Thimbleberry – Rubus parviflorus

Introduction

It was at age eight that I proudly declared to my mother, “Mom, when I grow up, I’m going to be a thimbleberry farmer!”

My dream was to have a huge thimbleberry farm, and grow enough that I could make jams and pies and eat my fill as often as I wanted. Ever practical, my mother informed me that farmers don’t make a lot of money, and anyway I didn’t have any land on which to start a farm (or capital with which to acquire land). This deterred me somewhat, though to this day I secretly harbor a desire to popularize this delicious fruit, with its unforgettable flavor and texture. Maybe one day I will be able to retire to a large, sunny plot with an ample water supply and breed thimbleberries which prolifically bear large and flavorful fruits.

Here I will describe this fruit for those readers who have not been fortunate enough to try it themselves as of yet. Thimbleberries are a joyous shade of summery scarlet, and are covered with a tiny layer of fuzz ever finer than that of peaches. They feel softer than velvet in the mouth.

Their flavor is somewhat reminiscent of raspberries, but with a fantastic tang that offsets their sweetness in a way that makes it impossible to eat too many at once.

Habitat and Distribution

Native to North America and Northern Mexico

Deciduous (loses its leaves in winter) shrub which grows in open woodland and canyons below 8000ft, as well as in montane coniferous forests.

Food Uses

  • Berries were eaten raw by many native California tribes, such as the Pomo and Yurok. For a full list of tribes who ate Thimbleberries raw, please see the Footnote (located below the references list at the end of this page).
  • The Bella Coola cooked R. parviflorus with wild raspberries and other fruits into a thick sort of jam, dried the preserves, and used them for food, whereas other groups, such as the Hesquiat, Hoh, Makah, and Quileute simply made jam (without drying it afterwards) to be stored for future use.
  • The young sprouts were peeled and eaten in spring and early summer by the:
    • Bella Coola
    • Klallam
    • Makah
    • Montana Indians
    • Nitinaht
    • Coast Salish
    • Upper Skagit
  • Salish and Swinomish peoples favored consuming the tender young sprouts together with “half-dried” salmon roe.
  • Montana Indians were knowns to tie the sprouts into bundles before steaming and consuming them.
  • Fruits were dried and stored for future use by the:
    • Cahuilla
    • Hesquiat
    • Klallam
    • Coast Salish
    • Southern Kwakiutl
    • Squaxin
    • Of these groups, the Southern Kwakiutl and Coast Salish formed the berries into cakes before drying and storing them.
  • The Thompson had some unusual uses for various parts of R. parviflorus:
    • Toasted shoots were eaten either alone or with meat or fish
    • Roots were used for sugar
    • While they did eat fresh, raw berries alone, they also ate them together with fish.

Beverage

  • Cahuilla used the berries to make a beverage by soaking them in water.

Spice

  • Hesquiat people would boil the leaves with fish, which both flavoured the fish and kept them from sticking to the pot.

Noteworthy Information

Interestingly, the Isleta considered thimbleberries, which they grew in the mountains and ate as a delicacy, to be a type of strawberry. Though strawberries and thimbleberries are in the same family (the rose family, Rosaceae), they are in different genera and are not particularly close relations.

Propagation Notes

  • 3 months of cold stratification may give satisfactory germination rates, though soaking in either 1% sodium hypochlorite (household bleach) for 7 days or concentrated H₂SO₄ for 20-60 minutes, followed by 3 months warm and then three months cold stratification may improve germination.
  • Easily propagated from stem cuttings.
  • Prone to spreading widely by rhizomes.

Pests and Diseases

  • Grey mold (Botrytis) may sometimes be a problem.

Cultivation

  • USDA zones 3-10. Fully hardy. Grow in well-drained, moderately fertile soil in partial shade. Also grows in full sun, provided an ample supply of water is at hand.

Etymology

  • Rubus is the ancient Latin name, rubus, for “brambles”, or “bramble-like”.
  • Parviflorus means “small leaves”, parvus (small) florum (foliage).

References

  • Gledhill, D. (2008). The Names of Plants. 4th ed. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521685535
  • P. A. Munz, A Flora of Southern California
  • Moerman, D. (2010). Native American Food Plants. 1st ed. Portland, OR: Timber Press. ISBN 9781604691894
  • D. E. Emery, Seed Propagation of Native California Plants
  • R. G. Turner Jr., Botanica
  • C. Brickell, The Royal Horticultural Society A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants
  • K. N. Brenzel, Sunset Western Garden Book
  • http://www.theplantlist.org/
  • http://www.iucnredlist.org/

Footnote: Tribes which ate Thimbleberries raw

  • Blackfoot
  • Cahuilla
  • Chehalis
  • Clallam
  • Cowlitz
  • Gosiute
  • Hesquiat
  • Hoh
  • Isleta
  • Karok
  • Southern Kwakiutl
  • Luiseño
  • Makah
  • Nitinaht
  • Okanagan-Colville
  • Paiute
  • Pomo
  • Kashaya Pomo
  • Quileute
  • Quinault
  • Coast Salish
  • Samish
  • Sanpoil & Nespelem
  • Shuswap
  • Upper Skagit
  • Snohomish
  • Squaxin
  • Swinomish
  • Thompson
  • Tsimshian
  • Wintoon
  • Yurok

 

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