The Benefits of Berries
Late summer and fall offer a bounty of berries bursting with flavor—and healing potential.
As life blooms around us, so does the summer fragrance. Sweet scents of honey, blossoms coming of age, and crisp, sun-warmed air transport us to another reality.
Summertime greets us with patches of berry brambles paneled with verdant leaves and embossed with berry gemstones. You reach out delicately with clutched hands, plucking the ripened fruit from a system flawlessly designed to fabricate them. You notice the weight and reward of the harvest and observe the coating of the exocarp, the specific heat it emits, the color of its opulent juice behind that thin outer skin.
Harvesting berries can be a powerful meditation, centering us in the power of “now,” and is one of the oldest human experiences. This simple action can be an opportunity to revel in the abundance of nature. Tangibly interacting with food that is so wired into its life source is otherworldly, and it reminds us of a time when humans were more directly connected to the origins of our food. It is a grounding experience that demands every cell in your body resonate with the source of our food, catalyzing our connections to the universe.
It’s not just about taking nature’s bounty; it’s also about tending. For millennia, great effort was put into cultivating, harvesting, and preserving berries. As they ripened through the seasons, entire villages would shift their daily actions and organize their lives around these plant teachers. The abundance of nourishing food brought annual berry harvests that are now inherited and renewed through generations. It is no surprise that for the first people of these lands, berries emulate feelings of love and childlike joy and are equated with long life and good health. Many creation stories from Indigenous communities are centered on berries.
Blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, strawberries, and elderberries, to mention just a few, were central pillars to deep traditions and practices of cultivation in North America. In fact, this is a shared global tradition. While numerous berry varieties are available in supermarkets, many others are still cultivated in wild spaces and harvested with reverence seasonally. They can be found thriving in forests, high mountain meadows, lowland pastures, urban landscapes, and our contemporary gardens.
Berries are high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and support our human bodies in many valuable ways. Employing one-of-a-kind superpowers, these fruits can manufacture phytonutrients naturally, a power we pitiful humans simply lack. We rely on the berry to bestow these healing properties to help us fight off colds, repair broken blood vessels, and aid in our digestion.
Berries not only offer powerful nourishment, but also cultural continuity and bounteous life lessons. Here are a few of the berries native to North America that have been nurtured since time immemorial.
Wild blueberries are very close kin to the varieties of blueberries available in grocery stores today. From a culinary standpoint, blueberries from the store shelves are seamlessly interchangeable with huckleberries and wild blueberries. They also share relations with the bilberry, a European variety of wild blueberry. Found fully ripened throughout the summer months in the United States, blueberries are delicious in their raw form but can also be transformed into tasty syrups or jams and make great additions to smoothies. Medicinally, blueberries can assist in treating a patchwork of human issues, from urinary tract infections to circulation problems. Blueberries bear a specific phytochemical called anthocyanin that can help relieve suffering from glaucoma and cataracts.
Shaped like little red hearts, strawberries are often associated with love and our human heart. Adorned with seeds and vines that like to shoot into empty spaces, strawberries can be quite prolific, perpetuating life everywhere they grow. Perhaps this is why they are at the center of so many creation and love stories for Native peoples of North America. They are typically the first berry to ripen, leading the season. Impressively, these berries can help irritated tummies and can be used for oral health, as they contain malic acid, a natural teeth whitener. They are also high in vitamin C and critical minerals that support blood vessel health.
Messy raspberry shrubbery is made up of prickly, thick canes that sprout soft, silver-ish leaves. They produce bright white flowers that transform into floral, tart-tasting berries. Like their close relative the rose, raspberries are high in minerals that help tone our blood vessels and strengthen the health of the heart. Nowadays, raspberries can come in many colors, including white, yellow, red, and even purple. Raspberry leaf can be harvested, dried, and consumed as a tea to help strengthen the uterus, treat menstrual cramps, and relieve labor pains.
Blackberries are shaped like raspberries but have a hardened, solid core in their center. They are deep purple to black in color and are typically ripe from June to August. Blackberries can be eaten fresh or cooked and make a tasty fruit leather. Blackberries and their leaves have been used to help soothe indigestion, ease coughs, and speed up the wound-healing process. Hundreds of different types of blackberries grow all over the world, from large brambly bushes with huge fruits, originating in Armenia, to low-growing vines with tiny, sweet berries found in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.
Cranberries have historically grown in bogs, cultivated in a belt spreading from one end of North America to the other. Adorable pink flowers shaped like the beak of a crane inspired the current name of these berries: The crane-berry eventually came to be known as the cranberry. These tiny plum-tart berries are effective at treating bacterial infections, particularly in the urinary tract, and can also restore the immune system to help fight off common colds. Native peoples harvested these berries in late summer or after the first frost and stored them in baskets and boxes throughout the winter for a springtime treat. During colder months, cranberries can often be found simmering in a pot on the stove for fresh tea. Their tart flavor is also medicinal, activating our digestive system so we can effectively absorb nutrition in our food.
Elderberries grow on small bushes that have the potential to grow up to 20 feet high! In the early summer, a plume of white umbrella-shaped flowers blossoms and later turns into dark blue or black elderberries. These trees can grow so prolific with elderberries that their weight can snap the branches in half. Harvesting can feel especially rewarding as one snips away a bunch of berries, and the flexible branch enthusiastically returns to its upright position, reaching for the sky once again. The elderberry is one of the most medicinal of all the berries, renowned for its ability to ward off viral illnesses and effectively reduce fevers. It has a great ability to boost the immune system, with its high content of vitamins A, B, and C. Elderberry is often made into a syrup and used as a healthy sweetener, poured on top of pancakes, or added to anything that could benefit from a sweet, rich berry flavor. Think jams, jellies, and popsicles—yum!
Summer Berry Fruit Leather
Memories and flavors of gathering berries on warm summer days can be amplified with this preservation method.
4 quarts berries (blueberry, raspberry, strawberry, blackberry)
¼–½ cup honey (optional)
Juice of 1 fresh lemon
After harvesting, rinse your berries and add them to a blender along with the optional honey and lemon juice. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or wax paper. Pour blended berry slurry onto the sheet and spread the mixture out to create an even consistency about ¼ inch thick. Set the oven to the lowest possible temperature of around 170 degrees Fahrenheit and leave the oven slightly cracked to allow the berries to dry out. This process can take up to 6 hours. Cut the dried berry leather into strips, roll them up into pinwheels, and store in a cool, dry place. Enjoy, and try not to eat them all at once!