By Bob Confer
A majority of people will count sweet corn as the ultimate summer food – not only is it harvested in the finest months of the year, it is also possessed of unbelievable flavor.
Many nature lovers (this one included) might beg to differ. There is one summer bounty that matches, even rivals, sweet corn and it’s one that isn’t farmed, one that Mother Nature blesses us with in yards, hedgerows and woodlots across the region.
That unbelievably-tasty morsel is the blackcap.
The blackcap is a member of the rubus genus, the same group of plants as blackberries, those longer berries that become ripe in August and, despite their popularity as a garden plant, have an inferior flavor.
Blackcaps are ripe now and will be for another week and a half, maybe two weeks at the most.
You really can’t confuse the berries with those of any other plant – they are round, bulbous, bumpy and dark blue to black when ripe (unripe berries are whitish to red). Despite their easy identification, I always urge parents to watch their small children when picking berries; blackcaps grow on disturbed soils, often next to nightshades the oval, smooth red or black berries of which are poisonous.
You can identify a blackcap plant by its height (up to three feet), leaflets in groups of three or five depending on variety or subspecies, and light-green stems with thorns. It is because of those thorns that you must wear long pants (not shorts) if you are really serious about harvesting blackcaps.
You can find blackcaps at edges of yards or in hedgerows, field edges, and younger woodlots. They are especially abundant in hedgerows in farm county because starlings, robins and other berry-loving birds will consume the fruits in huge numbers, take cover in hedges, relieve themselves there and then their seedy poops ultimately become blackcap plants. It’s fun, maybe even a little unnerving, to think about the food chain and the circle of life (just don’t think about it too intently when enjoying the berries).
If you have a couple of plants taking root in your yard, don’t mow them over. Let them be; blackcaps can be pretty prolific. If allowed to flourish and grow on their own, you will find that you will have a nice dense patch of plants in a couple of years.
The blackcap goes by a few other names…bramble, black raspberry…but it seems that anyone who has ever eaten one calls it “mmm, mmm, mmm.” The flavor is unique among berries. It’s sweet, but not too sweet as some summer fruits tend to be, not the least bit sour and the texture is firm and you get the added textural experience of biting into countless, minute, crunchy seeds in each bite.
It’s the firmness of blackcaps that allows them to keep well in the fridge. If you pick them on a Monday and keep them cool, you can still enjoy them on Friday. Related to that firmness, they aren’t too juicy (read “messy”) when handled — you won’t need to go crazy washing your hands after picking and eating them like you might have to with mulberries.
Many people make pies and purees out of blackcaps, but I find that to ruin the precious fruits. They are best savored on their own, fresh and unspoiled or lessened by cooking and processing. You will, though, find me breaking my own advice and using blackcaps as a topping on a bowl of vanilla ice cream most nights while the berries grace our landscape. You can’t beat that.
If you don’t believe me about the power of the blackcap, my 3-year old twins will attest to it. Never mind the bounty of strawberries and mulberries right now. They’ll eat them, but they really want blackcaps. For the past week, they’ve been asking for more of them, non-stop (like I can make them magically appear) and just last night one of them broke down while we were foraging for them – “I WANT BLACKCAPS!” she kept yelling through her tears.
I really can’t blame her…I want more, too.
So, get outdoors right now, enjoy blackcaps while you can; their appearance in Allegany County is like our summer — fleeting and it must be savored.