The abundance of fresh fruit to be found in the wild on Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard is staggering. From blueberries and blackberries in high summer to elderberries, beach plums, and grapes in late summer, you can eat plenty of them in their fresh forms and still fill your freezer or pantry with fruit to last throughout the winter. Wild berry bushes and vines often produce more fruit than the ones you may want to cultivate in your own yard or garden. Martha’s Vineyard fruit gatherers reported a bumper crop of grapes last year, and the blueberries on the Cape and both islands this year are abundant!
Walking around the Cape and Islands with your eyes wide open will give you lots of opportunities to find edible treasures along the way. Familiarizing yourself with the blossoms of all of these fruits will help you to find them again when they are ripe. Spring walks will show you ground-hugging blueberry blossoms. Beach plum bushes are hard to miss, with their clouds of white and pink flowers embracing the otherwise bare stems. Blackberries bloom a little later: their clear, white flowers demand notice at the edges of wet or wild areas. Grape flowers are rather insignificant and tend to blend in with many of the other wild, spring-flowering plants, but their leathery leaves and climbing vines make them really easy to spot in the fall. Lacy elderberry blossoms sit atop long canes, but can be confused with some native Viburnum flowers which yield inedible blue berries in the fall. Elderberries are found along undisturbed roadsides and at the edge of woods.
There’s the dilemma of whether to pick the elderflowers and make pancakes, or to let them ripen and turn into berries. Every flower umbel that gets picked is a flower umbel that doesn’t turn into berries. I like a happy medium where I have one batch of pancakes, and then let the rest turn into berries and food for the birds. Naturally quite tart, turning elderberries into something edible requires a lot of sugar. Elderberry pie is favored over birthday cake by at least one person in my household!
The thorns of blackberries make them a bit of a challenge to pick: each handful probably generates a fresh scratch on the forearm. Picking them can be a painful affair, and you might emerge from the experience not knowing whether that’s blackberry juice or blood on your sleeve, but oh, are they worth it. I picked seven or eight quarts last summer on Nantucket. We ate lots of them fresh, and I threw the rest into the freezer until January, when I made blackberry jam.
Possibly the most widespread native fruit in the Americas is the blueberry. North to the Arctic and south to Florida, varied species of blueberries can be found on mountains, in swamps, in backyards. Nantucket has both low-bush and high-bush varieties that yield plenty of fruit for birds and still provide for our pies, buckles, and muffins. Picking the ground-hugging varieties can be a little tough on your back, but the flavor is as delicious as the high-bush varieties.
Beach plums are nearly as ubiquitous as bay scallops and spectacular sunsets in the Sound region. In late August and early September, certain areas are peppered with people filling baskets and buckets with these native fruits Each year’s harvest is different. There are banner years and some years when the bushes are nearly barren, so when they are abundant, those in the know get out there and take advantage of the crop.
Like beach plums, the wild grape harvest is unpredictable, fluctuating from year to year with the amount of rainfall and sunshine. And grapes may be the hardest to pick of any of these fruits, with vines climbing up trees and fruits sometimes dangling maddeningly out of reach more than 15 feet above your head. While there are no cultivated grape vineyards on Martha’s Vineyard, legend has it that the island was so-named partly because of the abundance of wild grapes there discovered by Bartholomew Gosnold in 1602.
All of these fruits do best when they volunteer, choosing where they want to grow. We’ve tried planting and nurturing nearly all of them, and have learned that it is often best to let them grow on their own, wherever their seeds land. It’s fun to have a few specimens in the yard, but walking around the island and happening upon a large stand of fully-ripe blueberries or snagging grapes from the edge of the bogs feels like a better way to spend our time.