Ripe for the Pickin’: Juneberries are busting out all over

Juneberries are one of those foods that you can’t buy from the grocery store or a farmers’ market. You’ve just gotta pick ’em yourself.

I’d never heard of a Juneberry – aka serviceberry, shadbush or saskatoon – until my husband found a reference to Amelanchier, a genus of deciduous shrubs and small trees, in a book for wannabe orchard growers. Ever since we began enjoying succulent Juneberries from our prized fruiting cultivar, it’s been my goal to locate all the other Juneberry trees within walking distance of our Central West End home. (I even confess to having knocked on neighbors’ doors to request permission to pick from their trees.) Here are my field notes so that you, too, can enjoy these tasty purple beauties:

In St. Louis, Juneberry trees flank many urban walkways, especially in cultivated parks. The tree doesn’t grow that tall – rarely will you encounter one over 20 feet around here – and the trunk sometimes branches at the bottom. The bark is smooth to slightly furrowed, with vertical stripes; the leaves are oval, finely toothed and about 2 inches long. An easy way to spot them: Juneberries are among the first white-blossoming trees in early spring. The flowers look like apple blossoms because of their radial symmetry and white color – quite beautiful, really.

The fruit, which turns from green to deep red, dark blue or purple when it ripens, is about the size of a blueberry and tastes a bit like one, but with a more robust sweetness. In fact, a Juneberry is sometimes referred to as an “urban blueberry” because of the resemblance between the two. Like a blueberry, the Juneberry has a crown – a frilled opening opposite the fruitstalk. However, the Juneberry isn’t even a true berry, botanically speaking. It’s a pome fruit, a cousin to the apple and the pear. The fruit is borne in clusters of six to 12, and inside are small reddish-brown seeds.

Amassing a decent crop of wild Juneberries takes timing, technique and temperament. First, a word on timing. They don’t call them Juneberries for nothing. They ripen during the last week of May until about the second week of June. That’s it. Working within such a limited timeframe, I religiously set aside those 21 days to snag the fruit before those feisty birds and squirrels do.

For materials, all you’ll need is a bucket and perhaps some bug spray. I bring along an extra pair or two of hands; my kids only accede to picking because I allow them to climb established trees. Perched between sturdy branches, the boys safely harvest some of the tastiest, sun-kissed fruit from the higher branches while I concentrate on the lower level. Juneberries are easy to harvest because the branches are quite flexible; you simply grasp the branch with one hand while using the other to gently tug the fruit and let it drop it into a bucket that you’ve secured in the crook of your elbow.

What really can make the difference between your coming home empty-handed or with a windfall, though, is your mentality. You’re going to get the most quizzical looks from folks. So if you can’t withstand the stares and the “what a weirdo” labeling that you know is going on in their heads, then you’d best just stick to Smuckers.

Raw, cooked or dried, Juneberries can be used much like blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and blackberries. When you consume them as a table fruit or in a fruit salad, you do eat the seeds, which have a slight almond taste that some folks like and others don’t care for. Once you’ve had your fill of raw Juneberries, toss them into pancakes, pies, muffins and cobblers.

Or you can make Juneberry jam. I think of jam as the lazy man’s jelly because it is simple to make – no seed removal, no cheesecloth squeezing to extract that last bit of juice. Being a purist, I only use two ingredients: sugar and berries. I never use commercial pectin because that occurs naturally in the fruit. The pectin count is higher in unripe berries, so when you wash and stem the berries, don’t pitch the green ones or the light red ones – you’ll need those to help the jam set.

Keep in mind that every batch will be a bit different. For instance, last year’s crop was waterlogged because of all the spring rain, so I had to increase the amount of sugar and the cooking time. If I’m making a smaller batch, like the recipe listed here, I don’t even sweat the hot water bath, which would enable storage in a pantry or cellar. For larger batches, however, it’s worth it to suffer through that final stage of the canning process because you simply won’t have the fridge space for all those beautiful jars of your very own jam.

Ligaya Figueras is a Central West End-based freelance writer and home cook extraordinaire. She’s probably foraging Juneberries in Forest Park right now.

A note on foraging

First, forage safely. If you’re uncertain, don’t pick it. And if you do pick it, make sure it’s OK to do so:

The city of St. Louis does not regulate berry foraging. However, officials from the St. Louis Department of Parks and Recreation request that foragers respect the flora and not damage trees, shrubbery or other park property when collecting fruit.

St. Louis County parks users are out of luck. According to officials, park rangers will give warnings to individuals found picking berries, flowers and other park vegetation.

In Missouri state parks, you can collect for personal consumption within the state park or historic site up to 1 gallon of wild edible fruit, berries, seeds and nuts.
– L.F.