Monday, May 16, 2011

The Berries Where You Live

We're suffering from a serious lack of rain here in Texas, USA, this year. We've had exactly one rain in the last three months. This is something that we're used to, for sure, but it doesn't make it any more pleasant. And even worse this year, it is happening during springtime.

Spring is certainly the prettiest time of year most places, but around here, where we suffer dry, brown summers, spring is the time when it's just perfect outside...not too hot, not too dry, no chiggers out yet...and usually, flowers aplenty. While the flowers are certainly nice, they are fleeting and, well, sacred. It is a long-standing rumor that it is illegal to pick Texas wildflowers. While it is perfectly legal, it is seriously frowned upon--and that really is OK! I want them there to enjoy for as long as possible.

But there is another colorful springtime friend out there that no one pays any attention to anymore. In this part of the world, my favorite plant--sitting there free for the picking--is the agarita bush. I'm thrilled that our place has several hiding under brush, just waiting to be let out into the sunshine.

Last spring, the roadsides were filled with these. Mine weren't, because we haven't yet been able to give them the full sun that they love (it's on the way, my lovelies!). Birds "plant" them along fencelines, mostly, but these little prickly shrubs grow anywhere they please.

My grandmother said that they never let an agarita bush full of berries get away. She and her sisters would get the old sheets out to spread under the bushes, and start whacking them with broom handles and rakes. You see the little tips of those leaves? They're sharp! But with a couple of well-aimed hits, those little berries would fall onto the sheets below to be gathered up neatly. Usually, just enough would be left on the bushes for the birds and racoons and other critters who also love them.

And I am one of those critters for sure. I love fresh agaritas. They're tart and sweet and lovely. And they make the best jewel-colored jelly you can imagine. And they're free. If you've priced blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries in the stores, they've left the price range of making jelly from them--it's cheaper (and easier) to just buy the jelly.

Sadly, this year, the drought has meant not a single red jewel on the roadside...or bluebonnet or even much grass. So I'm pining for the agaritas. I can't help but ponder all those lovely berries that just wasted away last year. We picked some along our street (and then ate them all fresh). But not once did I see anyone out gathering berries. I've seen more shamed picking of bluebonnets than gathering of agarita berries!

I've heard stories of gathering wild blackberries, dewberries, mulberries, and even wild strawberries and sloes over across the water. I bet everyone's grandmother knew where the best patches were. So why'd we stop doing that? Free food? It really is everywhere if you know where and how to look. Check out Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma (or any of his other books, for that matter). We have all kinds of stuff right under our noses. But there anything more special than gathering sweet, bright, juicy berries, eating all you can and making jelly of the rest? I seriously doubt it.

So, what about you? Do you know where the berry patches are? Do you take advantage? What's your local specialty?

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