Introduction: Foraging for Juneberry Muffins
Early last summer I went to an outdoor festival at my local library and met a lovely group of people called "The Resiliency Institute". Their mission is to transform the Chicago suburbs into resilient permaculture communities, and they had a ton of interesting info on edible plants and how to plant edible landscaping. Their most recent event was picking serviceberries.
"What is a serviceberry?" I asked.
The woman pointed to the tree behind her, plucked off a berry and said "Eat!"
It was delicious. And it was everywhere around the library. They were around all the libraries in the district. There were three big trees by my church. Two by my favorite Indian restaurant. A smattering all around the downtown riverwalk. All around me were trees filled with delicious, edible berries that were getting eaten by birds and falling to the ground and smashed under feet. I picked pounds and pounds of them. I ate them, baked with them, froze them, gave them away... it's such a shame when our natural resources go to waste because people are not aware what can exist right in your own backyard! So here is a guide to help you hopefully find your own, and a simple recipe to use with them.
Step 1: How to Identify Juneberries
Amelanchier is a deciduous shrub that most commonly goes by the name shadberry, serviceberry, juneberry, or saskatoon. They are native to every Canadian province and territory and to EVERY state in the US except for Hawaii. The most common species you will see in the Midwest is Amelanchier ovalis, and some specialty garden centers might even sell bushes if you want to grow your own!
Juneberries, as the name implies, are ripe in early June or late May. They can be short and shrubby like a bush, but more often you will see them tall and trained to grow just like a tree. The bark is usually greyish or sometimes brown, and the leaves are oval-shaped with a very faint serration to the edges. The berries themselves are the most distinctive way to identify the plant: they look just like a blueberry growing on a tree! They start red and turn blue/purple then almost black as they ripen to maturity... so the darker the berry, the tastier it will be. All stages are edible though, so don't worry about a few unripe ones in the mix! They have the distinctive "crown" of skin that a blueberry has on their blossom end, and they should be pretty squishy when ripe. The inside, unlike a blueberry, is also a reddish-purple color but should not stain.
The taste is where these berries are unique: eaten fresh, they are similar to a juicy blueberry with slightly larger seeds and a bit more skin. Baked, they are something truly different! The seed contains a decent amount of benzaldehyde, the chemical compound responsible for the taste of almonds. In the muffin recipe that follows you might notice a faint nutty flavor, but if you make a pie or jam where the berries are the main ingredient (use your favorite blueberry pie recipe and replace the berries 1:1) you'll get a definite, strong almond flavor. I brought a pie into work and got a ton of compliments from people that they would have never thought to add almond extract to a blueberry pie... and I had to tell them, nope! It's all natural!
As a small disclaimer: Please, PLEASE don't go eating random berries from trees unless you are certain they are edible!
Step 2: Making Muffins
After picking your berries wash them well, especially if you picked them from a public place and do not know what sort of pesticides or sprays the tree might have been treated with. Discard any stems or leaves that clung to the berries (the stems tend to float, so fill a bowl of water to make them easier to pick out). Berries will freeze well for almost year, just lay out on a single layer on a cookie sheet line with parchment paper and stick in your freezer. I like to save them for snowy, cold winter mornings and make muffins for a warm taste of summer. They're pretty yummy to eat frozen, too!
-1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
-1/2 cup packed brown sugar
-1/4 cup white sugar
-1/2 teaspoon salt
-1 teaspoon baking powder (or 2 tsp and omit baking soda)
-1/2 teaspoon baking soda
-1/3 cup vegetable oil
-1/3 cup milk
-1 cup fresh or frozen juneberries
Preheat oven to 400°F and grease a 12 cavity muffin tray or line muffin papers. Mix the dry ingredients (flour, sugars, salt, baking soda) in a small bowl and make a well in the center. Add oil, milk, and egg to this hole and mix until just combined. Carefully fold in the juneberries and fill each cavity to the top (or top of the muffin paper). Bake for 20-25 minutes or until golden brown and delicious!
Step 3: Other Ideas and Edibles!
Juneberries also have a good amount of pectin in their skins, so I've been told you can make jam with them without any added pectin. (I've yet to try it, though!) A friend of mine uses a food mill to extract the pulp from the skins and seeds... he makes jelly with the pulp, and the skins and seeds come out so thick he dries and eats it like fruit leather! Any recipe that uses blueberries can be replaced 1:1 with juneberries, but keep in mind if baking you will also have an additional almond flavor.
Once you start foraging, you'll find there are lots of wild edibles around you! Two other common plants you can find anywhere are mulberries (the bowl on the left), and black/red raspberries (the bowl on the right). All of these make for excellent eating... or my favorite, cobbler with crumb topping and some vanilla ice cream!