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August 15, 2008 11:13 AM

Urban foraging -- a berry good pastime

Posted by Nancy Leson

On Tuesday morning, after dropping my son off at camp, I was driving down the street just a few block from my house when I spotted this woman enjoying a quick snack:

So I did what any food blogger with a camera in her purse would do. I pulled over, got out of the car, introduced myself and said, "Hey, lady! Save some for me!"

When I moved to the Pacific Northwest, I was fascinated by the number of berries -- among other edibles -- that grew wild here, as I discussed this week on KPLU. And I've since gone "accidental" berry-picking everywhere from Vashon Island to Fir Island to Seattle's city streets, collecting enough fruit to bake a pie or two.

That bounty of berries is no surprise to Sabra Contreras, posing here in Edmonds with a handful of berrified booty. She's been urban foraging her whole life, takes vacations to Montana where she gathers wild huckleberries (alongside bears!), and grew up learning how to can a wide world of fruit from her mother -- who grew apples and pears on their family's property in nearby Woodway. "I walk by this patch every day and watched them coming on," she said. Given this profusion, on a residential street no less, the mother of three notes, "I don't think people have the time -- or make the time -- to pick berries."

But on this warm August day, with the freebies coming on in great profusion (and "fresh" berries on "sale" for $3.99 a pint at the supermarket), Sabra insisted she'd be back later with a bucket in hand. "I'll make pies, jam -- there are so many of them."

This morning, after dropping Nate off at camp, I drove by the same patch and watched as a gentleman out for his daily constitutional grabbed a few berries before heading down the street. Again, I pulled the car over for a chat. His name is Harry Bower, he's a native of Los Angeles and he's lived in Edmonds for 40 years. Like Sabra, he regularly walks the neighorhood, keeping an eye out for free sweets. He said he uses them to bake blackberry cobbler and favors the prolific berry patch near the holding lanes for the Edmonds-Kingston ferry. "Usually they're big and sweet," he said. "But this year, they're small and sour." He blames that blight on lack of rain.

Not everyone is thrilled to find berry brambles on the roadside -- or anywhere else, for that matter. Himalayan and evergreen berries grow like tospy in our temperate climate. And while they're not considered noxious weeds, the King County Government labels these prickly chokers "weeds of concern." No doubt they'd voice concern about foragers picking berries "perfumed" with noxious fumes from cars, or with fragrant "reminders" from dogs like Sabra's mutt Olive, who accompanies her on her daily walks.

I should probably be concerned about the dastardly brambles invading my rosemary plant and attacking the apricot tree in my backyard. Here's a wide view:

And a closeup:

But those fruity marauders don't bother me too much. Here's why:

So, where do you go picking? And what do you do with your bounty?

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