Wild-harvesting foods and other useful local resources can be a fun, interesting and satisfying endeavor. First you partake in a scavenger hunt of sorts, looking for your treasure among the beautiful landscape. Then you make your way home with bounty in tow. Once home, preparations are made for processing. Finally, if your treasure is edible, you enjoy the satisfaction of hard-earned deliciousness. From going out in to the woods collecting mushrooms for dinner or huckleberries to make a pie, to collecting cattails for pillow stuffing, Ashland and the surrounding areas have much to offer.
A few weeks ago my dear friend Melinda and I collected several pounds of elderberries just below Grizzly Peak. Elderberries grow from 4000-6000 ft elevation, on south-facing slopes or clearings (all of which we learned in search of said berries). We also learned that the berries “like” to grow very high; it seems that they are perpetually just out of human reach. Elderberries are well known for their medicinal properties but are also quite delicious. Be sure to eat these berries when they are ripe as they can make you ill if they are not ripe (cooking helps nullify this, as does alcohol).
Melinda and I enjoyed a little walk to and from each elderberry tree, eyes wide open, and necks straining to search for more berries. We brought a rake to reach the clusters, as previous outings with only arms as tools had shown to be less successful, and highly frustrating. We would approach the tree, lured by a particularly plump bunch of berries, only to find that the bunch was just out of reach, but that several other equally lovely bunches were attainable. One of us would point out a bunch of berries, the other would reach up as high as we could, balancing precariously on aforementioned south-facing slope (which usually also included a pile of duff and/or cow poop and giant downed tree ready to collapse when you stepped on it for balance…) and turn the rake around the berry cluster’s stem. This is delicate work; one has to be careful not to lose too many berries while turning the rake around the cluster, and also not land the berries in any equally inaccessible location (such as down the south facing-slope). If all goes well the berries land gently on the duff and the non-rake-wielding one of us would sweep them up into a bag (hopefully overflowing with berries).
This process repeated itself several times. Each time we gave thanks to the tree for its bounty and questioned why the birds weren’t eating more of this deliciousness. In about 45 minutes we had harvested about five pounds of beautiful berries. We drove home, where I promptly started doing homework and Melinda promptly took over the kitchen to start the real work.
The berries were juiced cluster by cluster, with the primary stem removed. Then the juice was reduced on the stove by half. Sugar was added to make a scrumptious syrup to liven up any breakfast feast! The pulp was placed in a large Mason jar and vodka was added to make a tincture. This jar sits on a dark shelf in our kitchen. On hot days, (remember those?) sweet berry smells abound. The Mason jar is turned every week to encourage extraction and in a few months we will have a most delicious tincture used to ward off illness… but also great in cocktails!
Wild-harvesting doesn’t stop with elderberries for us. Currently we have about three hundred pounds of pears in our dinner area, a ginormous pile of cattail fluff drying next to the wood stove and mushrooms and manzanita berries on the way!