|By Johnny Caryopsis||(Click links for more images.)|
It's late afternoon, in the third week of July. The temperature's 28C. The sun's high and there's not a cloud in the sky. I stink of bug spray and BO, my hair's matted with sweat, and my knees and back won't straighten out properly for another 20 minutes. But I couldn't be happier, because my pail is brim full of blueberries! Yes, blueberries, the undisputed king of Manitoba's summer fruits! A 4-litre pail in an hour, that's pretty good. Time to head back to the cottage, then to the beach for a refreshing dip.
For me, there's nothing that beats the satisfaction of harvesting one of nature's great bounties, in the form of wild fruits and berries. Forget long-traveled, fancy-packaged, store-bought stuff. Give me right-off-the-plant berries! Yes, I know, a wild strawberry is only about the size of the tip of my finger, and wild blueberries come in different sizes and you have to clean the bugs, bits of leaves and unripe berries out of them. So what! They're free, they're fun to pick, and they're delicious. Say what you will about the size and shape, but you can't beat wild berries for taste.
Manitoba is blessed with a veritable smorgasbord of summer fruits. Wherever you are in this province there's one kind of fruit or another - and usually several - free for the taking from June 'til September. Most of you, I hope, are familiar with blueberries, at least. (Really, if you're a Manitoban and have never picked blueberries, then you haven't lived!) How about wild plum, saskatoon, strawberry, raspberry, pin cherry, chokecherry, sand cherry, gooseberry, wild black currant, high bush cranberry.....? The list is quite a lengthy one and together they make up a fruit and berry banquet, just waiting to be nibbled. Whether you just like a quick taste sensation on a morning walk or are into bagging bucketfuls for the freezer, Manitoba's summer fruits are there for the taking. What's that you say: "Leave them for the birds and bears!" Oh, please! Don't give me that. The birds, bears, foxes, wasps, ants and all the other critters have the whole forest to feed in. It's OK to be a little greedy when it comes to berry picking. And if people can get something they want from the land, leave it the way it is, and come back year after year for harvest after harvest, maybe they'll value their wild places a little more. That can't be bad.
So, here's a little primer on Manitoba's summer fruits. I put together a list of the various wild fruits (and I'm using "fruit" in the non-botanical sense, to mean a soft-bodied fruit like an apple or plum) and berries available in our province, and some background on the more familiar ones. But first, . . . ooh, you guessed it . . . another botany lesson!
FRUITS AND BERRIES 101
What is a fruit? What is a berry? I bet you think you know this! Ha! As with all things botanical, common everyday-English terms for plants and their parts have little to do with the underlying biology. Botanists are picky and they revel in jargon and unique terminology that would make even a civil servant blanch. So here's some definitions. You may want to refer to the flower structure diagram below.
Ovary: The carpel is the female reproductive organ in plants. It consists of a stigma, stalk and ovary. The ovary is the structure at the base of the carpel where the ovules (similar to eggs in animals) are contained.
Seed: A structure, developed from the mature ovule (after fertilization from a pollen nucleus), comprised of a seed coat, an embryo and usually endosperm (food for the embryo). Endosperm forms most of what we're eating when we chow down on corn on the cob, a bowl of rice or a loaf of bread (made from crushed wheat grains).
Fruit: Can be defined as simply as the seed-bearing part of the plant. It is more commonly used as a term to describe a mature ovary containing the seeds of the plant. Botanically, "fruit" is a much broader term than what it tends to define in common language. The pod of a pea (the legume) is a fruit, as is the samara (a winged seed-bearing structure) of an ash tree. Most of what we call fruits are really berries, drupes or pomes. Fruits may be "simple", where they develop from one carpel or several fused carpels (examples would be blueberry or grape); "aggregate", where each carpel from a single flower develops into a separate part of the overall fruit (examples would be raspberry or strawberry); and "multiple", where all the carpels of more than one flower on a plant produce a single fruit (an example would be pineapple).
Berry: A fleshy fruit comprised of one to several carpels, each of which usually has many seeds. The inner layer of the fruit coat, surrounding the seeds, is fleshy. (Examples would be tomato, blueberry or grape.)
Drupe: A fleshy fruit comprised of one to several carpels, each of which usually has a single, large seed. The inner coat of the fruit is woody or stony and fixed tightly to the seed. (Examples would be plum or cherry; fruits with a "pit".)
Pome: A fleshy fruit where the fleshy part is derived from the perianth, the structure that normally surrounds the base of a flower. This is a specialized type of fruit that only some members of the rose family produce. (Examples would be apple and hawthorn.)
WHY DO PLANTS PRODUCE FRUITS?
What purpose do fruits and berries serve? We know they're good for us to eat, but how is that serving the almighty master of all plant species, natural selection (evolution). This answer is actually fairly simple and straightforward. Just as plants produce showy and scented flowers to enlist insects and other animals (bats, hummingbirds, etc.) to aid in passing their pollen from one plant to another, so too do they enlist the help of animals to distribute their seeds. Plants invest considerable amounts of energy and other resources producing fleshy fruits to ensure that their seeds get eaten. Fruits and berries are often eaten whole, especially by birds and mammals, to which the fleshy part represents the desired food object. The hard seeds contained within the fruit pass through the animal's digestive tract unharmed and are deposited far from the parent plant with a healthy dose of fertilizer, to boot! There are many plants with seeds that will not germinate unless they have passed through an animal's gut. The physical and acid scouring that the seed coat endures is necessary to prepare it to allow germination to occur. This requirement for "digestive scarification" has forged a bound between many plants and the animals that feed on their fruits. Coevolution and synergy are everywhere in nature. So, when you talk about what a bear does in the woods, another euphemism might be "planting blueberries"!
Carry on for Manitoba's Edible Fruits and Berries!
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