Some years are more fruitful than others. Last year was one of those years. From mid-June until mid-August I never set out for my morning walk without slipping a pint jar into my pocket. I wanted to be prepared to pick first the low bush blueberries, then the huckleberries on the powerline right-of-way, and later, in August, the blackberries that overhung the Far Field Road.
But for nearly three weeks in July, most of my berry-picking centered on our home grounds where, for the first time in more than two decades, black raspberries escaped most of the ravages of deer and the attention of black bears and produced a crop that I could barely keep up with.
Video of Marcia picking raspberries in 2008. (Subscribers must click through to watch.)
Back in 1971, when we first saw our place on a Fourth of July weekend, I couldn’t believe the abundance of black raspberries growing in the backyard. Over the years, as the deer herd increased, the black raspberry canes decreased. Then, the bears appeared. Those canes that survived the browsing of the deer, namely those growing on the steep slope below the front porch, were trampled by bears overnight and stripped of their almost-ripe fruit.
During the last several years, our hunters have trimmed the deer herd and the black raspberries have begun to recover. Last summer we had a perfect storm of berries — patches outside the kitchen door, below the front porch, surrounding the springhouse, on a steep slope beside the guesthouse, and in the guesthouse backyard. Secondary patches thrived beside the driveway and in our side yard. Every hot, humid morning I was out early, picking several quarts. Although some went into the freezer for winter fruit salads, we ate most at our meals, either alone or combined with blueberries and huckleberries, depending on whether I had the strength and will to pick both in one day.
The word “fruit” comes from the Latin fructus meaning “that which is used or enjoyed,” and we certainly did both with our wild berry crops. I did most of the picking. Occasionally, I was rewarded with more than berries. Once in the patch outside the kitchen door I found a song sparrow nest that contained four greenish-white eggs heavily blotched with brown. While picking blueberries on the powerline right-of-way, a tiny American toad hopped in front of me. Hooded warblers serenaded me as I harvested blackberries on the Far Field Road.
With all the bears on our mountain, I was surprised that they left the black raspberries alone and that I never encountered them amidst the blueberry and huckleberry shrubs. No doubt, the incredible abundance of wild berries everywhere on our mountain kept them busy. I, after all, ranged only a mile or so in search of berries, but I knew of other patches on neighboring properties that had as much or more berries than our property and that were not picked by humans. And the bear scat on our trails certainly showed evidence that they were enjoying berries as much as we were.
Not only did the wild fruit crops palatable to humans thrive. So too did those palatable to birds and animals, such as the red-berried elder, also called mountain elder. This beautiful, native shrub likes cool, moist, rocky woods and blooms in April. On steep slopes, where deer cannot reach to browse its twigs and foliage, red-berried elder thrives, bearing pyramidal clusters of berry-like drupes here by the sixteenth of June. Our son, Dave, photographed chipmunks eating them, and I have watched rose-breasted grosbeaks gobbling them up.
The naturalist-writer Henry David Thoreau once wrote in Faith in a Seed, “If you would study the habits of birds; go where their food is, for example, if it is about the first of September, to the wild black-cherry trees, elder bushes, pokeweed…” The “elder” he meant is the common elder, those shrubs with flat-topped, clusters of small, white flowers that are even more popular wildlife food. By early September, those shrubs inside our three acre deer exclosure hung heavy with the umbels of purplish-black, berry-like drupes, and I flushed two ruffed grouse feeding on them.
Because common elder blooms long after the last frost — in late June and early July — it always produces a bumper crop of fruit. “Many species of wild birds are attracted to the ‘banquet table’ which the common elder spreads in the fall,” William Carey Grimm wrote in The Book of Shrubs, such as gray catbirds, American robins, eastern bluebirds, northern cardinals, rose-breasted grosbeaks, eastern towhees, red-bellied woodpeckers, brown thrashers, and wood and hermit thrushes. But because white-tailed deer browse on its twigs and foliage, the “common” elder has become uncommon in many areas. What the deer don’t eat, the sprayers of roadsides, drainers of swamps, loggers of stream sides, and abolishers of fencerows destroy, because this is a shrub of fencerows and waysides that flourishes in rich, moist soils along streams and swamps. Those in our exclosure grow along its moist border, reaching a height of seven feet, while those that grew along our stream at the edge of our First Field wetland are gone because of deer browsing.
Wild black cherry trees are not deer food so we have many in all stages of growth including large trees. As early as the second of July, I flushed a brown thrasher fledgling that was eating wild black cherries from a medium-sized tree at the edge of First Field. But it was mid-August before most of the cherries in the forest began to ripen. Then they were loaded with fruit, some of which were green, some red, and some black. Common grackle flocks quickly discovered them, and during an evening walk, my husband Bruce and I watched hundred of blackbirds stream over First Field and land on Sapsucker Ridge, their black bodies silhouetted against a golden sky as they ate cherries.
The following day, Tim Tyler, one of our hunter friends, was cutting out black locust trees on First Field when he discovered a cedar waxwing nest with four pale gray eggs spotted with brown in a locust tree. He immediately stopped cutting there and left a small grove of six trees standing to protect the incipient waxwing family.
Thoreau wrote about finding a small black cherry tree in “full fruit” and hearing the “cherry-birds — their shrill and fine seringo — and robins… The cherry-birds and robins seem to know the locality of any wild cherry tree in town…” “Cherry-birds” are cedar waxwings. Had the waxwings waited for the cherry crop, which was unusually late because of a cold spring, before starting their family? They do, after all, feed fruit to their nestlings. On the other hand, it could have been a second nesting. Successful cedar waxwing couples often have second families, especially during good fruit-bearing years.
I kept an eye on the nest from a distance and always saw the female sitting on it. But on the fifteenth of September, a cedar waxwing keened from the bare branch atop one of the tall black locusts above the nest site. It looked around alertly, as male cedar waxwings do when they are on guard for their family. I peered at the nest through my binoculars and saw the female on the nest as usual. Then she flew up toward the male and both of them flew off. I took the opportunity to check their nest and found four nestlings. One looked more advanced than the others did, but this sometimes happens with waxwings because often the female starts incubating before she lays all her eggs.
That was the only time I went near the nest, but I continued to watch it from a distance. Soon the nestlings’ little crested heads were visible above the rim of the nest. At least one parent was on guard in the tall locust whenever I walked past. Based on my calculations, that the female sits 12 days on her eggs before they start to hatch—a process that can take form 48 to 96 hours—and another 16 days as nestlings, I expected them to fledge around September 24.
Sure enough, on the morning of September 24, the cedar waxwing nest was empty except for a broken egg still holding smelly liquid and two squished wild black cherries. The nest had been woven of wild grape stems, lined with dried weeds and plastered on the outside with fluffy white material.
In addition to cedar waxwings, I saw red-eyed vireos, blue jays, and scarlet tanagers harvesting wild black cherries, but the list of songbirds and other wildlife that feast on them is legion. Thoreau mentioned gray catbirds, brown thrashers, eastern kingbirds, blue jays, red-headed woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds and northern cardinals as the most common birds that eat wild black cherries, in addition to robins and cedar waxwings. Huge piles of bear scat studded with cherry pits on our trails testified to their popularity with bears. And the smaller animals, such as foxes, squirrels, and chipmunks, also ate the fruit.
A bower of pokeweed above Coyote Bench ripened too in September. Pokeweed, known by many alternative names, for instance, pokeberry, poke, redweed, inkberry, and pigeon berry—can grow up to 12 feet tall in rich, moist soil. Its long clusters of dark purple berries and large shiny seeds are popular with many songbirds, especially mourning doves, hence its name “pigeon berry.” Philadelphia-based bird artist, Alexander Wilson, wrote back in the early nineteenth century that “the juice of the berries is of a beautiful crimson and they are eaten in such quantities by these birds [robins] that their whole stomachs are strongly tinged with the same red color.” I’ve watched eastern bluebirds harvesting the berries from pokeweed growing beside our house.
Several of our spring wildflowers flaunted autumn fruit also. In mid-September, I walked down our road and found twin orange berries hanging from the end of yellow mandarin stems. A series of twin blue berries dangled beneath Solomon’s seal stems, bright red clumps of jack-in-the-pulpit berries bent over from their weight, and a string of pinkish-red berries hung from the stem ends of false Solomon’s seal. Wild spikenard displayed upright clusters of wine-colored berries. Even the small beginnings of maple-leaved viburnum shrubs had a few dark, bluish-black clumps of berries.
But the wild nut crops were thin or non-existent, probably due, in part, to a cold spell in late spring. No wonder wildlife was busily harvesting the September fruit crops. Because nature often gives bounteously with one hand and takes with another, the more diversity we have in wildflowers, shrubs, and trees in our forests, the more likely the animals and birds are to find enough to eat even if a major food fails.
All photos were taken by Dave in Plummer’s Hollow except where indicated otherwise.