Thimbleberries on branch, one ripe and red and three pink and unripe

Thimbleberry – A Short Guide to this Marvellous Plant

The Thimbleberry plant (Rubus Parviflorus), from the rose (Rosaceae) family of plants, is a wonderful wild-growing plant that berry foragers can enjoy. Other names for this plant and its fruit are the Western Thimbleberry, the Western Thimble Raspberry, the Mountain Sorrel and the Salmonberry.

Introduction to the Thimbleberry


The Thimbleberry is a deciduous perennial shrub, and it’s also an invasive species, because it spreads through its rhizomes and through its seeds found within bird droppings.

Its fruit, similar to raspberries, doesn’t hold up well to packaging and shipping, so any forager who stumbles upon a Thimbleberry patch can enjoy a unique fruit that simply isn’t available in supermarkets or farmer’s markets.

More recently, it has been used in landscaping as an ornamental shrub, as it’s the largest shrub of its family and genus and produces beautiful, wild-rose-like flowers. Due to this plant’s unique features, and its history of uses in Native medicine, it’s arguably the most versatile and useful berry plant found in nature today.

Regions

This unique plant can be found in the Western United States, from Alaska to California; in the mountain ranges of New Mexico; and eastward towards the Rocky Mountains and the Great Lakes region. It also grows in the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, extending north to 55 degrees in latitude.

Aside from North America, it grows in Australia, Finland, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Latvia, the Ukraine, the former Czech Republic (Czechia) and the U.K., none of which are its native regions; rather, the plant was introduced to these areas as an ornamental shrub.

Preferred Growing Conditions

The Thimbleberry can be found growing in open areas and light forests, where sunlight can reach the plant. You may frequent upon this plant on roadsides, on shorelines or near your campsite in the woods, if enough sunlight is able to get through the canopy of trees. The plants will be fuller and bushier where there is more sunlight available. The Thimbleberry grows in low-lying areas, as well as sub-alpine areas.

Characteristics and genealogy

As mentioned above, the Thimbleberry is a member of the rose family of plants, and is of the same genus (Rubus) as boysenberry, raspberry, blackberry, dewberry and many others.

The plant itself is a dense shrub that can grow from 1.5 to 9.8 feet (approximately 0.45 to 3 metres) tall, depending on how much sunlight is available. The canes of the plant are no larger than 0.59 inches (about 1.5 centimetres) in diameter. The plants spread through an underground system of rhizomes, resulting in highly concentrated, large patches of shrubs.

The shrubs produce 1.5-inch (about 3.8-centimetre) white, ornate flowers that bear five petals between May and early July; these flowers are reminiscent of wild roses. The flowers attract bees, butterflies and birds, and once they’re pollinated, they transform into berries. These berries start out pink and eventually turn a scarlet red, at which point they’re considered ripe.

The berries grow in clusters called “drupes,” with each individual berry being a “drupelet.” As is not the case with many other berry plants, the canes have no prickles or thorns, and the leaves are large, measuring between 4 and 8 inches across. Each leaf also contains five lobes, which makes each one resemble a maple leaf.

Edibility

This plant is one of a very conservatively estimated 50,000 edible plants in the world. The berries of this plant resemble raspberries, except for the fact that they’re shorter and flatter. Like the raspberry, they contain many seeds, and the flavor can be tangy, but is also reminiscent of fruit punch.

The berries contain Vitamins A and C, as well as traces of calcium, iron and potassium. As with all berries, consumption provides a boost to the immune system.

Unlike other berries that are commonly found in supermarkets, the Thimbleberry does not pack or travel well; the fruit is too fragile to be marketed on any scale. The preferred method of gathering these berries is to pick them while they’re still somewhat pink, and store them at room temperature for one to three days.

In addition to being tasty while raw, these berries are also used in baking, jam, dressings and even wine. The young shoots of the plant can be picked in the early spring and are safe for consumption, so many people make salads from these shoots.

Other modern Uses

Person picking thimbleberries

All parts of this plant are useful and edible, although the canes are too tough to chew once they’ve matured. The Thimbleberry has also been nicknamed “the toilet paper plant,” as many a camper is familiar with the leaves’ usefulness as a soft toilet paper, due to their size and the soft hairs that grow on them. Furthermore, tea can be made from both the leaves and the roots, and the bark and leaves are believed to have astringent properties.

Traditional Uses

Native Americans used this plant not only as a source of food, but as a traditional medicine for nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and dysentery, and it was believed that its medicinal properties include an ability to tone and strengthen the stomach and stimulate the appetite.

Its berries and leaves can both prevent scurvy, and this plant was also used in a tea to treat anemia and the spitting up of blood. Its leaves and bark have been used to reduce swelling; to treat acne, cuts and burns; and to prevent scarring. The leaves alone are used to make soap, and the bark and leaves are used in herbal baths and hair rinses.

Potential Adverse Effects of Consumption

It should be noted that the Thimbleberry’s large leaves are toxic, unless boiled in a tea. Pregnant women shouldn’t use any part of the Thimbleberry, and excessive use can come with adverse effects for anyone. It should also be noted that to date, there is no scientific evidence to support its potential uses in treating any of the medical conditions mentioned above.

While Thimbleberry shrubs are a wonderful find for any forager, anyone thinking of using this plant for landscaping purposes or for their home garden should carefully research it before adding it to their property. As mentioned, it’s considered an invasive species, and much like the raspberry plant, its spread can be rapid and widespread.

Efforts to control the plant through burning and manually cutting it to remove rhizomes have had the opposite effect—unfortunately, the plants and rhizomes actually begin to grow and spread even more quickly if they’re cut back or burned. If you’re an avid forager, however, it would be time well-spent to go hunting for this little-known shrub and add its fruits to your table of foraged foods!

Featured image: GlacierNPS; Image 1: GlacierNPS

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