A Lament for Juneberries
I just came in from an inspection tour of the Prairie Garden, and the news is bad. The juneberry crop is not worth harvesting this year. Maybe it was the hard winter, maybe the late freeze, maybe the spring flood, or maybe the siroccos of early summer, but we have so few berries I am just leaving them for the birds.
Which is something to lament, for juneberries are a culinary staple at our place on Willow Creek. Pies are without doubt the most popular use for these purple pearls, and Dr. Kelley’s goonberry pies are legend.
Yes, you heard me right, I said “goonberry.” Juneberries alone are insufficiently tart for our tastes, so we mix them with green gooseberries. Pixwell gooseberries, in fact, a 1930 NDAC release selected from the wild. Gooseberry + juneberry = goonberry, my favorite pie.
Dr. Kelley also produces a berry cobbler with juneberries and gooseberries. Years ago we began calling this dish, on account of its appearance, “speckled pup.”
Juneberry muffins are our standard breakfast muffin. Juneberries plump up as they bake, so they burst into flavor when you tuck in. The flavor has notes of vanilla, which is perfect for muffins. Do your health a favor and mix some wheat flour in there; nobody likes a cakey muffin anyway.
We don’t use juneberries for jam or jelly. We have lots of other fine fruits for jam and jelly. We do, however, make a savory use of juneberries that I haven’t heard of anyone else doing.
My favorite salad is a bowl of greens topped with juneberries and blue cheese. Some red onion is good in there, too. Dress this with a nutty oil--sunflower is fine, but you can also get fancy with walnut or almond oil--and, although red wine vinegar works, I also like to splash in some something tart and fruity, maybe currant juice.
We know a lot of people who pick juneberries from the wild, but they do well in cultivation. You can dig up wild suckers; I would recommend getting a named variety from a nursery, because that way you can control for height.
You see, you are going to have to net the bushes when the berries commence to ripen. Get good quality nets that don’t tangle or snag. If you don’t net, you are just feeding the birds. (The only years we didn’t need nets over our bushes were ones when a family of Cooper’s hawks nested in an ash tree alongside the Prairie Garden.)
Three species in particular love juneberries, and combined, they will take them all. Cedar waxwings invest the higher branches and will not budge until sated. They are gorgeous thieves, of course. Robins are the most vexatious poachers, active, noisy, and aggressive in the middle branches. Down below, the brown thrashers flit up from the ground.
Besides their multiple culinary uses, juneberries have the virtue of easy handling. They are convenient to pick, growing in nice clusters. They don’t ripen quite evenly, but some pink ones in the indigo mix are fine. I wouldn’t bother with canning, because juneberries are a freezer fruit par excellence. You don’t have to do that thing where you spread them out and freeze-dry them. Just see that they are reasonably dry when you pack them into containers or bags, and they hardly stick to one another at all when frozen.
The first EuroAmerican settler newspaper mention of juneberries I find in North Dakota is from the Emmons County Leader, 15 July 1885: “The gentle juneberry is now abroad in the land, and the men, women and children round about Williamsport have pursued it with much energy and success.”