By Thompson Tomaszewski, Lead Naturalist

Unripe cranberry. Note the pale yellow color and red speckles.

For some, the coming of fall is signified by the changing of the leaves. For others, it’s the appearance of pumpkins in local supermarkets or the crisp, cool breezes that make you pull your sweater a little tighter as you walk down the street. For me, fall means cranberries.

Since my first summer as a Naturalist at the VIC, bogs have been one of my favorite places to explore. Their murky depths are often misunderstood, their orchids bright and playful, and their edible plants are a forager’s dream. As a wildflower enthusiast, I take note every June of how many tiny, pale pink flowers I see dotting the bogs throughout the North Country. This year, they were everywhere.

Ever since finding my first small cranberry (Vaccinium oxycoccos) bloom of the year, I’ve been anticipating fall. I’ve watched the delicate petals turn brown and crispy in the hot July sun, dropping off to rest in the sphagnum mosses below. I’ve watched berries start their life as tiny beads, creamy yellow in color and lightly speckled, and grow into plump pinkish orbs that weigh down their stems. Now, as the days get shorter and the evening temperatures drop, they turn red. Their insides turn sweet, yet retain a distinct bitterness to them. This bitterness is what makes me love them; cranberries from the store don’t taste the same.

An unidentified insect inspects a ripe cranberry.

Eating a Wild thing is a vastly different experience than eating something cultivated or purchased. Eating a Wild thing makes you feel wild yourself. When I pop the first freshly picked cranberry into my mouth each fall and close my eyes to let its flavor take over my senses, I understand my place in the Wild.

I know that bears eat these berries, too, as do the birds, the squirrels, and any other Wild creature who can get their paws on them in time. I know these berries can be critical for helping these creatures through the next few months of sub-zero temperatures. I know the berries left behind will grow to be next year’s pale flowers that I desperately seek; that they have a hard winter ahead of them, too. I know that I’ve stolen something from the bog that isn’t mine to take, but I can’t help myself. I know how hard these plants have worked to create this yummy thing that I so ravenously rip from thin branches, so I take only what I need.
I make sure to only take a few berries from each individual plant, and I’m careful to take as many of the “ugly” berries as I do the picturesque ones. I move through the bog with light and careful feet, avoiding the pitcher plants, the sundews, and as many shrubs as I can. I take my berries from the whole bog, not just one little section, to avoid heavily impacting one small area. I only take enough berries to make one to two batches of my favorite cranberry salsa (recipe below!) even though I’m tempted to take as many as I can carry.

How many cranberries can you count hiding in the sphagnum moss?

When you’re out foraging this fall, or any time of year, for your favorite foods, remember the other things that eat what you’re picking. It can be hard to pass up nature’s tasty bounty but remember who it’s there for to begin with. Please leave more than enough behind for the bears, the squirrels, and the deer mice; cranberries mean fall to them, too.

Wild edibles can be a wonderful way to supplement your seasonally based diet. Please always follow Leave No Trace principles when you forage, and remember to harvest sustainably. If you forage at the VIC, please keep your feet on our boardwalks.

 

Cranberry Salsa recipe:
– 2 cups of cranberries, coarsely chopped
– 1/4 cup of white sugar
– 1/3 cup of cucumber, finely chopped (optional)
– 1/3 cup of cilantro, coarsely chopped
– 1/4 cup of white onion, finely chopped
– 1 jalapeño, diced
– 1 tablespoon of lime juice
– 1/2 teaspoon of salt
Combine ingredients and enjoy!

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