One of my favorite summer sweets is a berry that can’t be bought. You won’t find it for sale in a green carton at the farmers market, and it won’t grace the menu of your most earnest locavore restaurant. It’s wild—and it has a shelf life of maybe a nanosecond, usually falling apart in my hand as soon as I pick it. To enjoy this fleeting fruit of the season, I strap on my hiking boots and head for the hills.
Thimbleberries are members of the Rubus genus, which includes some of our most recognizable berries, from blackberries to raspberries to salmonberries. Technically, the fruits of these shrubby plants are not really berries—they’re an aggregate of what botanists call “drupelets,” with each drupelet containing a seed. But for our purposes, we’ll call them berries.
Though the thimbleberry is fragile and anti-commercial in nearly every way, its flavor punches way above its weight. It looks and tastes a little bit like a red raspberry, with a strong, untamed edge and a slightly drier texture.
All the Rubus species thrive in areas of disturbance, which is why we often see them along roads and trails, in old burns or clear-cuts, and taking over abandoned lots. The thimbleberry, however, is notable for being our only local Rubus lacking thorns. This means you can wade into a thimbleberry patch without fear of being torn to shreds.
That said, finding a thicket of thimbleberries large enough to “wade into” is not so easy; most are relatively small. If you do find a big one, remember where it is. I’ve got my own go-to spot up in the North Cascades, a little east of the crest, and it requires a 5-mile round-trip hike—a small price to pay for a patch as large as a few football fields. I call it my “old-growth thimbleberry patch,” and I suspect it’s been there for a long time, because when I pick it, I’m often off the ground, meandering along on a dense latticework of canes. I try to visit it every August; the month of July, however, is best for thimbleberries at lower elevations.
To harvest efficiently, I use a bucket hanging around my neck from a lanyard (picking with both hands is faster than one), and by the time I’ve picked my fair share, the bucket looks like it’s filled with red paint. That’s OK, because I’m not hoping to put a pretty bowl of berries on the table. My plan is to make thimbleberry jam.
There’s one more thing to know about the usefulness of thimbleberries: They have large, soft, fuzzy leaves—nature’s toilet paper when you’re in the backcountry.
Photograph by Langdon Cook
Thimbleberries are naturally high in pectin, so all you need is a 1:1 ratio of sugar to berries and a tablespoon or two of lemon juice, depending on the size of your batch.
In a pot over medium heat, simmer berries to desired viscosity.
Raise heat, add sugar and lemon, and bring to a boil for 1 minute. Skim foam from top.
Ladle jam into sterilized jars for canning. Secure the lids and give the jars a 10-minute bath in boiling water.