Years ago I was at a barter and a friend bartered me some dried strawberry tree fruits. They were delicious, sort of chewy with a lot of body and a nice fruit flavor (not really like strawberry, but tasty!). Riding along the Burke Gilman Trail between the U-District and Fremont a few days ago, I saw the strawberry trees on the east side of the trail are starting to get bright red fruit – time for a harvest. I missed the harvest last year so I am determined to get it this year.
Strawberry trees (scientific name Arbutus unedo) grow fruits that are round and bumpy, and bright red when ripe. They are also rather seedy, like strawberries. The trees are native to the Mediterranean and western Europe, including the cloudy temperate climates of Ireland and the UK, so I imagine that our non-native similar climate treats them well.
I was also pleased to find out that strawberry trees are in my favorite plant family, which is, of course, Ericaceae. Other tasty foods in the Ericaceae family are cranberry, blueberry, huckleberry, and salal.
All over Seattle, unattended apple and plum trees are dropping fruit (and have been for a few weeks). Your neighbors may have trees you can pick, if you aren’t lucky enough to have a fruit tree of your own. Ask! Offer to leave them a box of picked fruit, and throw all the rotten fruit in their compost. Picking their unwanted fruit is a great way to make friends with your neighbors.
Most trees bear far more fruit than one household can eat, so give extras to neighbors, friends, and family. Can or freeze applesauce and plum compote, which are excellent uses of Seattle’s plentiful tree fruit. You can also give the extras to local food banks, just like City Fruit does, as long as they are freshly picked and will keep for at least a few days. You can borrow an apple cider press (try West Seattle Tool Library, NE Seattle Tool Library, or PNA Tool Library), or go to a local harvest fair that offers a press for you to use (and feed the leftover apple pulp to your or your neighbor’s backyard chickens).
My recipe for applesauce is easy: cut a bunch of apples into small pieces or slices (1-2 inches), put them in a pot with a little water, and cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it’s the consistency you want. Add cinnamon and/or sugar to taste. Plum compote is basically the same. It is particularly tasty with lots of cardamom, in my opinion! Both applesauce and plum compote store well in the freezer.
Your standard Himalayan blackberry is an invasive weed that tends to start producing ripe fruit in August and finishes sometime mid-September with the straggler berries.
Don’t encourage Himalayan blackberry in your yard unless you are prepared to deal with the consequences. It takes some serious goats to gnaw those things to the ground, and they will just come back. Instead, go to one of Seattle’s many blackberry patches for pretty much all-you-can-pick. Vacant lots, undeveloped hillsides, and parts of certain parks (Carkeek being my favorite) are havens for the blackberry.
There is also native blackberry, and black raspberry, which are unfortunately somewhat hard to find in the city in my experience!
Dandelions are not native to the Northwest US, but they sure are plentiful. Sometimes I dig up dandelion clumps in the vegetable beds and give them to our chickens – who will eat just about anything green. They’ll eat them down to the root in half an hour. But when they are actually roaming around the yard, they’re too busy digging up bugs and worms to be bothered eating dandelions – so it seems to be a food to toss in the coop after gardening.
Humans can eat dandelions too. You may have heard that the greens are edible in salads or cooked too – young leaves are best, before the flowers bloom. Doug Benoliel’s Northwest Foraging states that the leaves are less bitter if you “blanch” them first – not by putting them in hot water, but by covering them with a board or something. He doesn’t say for how long to do this though.
Our noble native salal is called t’áqa in Lushootseed, the Native American language spoken around much of Puget Sound (1). The berries are, in fact, edible, despite the claims of some sources. Salal grows well in shade and sun. This picture is of some salal on a pretty bare and exposed landscaping area, where the adjacent ferns completely died due to dry soil and too much sun.
In April 2011, I pulled a couple of shoots of salal out of the ground near where the above photo was taken. I read that you shouldn’t try to propagate salal until the summer, and some even say to just scatter the berries for seed (2), but I’m impatient. I divided the roots into four pieces and planted two outside in a partially shaded area of the front yard, and two inside in pots. The indoors ones will eventually go into the back yard. This is of course assuming they live. A week later they all look pretty much the same. Not growing but maybe not dying either.
By August 2011, two of the shoots are still alive, and I planted them in my front yard. They don’t seem to be growing very fast, but I suspect they are still settling in and I’ll see more vigorous growth in the next year. (Update: they completely died! I should be more patient next time with planting.)
August starts salal berry picking season! I picked 32 ounces of salal berries in early August and expect to start collecting even more in the next few weeks as more berries ripen. It appears that like other berries, the ripe ones are the ones that are relatively easy to pull off the plant. Most of the berries will come off with a short stem attached, which you’ll need to remove if you eat the berries raw or cook them.