe part of its pleasure is in its size.  Much smaller than the commercial strawberry, it’s difficult to eat too many of them because you spend most of your time searching rather than tasting.  But the wild version of this nutritious plant is more flavorful and sweeter than what you can buy in the supermarket.

Wild strawberries grow in every state, flowering from April to June, and while Project Budburst, which tracks blooming and fruiting dates for many plants, reported fruit in Southern California in mid-March last year, you’re more likely to find pickable fruit in June.

We love wild strawberries, but seldom find more than enough to eat on the spot.  Is the effort worthwhile?  We’ll leave you with a quote from William Butler, a 17th century English writer, who said about strawberries, “Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.


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