Jeremy Torrance web producer | 12:06 UK time, Wednesday, 8 September 2010
The word harvest comes from the Anglo-Saxon word haerfest meaning autumn and early autumn really is a time of wild fruits aplenty. So what’s in season now and who’s eating?
Blackberry jam, blackberry fool, blackberry cordial… blackberry picking is one of the nation’s favourite autumn past-times and this late summer/early autumn fruit should be ripe and ready to pick right now. Rich in vitamins and deep purple (almost black) in colour, the berries should come off the plant as you grasp them. They should be plump and shiny so if they fall apart in your hand they’re probably over-ripe. They range in flavour from big fat sweet ones to face-scrunchingly tart.Speckled wood butterfly feeding on bruised blackberries © Bojangles
Blackberries are very popular with birds and insects alike, making it even more important to wash them well if you don’t fancy the extra protein! Many caterpillars live on blackberry plants and adult butterflies feed on the nectar of the flowers as well as enjoying the sweet juice from the fruit clusters, so it’s not uncommon for them to be surrounded by butterflies. Mammals such as dormice, squirrels and badgers love blackberries too!
Legend has it that you shouldn’t eat blackberries beyond Michaelmas (29th September), after which superstition has it that the devil will have marked them. It’s thought that the damper weather later in September will allow toxic moulds to take hold of blackberries so it probably is best to get them now!
Our friend Gull on the Wales Nature blog has some top tips for budding blackberry pickers too.
Plums and apples
Apple pie, crab apple jelly, plum jam… we’re all enticed by these brilliant British fruits and birds and insects love the sweet mush of windfall plums, pears and apples as much as we do. Turning from green to purple as they ripen, plums will yield to light pressure when ready for human consumption.Apples from an organic garden at Audley End by John Parish
Crab apples, though bitter tasting to us and only really good for crab apple jelly, are really attractive to birds and insects. Blackbirds, robins and starlings love to feast on fruitfall from apple trees, and all manner of insects will join the fray as the fruit softens. Further into autumn wasps will become particularly short tempered as they feed on fermenting sugars in plums and apples on the ground. Many people have fallen fowl of “drunk” wasps who have bumbled their way indoors.
Hawthorn jelly, wine and ketchup are made for human consumption but the berries aren’t really worth the effort to us raw.
Long tailed tit foraging on a hawthorn by Rich Edmondson
The hawthorn shrub has long sharp thorns in its lobed leaves, making its bushes a safe place for birds and small mammals to munch on the red berries away from predators. All sorts of insects are supported by hawthorns. But the berries are particularly attractive to small birds and thrushes which will become very defensive of individual shrubs later in the year as food sources like these become scarce.
The great oak is an icon of patriotic England and one of the most well-known tree species in the country. “Mighty oaks from tiny acorns grow”, and vice versa. For us acorns are inedible raw due to their high levels of bitter tannins. If you want to use them to make acorn flour you have to peel them and leave them in water for days to leach out the tannins. Quite a bit of effort.
Acorns are starting to ripen about now. If you wander through any of the royal parks you’ll see some scattered beneath the trees that have already been nibbled on by squirrels and jays. They’ll start collecting and hoarding them in the coming months, stashing them away for the winter. They’re also a favourite of wild boar.Gall of Andricus quercuscalicis wasp on an acorn © Al blunden
Another big fan of acorns is the tiny gall wasp. If you’ve ever seen these spiny galls all over an oak tree you might have wondered what happened to the acorns. The gall is actually formed as a response of the tree to the wasps laying their eggs within the acorns. The tree will still survive the infestation and continue to produce acorns in later years.
Sloes are the fruit of the blackthorn and are ripening now and turn a dusty blue colour. The dust is actually a yeast bloom that forms over the fruit and is thought to enhance UV light reflection so that the fruits really stand out to birds which have UV vision.Sloes © Kevin Boulton
Very bitter tasting, sloes are mostly used by us to make sloe gin or jelly but birds and insects enjoy them raw. Larger birds such as hawfinches and thrushes enjoy these fruits which can be too big for smaller songbirds.
Elderflower cordial, champagne and even eldeflower jelly are common favourites amongst human foragers but the berries are thought to be poisonous to us. All the more for our furry and feathered friends.Elderberries © Liz Ixer
These clusters of black berries are ripening about now and will attract squirrels, dormice, a variety of birds, butterflies and even deer. They’re rich in sugars and take very little energy to pull off their slender stalks making them perfect for small migrants such as warblers, blackcaps and whitethroats. They’re also really popular with pigeons and blackbirds. Insects will also be drawn to the bruised fruit for nourishment making elder bushes a feasting ground for insect eaters.
Coming soon to a hedgerow near you…Sweet chestnuts, wild strawberries, bilberries and rowan berries will all be ripening over the next few weeks so look out for birds mammals and insects gorging themselves on these.
Important notes on picking fruits
If you plan on going out to look for fruit or nuts be really sure of your identification before eating anything. It’s best to check a field guide and never eat anything from the wild unless you are absolutely sure you have identified it correctly first. You might also have an intolerance to fruits and berries that others don’t so always try a few small items first. Check out The Tree council for further advice on fruit picking.
If you’ve got any fantastic pictures of autumn fruit, nuts and seeds being enjoyed by our wildlife we’d love to see them in the Autumnwatch Flickr group. Try putting out rotten or over-ripe fruit that you have left over to tempt the birds and butterflies to your bird tables.