Katie Letcher Lyle

Books & Articles:

The Wild Berry Book

The Wild Berry Book

© NorthWord Press, 1994


I feel lucky to have grown up during World War II to the light music of gossiping women, the static, make-do society of the war years, and the perfumy scents all summer long of fruits being put up. When we weren't spending those first free summer days in bored isolation from the dreaded polio, we went running with pails along the railroad tracks for the wild strawberries we knew we'd find. All summer we gathered watercress, or grapes to be simmered into jelly, or blackberries for pies, swapping stories about the enormity of the rattlesnakes that were reputed to hang out in blackberry thickets.

Once home, there was the carol of kettles of water bubbling in tropical humidity for the sterilizing of canning jars, or there were mountains of blackberries to be picked over with purple fingers. On the day we made jelly, pooling our ration tickets for sugar, the children hung around trying to get first crack at the "skim" or scum—that foamy, delicious part that grownups discarded from the top of the jelly and which would prevent its perfect clarity if left on top.

With this book, I welcome the opportunity to recall more of those pleasures, and to introduce them to another generation.

Wild berries may be the only thing of value on this continent found in more abundance today than when the first European settlers stepped onto our soil. Though I had not realized it until I began writing this book, probably not one-tenth of one percent of the wild berries in this country are gathered today.

This book is about wild berries—how to find them and use them, how they got their names, and what part they have played in human history— including how common folk beliefs have been supported or discredited by contemporary research.

Botanically speaking (which I promise not to do too often), a berry is any fleshy, simple fruit, edible or not, with more than one seed and a skin. But this includes many fruits not generally recognized as berries, among them grapes, tomatoes, eggplants, bananas, cucumbers, kiwis, quinces, chili peppers, figs, persimmons, pawpaws, and pomegranates. (Berries with rinds, like pumpkins, all citrus fruits, and watermelons, are called pepos.)

But the commonfolk (non-botanists, including me) are likely to call ovate, many-seeded fruits, and other fruits that resemble them visually, berries. Strawberries, blackberries, and serviceberries, for instance, are not actually berries. Osoberries, or Indian currants (and other currants), are berries. But hackberries, elderberries, and bearberries aren't; they're really drupes, or oneseeded fruits. Serviceberries and chokeberries are pomes, or apple-like fruits.

The folk, ever more practical than learned, have jumbled things nicely by doing what comes naturally, looking with keen observation and inference at plants and coming up with their own system of classification, which goes something like this: "If it looks like a berry, it's a berry." Thus you can begin to see that, between the academics and the rest of us, total agreement on what is or is not a berry is unlikely.

Generally, I will go with the folk opinion, so often more sensible in matters of quotidian life than that of the academic world. However, this book will include some "unlikely berries" such as mayapples. I offer you this handbook on wild berries in the hope that it will bring you many hours of pleasure. But beebleberries, I must warn you, are not found anywhere outside of old Little Lulu comics.

Site design by Mariner Media, Inc.