The pristine forests that blanket the West Coast are home to a shrub that has been at the centre of spring harvests for thousands of years: thimbleberry. This striking plant with maple-shaped leaves, white flowers, and red berries creates a patchwork around the edges of the region’s woodlands and embellishes stream banks with a pop of colour. Its many uses make this a great plant to remember for any forager looking for a great wild edible.
Thimbleberry, Rubus parviflorus, is a perennial shrub most recognizable for its large five-lobed maple-shaped leaves. The texture of its leaves is soft and plushy but can be drier when it is found in open clearings. The plant, as a whole, grows to over 2m tall and often flourishes in large patches. Unlike other species in the Rubus genus, thimbleberry doesn’t have spines on its thin light brown branches. Early spring sees thimbleberry plants cover themselves in large white flowers up to 6cm across which resemble blackberry flowers. As the seasons change and spring turns into summer these white flowers transform into ruby red berries with small lobes similar to other species of its genus such as salmonberry with the exception being thimbleberry’s lobes are small enough to give the berry an almost smooth appearance. The flowers and berries grow in clusters of three to five and stagger their blooming throughout the season.
Found across North America, thimbleberry is most abundant on the West Coast from Alaska down through to California, but grows less commonly eastwards to Ontario. It prefers moist soils in woodlands, but can be found in open clearings where sufficient moisture can be captured. Usually, this means ditches and stream banks.
In early spring, as the ground thaws and new growth emerges, thimbleberry starts its time in the spotlight. Its edible shoots were so heavily relied upon each spring by First Nations around the West Coast that early European explorers made notes of how they saw canoes traveling downstream laden with huge mounds of thimbleberry shoots. The new shoots are best harvested when they are no taller than 30cm and are still tender. The outer skin must be peeled off but, once done it reveals a tasty wild edible that has a taste reminiscent of a combination of celery and cucumber. These can be eaten raw, sautéed and pickled.
Leaves and flowers of thimbleberry can be made into a tea that is traditionally recognized as a treatment for digestive issues. The flavour is quite sweet with a slight honey note to it. Even sweeter than the flowers is the thimbleberry’s fruit. The bright red berries are juicy and lend themselves well to jams, jellies and syrups. Each bush produces large numbers of berries and with a whole patch, you can easily harvest a large amount with little to no effort.
Seasonality is dependent upon latitude, altitude and the ove, all weather, but as a general rule thimbleberry shoots begin to grow in March when the days begin to have that crisp warmth that signals spring has arrived. The flowers and leaves are a bit later, largely coming into season around May or June. Followed by the berries ripening in early to mid summer with each cluster continuing to ripen for several weeks.
How to Harvest
Harvesting any part of thimbleberry is easy and a fun outing for a day in nature. The spring shoots are soft enough that they can be cut with a decent pair of scissors and there are no prickles or stinging hairs so there is no need for gloves or any type of hand protection. Just grab your scissors and a bag and you’re ready to go. The flowers, leaves, and berries are equally easy to harvest. They can be plucked effortlessly from the branches and the berries will practically fall into your basket when they are fully ripe.
Sustainability is key when harvesting spring shoots. In the case of thimbleberry new growth comes from the main bush as well as from new bases at ground level. This is how thimbleberry grows into such large patches. Since there is growth from two distinct areas you are able to harvest more shoots than would be recommended from another plant such as a fern. Harvesting only a couple shoots per bush is the best way to ensure you are leaving enough to keep the plant healthy, especially in the case where other foragers might be working in the area.
Harvesting the leaves is similar to other plants. These are the plant’s main resources for producing food and for this reason utilize the 10% rule. Only harvesting 10% of the leaves safeguards the plant from overharvesting without being uncertain. The same can be said for thimbleberry flowers. If the flowers are all harvested it won’t kill the plant but will inhibit the production of berries as well as rob a valuable food source for bees and other insects.
Finally, the berries are tasty for everyone and everything that is looking for food in the summer so remember you aren’t the only one wandering through the forest. Save berries for other foragers, human and animal alike. By design, the berries are meant to be tasty so that they are eaten and dispersed across the forest so there isn’t any harm that comes to the plant from your harvest.
Whether you’re looking for a wild vegetable, a source for a new jam flavour or a natural way to calm your upset stomach thimbleberry has something for you. Abundant along stream banks, in woodlands and your local ditches, this plant is a true West Coast native. Keeping in harmony with nature and sustainably harvesting thimbleberry you will still be able to harvest more than enough berries, leaves and shoots to fill your larder – and stomach. This is the perfect plant to add to your foraging repertoire and you won’t be disappointed.