While cut roses are regarded for their romantic beauty, you might be surprised by how many other members of the rose family you see and taste every day.
Window On Nature
By Lowell & Kaye Christie, F47246
Throughout our many years of travel, we’ve always enjoyed foraging for wild foods — often native plants, but sometimes escapees from civilization (just like us). In order to safely eat plants that others might simply consider part of the scenery, we’ve given ourselves a crash course in botany, learning to identify families of plants and discovering which ones tend to have edible species.
To our continuing enjoyment we’ve found that many of the plants that are the easiest to identify, and often the most beautiful in bloom, are part of the Rosaceae family. What may surprise you is how many “roses” you already know. Robert Frost said it well in the first lines of his poem The Rose Family:
The rose is a rose,
And was always a rose.
But the theory now goes
That the apple’s a rose,
And the pear is, and so’s
The plum, I suppose.
Frost didn’t mention the delicious peaches, apricots, and bright red cherries. Or that an almond tree is a member of the rose family as well. And he left out our favorite trailside snacks — raspberries, blackberries, and wild strawberries.
At the first hint of spring we start looking for the blooms of the various rose family members, both for their beauty and to note their locations for later visits when the fruit ripens. This sometimes requires coordination of travel plans, since many trees and shrubs produce their outstanding displays in early spring, while harvest time may be as late as fall. A solution is to keep a “harvest notebook” that lists locations to visit as the season progresses.
One of the early native “roses” to bloom is the wild plum, which grows in much of the United States and parts of Canada. North America is home to approximately 30 different species of wild plums. As with most members of the rose family, it has five-petaled white flowers that appear in April and May. The fruit ripens in August and September. The plum tree often grows into a thicket, providing cover as well as food for wildlife. And if we find the fruit before the animals, we can pick enough to make an excellent jam.
Although wild plums, blackberries, and strawberries are native and widespread, many of the foods we find, although originally grown as commercial crops or landscape plants, were transplanted by our feathered friends, the birds. Stealing fruit from orchards and backyard gardens, these unintentional avian gardeners spread the seeds far and wide, and if the conditions are right, a new plant will take root.
We’ve found apple and cherry trees in the most unusual places. Even some plants with large seeds may grow in the wild, if the pit is thrown away by picnickers. And then there are the crops left behind at abandoned homesteads that keep growing year after year, long after the original caretakers have left. Last year we were hiking in the Sierra Nevada foothills of California and followed a trail that wound through an abandoned apple orchard. There was no sign of a structure, but plenty of fruit ready for picking. And pick we did.
It’s not necessary to visit the backcountry roads and trails to find apple orchards to stock your pantry. Inside Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park, the pioneer community of Fruita has been preserved as a Historic Rural Landscape. The original residents evidently liked the rose family as much as we do, since their orchards contain cherry, apricot, peach, pear, and apple trees in abundance.
The National Park Service now owns and maintains these orchards. They are open to the public on a pick-your-own basis, surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery in the country. (Visitors can pick and eat as much fruit as they want while in the orchards, but a fee is charged for fruit picked and removed from the orchards.) The orchards bloom throughout the spring and the various fruits start ripening with the cherry crop in June, ending with apples in September and October. It’s one of our must-stop places whenever we’re near Utah.
The larger fruits of the rose family are undoubtedly the most useful, but our favorites are the smaller berries found throughout the country. We do have mixed feelings about one that we truly love — the Himalayan blackberry. This delicious fruit isn’t a native, and despite its name, it actually originated in Armenia. It was introduced to North America in 1885, because, although similar to native blackberries, it is larger and sweeter. Unfortunately, it soon escaped from cultivation, and in many places it’s considered a serious invasive species.
The Himalayan blackberry can be found in the wild in all of the Western states, as well as a good portion of the East. Many articles on the Internet call it a “noxious weed” and provide tips for trying to get rid of it. But it’s too late; this plant is now a part of our environment. About all we can do now is to continue eating all the blackberries we can find.
In our many taste tests of the wild fruits from the rose family, for pure enjoyment, it’s hard to beat the wild strawberry. Maybe part of the pleasure is its size. Much smaller than the commercial strawberry, you won’t fill yourself up on wild strawberries, because you spend most of your time searching rather than tasting. But the wild version of this nutritious plant is sweeter and more flavorful than its cultivated cousin.
Wild strawberries grow in every state, flowering from April to June. Project Budburst, which tracks blooming and fruiting dates for many plants, reported fruit in Southern California in mid-March last year, but in the rest of the country, you’re more likely to find pickable fruit in June.
We love wild strawberries but seldom find more than we can eat on the spot. Is the effort worthwhile? We’ll leave you with a quote from William Butler, a 17th-century English writer, who said about strawberries, “Doubtless God could have made a better berry, but doubtless God never did.”