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blackberries coming on

Definitely a fruiting moon this month. As well as the blackberries, there are elderberries, hawthorn berries, apples, peaches, strawberries and rosehips in the wild, for the picking now or shortly. On the coast it will be a bit later for most of those, but all the more time to prepare for the harvest ;-)

Like Curious Kai, I usually have a secret blackberry stash. Unfortunately blackberries here in Central don’t seem to do that well and while I’ve been watching a secret, rather large patch locally I haven’t been getting my hopes up too much – it seems that the intense dry allows the bushes to grow and flower and even fruit but often the fruit doesn’t ripen and shrivels instead. I remember reading years ago in Tom Robbin’s Still Life With Woodpecker about blackberry bushes in Seattle growing so much with all the rain there that Woodpecker (or was it Leigh-Cheri) imagined them taking over the city. No such luck here.

Until yesterday that is, when I found a patch that was not only large and growing well but the berries were big and fat and ripe. And they are just coming on, meaning there will be picking for some weeks to come.

This patch grows near a river and is surrounded by kanuka, willow, native scrub, and lots of weeds creating a fertile and damp niche for the bramble to thrive in.

Blackberries are pretty close to my favourite fruit. I’ve been harvesting them wild for 30 years, starting in my early teens when I couldn’t believe that this intense, succulent berry was there literally free for the picking. It was my first real foraging success as a young adult, something I could do on my own and take home to make blackberry and apple crumble (can’t remember if it was me or mum that did the cooking bit). I’ve been in love with them ever since.

Blackberries arrived here in the 1800s with the British who planted them no doubt fully aware of their virtues. Unfortunately since then blackberries have become much maligned by various local bodies and DOC. I’ve not come across blackberries sprayed at berry time, but if you are concerned then phone your local council or DOC* (if you’re harvesting on public land). With a bit of prompting they should be able to tell you what’s been sprayed when. Or talk to the landowner if it’s private land.

*technically you can’t harvest anything, including introduced weeds, from a National Park without a permit, so spray enquiries are best done without mentioning food. I’m not sure about other DOC reserves.

Blackberry, Rubus fruticosus, is part of the rather large Rosaceae family, and is a very close relative of raspberry and the native bush lawyer/tataramoa. Raspberries are less common than blackberries in the wild but can sometimes be found in or around old homestead sites. Tataramoa produce delightful but small berries. By all means taste, but unless you are caretaking bush and know there are plenty to spare, please leave harvesting for the native birds. Blackberry, raspberry and tataramoa are all highly useful as medicines.

In the cooler and wetter places I would expect blackberries to be fruiting next month. It pays to keep an eye out though because you’re up against birds, possums, children and passers-by. It also pays to keep a pottle or two handy in the car for chance encounters (this is true of any wildcrafting and foraging).

I’ll be going back to the patch over the next few weeks to gather berries for eating, vinegar, honey, possibly liqueur and because it’s my first harvest in a hot dry climate I might even try drying some (ok, so I’m sure I won’t get all that done but no harm blackberry dreaming). If you’re new to blackberry harvesting, then it pays to go prepared. Gumboots and overtrousers are a boon if doing a big harvest. Often there is a bit of negotiation with the brambles so a stick or glove for your non-picking hand is useful for holding down errant branches – please take care of the plants and don’t go stomping or breaking unnecessarily. Not only is this a courtesy to the plant who is feeding you, but it ensures your path isn’t too obvious to passersby.

Blackberry and apple crumble

Here’s my peasant foodie recipe for blackberry and apple crumble (sorry, it got eaten before I could take a photo). Normally I would bake this in the oven, but I was staying somewhere without an oven so here’s the adapted frying pan version (you could do this camping pretty easily too, in any size pot as long as the heat is low). Make twice as much as you will eat because this is divine cold the next morning.

* Get a frying pan and melt some butter in it.

* Slice some apples and make a layer in the pan.

* Add a layer of blackberries.

* Add another layer of sliced apple.

* Repeat layers until the pan is 3/4 full or you run out of blackberries.

* Make a layer of rolled oats. I like the large ones.

* Add quite a few knobs of butter and some cinnamon.

* Pour some water over the mix, wetting the oats as much as possible, until there is a decent amount of water in the pan (say half full).

* Bring to a simmer with a lid on, and cook slowly until all the oats are steamed and wet through and the apple is soft.

Goes well with yogurt, cream or ice cream, naturally, but is also good on its own. Best served not too hot.

Blackberry and apple are perfect partners. The local wild apples aren’t quite ripe yet but hopefully will be before the blackberries finish. In the recipe above I used some semi-sweet apples from the organic shop, which collapsed and disappeared in the cooking, leaving a sweet, gooey mass for the blackberries to stew in.

More recipes

Feeling inspired? Here’s some ideas from other bloggers:

If you’re lucky to get blackberries, rosehips and apples all ripe at the same time, then English herbwife Sarah Head offers her hedgerow tonic recipe. She also has a delightful looking blackberry cordial recipe (scroll half way down).

I’m hoping to make some blackberry liqueur similar to this schnapps recipe.

As often happens, and one of the things I love about wildcrafting is that I go out to look for one thing and I find something else entirely. This time it was a cluster of oat plants going to seed. I’ve grown oats before, but rarely seen them growing wild, so I was pretty excited.

Oat plants are Avena species. In NZ no-one seems to talk about varieties, so I’ve never been sure what oats we have here. I’m guessing the ones I found grew because someone had dumped some seed there (it’s a well known spot for dumping garden waste). I guess birds could have brought the seed in too. Either way, it’s likely that it’s seed from commercially grown plants. I don’t see much oat growing wild (although admittedly it’s hard to spot before it seeds).

Identifying Oat plants

Like other grains, oat plants have three obvious structural parts: the stems, the leaves and the grain. The stems of oat are notably round and hollow – the straw of oatstraw. The leaves look like large blades of grass (hence the difficulty recognising them before they seed).

The seeds hang from a thin stalk that grows out from the main stem.

They are covered in an outer husk that separates off as the seed matures – you can see the empty ones at the top of that photo. Inside the green double husk is the oat proper. For medicine you want the oatseed when it is ‘milky’ – the seed is ripe but not dried and when you squeeze it you get a milky liquid. This is why some oat medicines are known as milky oats, to distinguish from other parts of the plant, or seed harvested later. Seed for making porridge is harvested after the milky stage, when it has matured and dried.

The seeds have a beautiful green and white stripe pattern to them:

Farmers seem to plant one oat crop a year, harvesting late summer I think. I found oat pretty easy to grow, even sowing later in the season. Oat is also used as a manure crop in gardening (planted in early spring or late autumn), so you could harvest the milky oats, and even some of the oatstraw, and then dig in the remaining plant. I’m not sure if whole oats from a store will sprout as the hull has been removed. But you can get oats for sowing in many places including organic stores. Koanga have an old variety hull-less oat for growing the grain, and Kings are selling Avena sativa seed specifically as a cover crop.

Oat medicine

Oat is a superb nerve nourishing herb – it is both nutritive and healing.

US wise woman herbalist Susun Weed devotes a whole chapter to it in her book Healing Wise. She recommends taking it as an infusion (using the dried oatstraw) to access the abundant stores of minerals, especially calcium and silicon.

Other North American herbalists rave about milky oat tincture for its ability to strengthen nerve function, promote relaxation and relieve stress.

Oat also works on the hormonal systems, and is a lovely cosmetic and skin healer. If you don’t have access to oatstraw or milky oat tincture, then eating the oats themselves is also highly beneficial. You get the abundant minerals as well as the nerve strengthening properties.

I’ve use oat mainly as an infusion, and of course as porridge. It’s one of the mainstays of my health.

A word about oatstraw for sale in NZ. Oatstraw is sold in two grades: green and gold. Green is harvested when the plant is still vibrant and growing and the seed is milky. The dried herb should reflect this – there will be a green and light gold colour in the cut herb, and it will smell clean. It includes the whole above ground plant so there should be some seed in it as well as leaf and stalk before they’ve browned off. If everything is brown then it’s not green oatstraw even if the seed is there (they’ve just left it too late to harvest).

Gold oatstraw is the leaf and stalk harvested later, usually after the grain has been taken off. Theoretically it should be possible to harvest this well, but in NZ all the gold I’ve come across smells and tastes bad. I suspect it’s because the oatstraw is harvested after the grain has been cut, but it hasn’t been looked after well. Herbs need to be processed to dry as soon as possible after harvesting to retain the freshness. Gold oatstraw comes across as a leftover byproduct of the oatmeal industry. It’s cheaper because of this, but not worth the bother in my opinion. It may taste ok in blends or even as a tea, but made into an infusion it tastes like you’re drinking brewed grass clippings. A part of this will be because of the difference in chemistry once the plant has dried off before harvesting, but some of it seems lack of care in drying and storing.

Don’t buy oastraw that smells musty or mouldy.

I was out for the day yesterday, the first time I’d had to contend all day with the intense heat we’ve been having the past week. At a friend’s place for afternoon tea I went searching in his yard for something for a herbal brew and found some mallow. It wasn’t in flower yet, so I picked a handful of leaves, put them in a mug and covered with boiling water. I let this sit until it was warm (giving it time to brew), and then we drank it. It was mildly and pleasantly green tasting, and refreshing.

Mallow is perfect for hot dry climates and it’s a boon that it grows here. It’s rich in mucilage, which means it has complex sugars (carbohydrates) that form a gel like substance. The root of mallow’s cousin marshmallow was originally used to make the sweet marshmallow because of this mucilage. Mucilage in plants is thought to help the plant conserve water, and it’s also one of the properties used in herbal medicine – to help the body maintain moisture and not dry out.

There are a handful of different mallows growing in NZ. The one I found is probably the dwarf mallow, Malva neglecta, a low growing, almost prostrate mallow (or possibly it’s a small version of M sylvestris). On my travels later in the day I found the most fantastic stand of them flowering along the road.

Malva species are part of the Malvaceae family, a large group of plants that includes our native Houhere (Hoheria spp) which is also mucilaginous.

The common name mallow is used for Malva spp but also some others eg Lavatera arborea (tree mallow).

Mallows are fairly easy to ID. The flowers are distinctive, with five striped petals and usually purple or pink. The leaves are slightly furry, have a mild taste and will be a bit slimy when chewed. Here’s a few ID resources:

Malva neglecta

Malva sylvestris

Various mallows

Mallows are edible and medicinal. The Malva mallow leaves and flowers can be eaten raw in salads, or made into tea or infusion. The leaves can also be cooked in soups and stews. I ate the leaves from our tea (a good way to experience the mucilaginous aspect of this plant). The green ripe seed pods are also edible and a traditional British wildfood treat known as ‘cheeses’.

When making tea or infusion there are several options. Mucilage extracts well into cold water, so a cold infusion is good if you have lots of plant and time. You can use leaves or flowers or both. Put a good handful of plant in a jar and cover with cold water. Steep 4 – 8 hours or overnight. Infusions high in mucilage will go off quickly so drink within a day or store somewhere cool.

As mentioned with the tea, mallow can also be a quick drink from fresh plant, made with hot water. The longer you leave it to brew the stronger the tea, bearing in mind this is a subtle plant – you won’t get much from just a few minutes. And it’s better on a hot day when it’s cooled a bit.

You can also make a hot infusion – use more plant and leave longer. If you have plenty of mallow, it’s nice to experiment and see how the different preparations taste and work in your body.

Mallows grow easily in the garden in a variety of climates – Malva sylvestris in particular is a great garden plant, putting out leaves and flowers over a long season for continual picking. Cut back in the autumn or winter for more lush growth the following year.

I was going to call this full moon ‘summer moon’, but I realised I called the last one ‘summer solstice moon’, which would be a bit confusing. I like the idea of summer moon because it’s really the start of the summer here. Just in time for the end of the school holidays and people are back at work, and the weather finally settles into the hotter days of February. December and January are traditionally unpredictable – sometimes summery, sometimes rainy, sometimes, like this year, four seasons in one month.

This year the full moon (30th January) fell close to the cross quarter date – the mid point between the solstice (December 21) and the autumn equinox (March 21). Known in Celtic calendars as Lugnasad, or First fruits, it falls in NZ on the 2nd of February (2nd of August in the Northern Hemisphere). There was a bit of a conversation at Letters from Wetville about how to celebrate this in New Zealand and I like the idea of a transition between the business of the ‘summer’ holidays and the return to regular life.

Juliet Batten writes in Celebrating the Southern Seasons that Lugnasad was traditionally a time of tribal gathering for fairs and games. Nasad is a tribal gathering and Lug is the god of grain, so this was a harvest festival, a celebration of plenty. However she also writes that for Maori, this time of year was lean and not yet a harvest abundance. She suggests that a contemporary marking be the Festival of the Half Harvest, acknowledging where the resources are, where they are needed and how we all benefit by sharing. With the proximity to Waitangi Day (February 6th) and our current national pondering on how best to mark this day, a Sharing Festival seems fitting.

Back to the moon. I settled on Fruiting Moon because it seems fruit are the main seasonal food now. They’re perfect for the heat of summer, and here at least the stone fruit are in full swing – peaches, apricots, plums. I’m also getting plenty of wild strawberries from the garden, and the commercial berries seem to still be going strong. The wild plums are peaking, and the apples are just about starting. I suspect next year I’ll change the name to Swimming Moon, as that seems the most regular given at this time of year, and I don’t know the wild fruit season well enough yet. But this is the point of naming the moons – to learn what actually happens in nature over a long period of time.

scrumped apricots

wild strawberries drying

baby apples

If you’ve been watching the full moon this past week you’ll have noticed it seems large and at the time of full was sitting low in the sky. This is because it was perigee on Saturday (the 30th, the day of the full fullness). Perigee is when the moon is closest to the earth (apogee is when it’s furthest away). Perigee and apogee moons are associated with big tidal swings because of the intensity of the gravitational pull at this time.

I’ve been very aware of how little I know about what the moon does and why. Watching it rising golden each perfect, still evening in a week of our first really calm weather in months, it seems so inherent that anyone seeing this and paying attention would mark what was happening. Each night at the moment the moon rises a bit further to the south. At some point it must stop doing that but I have no idea when or why or what happens next and I can’t help but feel like I should, that these things are important in ways that we have forgotten. Not just for marking the passage of time, or knowing when it’s still going to be light, but for ways in which really paying attention to the moon focusses our intuition and appreciation of the subtle. The moon is mesmerisingly attractive – all those esoteric interpretations of the moon as representing the unconscious and intuition seem entirely practical to me now. Engagement with the moon literally changes our consciousness (not to mention our bodies. Hopefully there’ll be a post one day about the effects of the moon on our physicality).