Down the street from us is a log chalet that looks right out of the Bavarian Alps, except without the red geraniums spilling over window boxes. Houses like this are not a rare sight in the United States. They tie German-Americans to their roots and make them feel at home.
For me, my berry patch fulfills that same function. These berry bushes are my German corner, my little piece of home turf. With its red and black currant bushes, gooseberries, raspberries, blackberries, and a row of tall elderberries tucked into a hillside, this berry patch connects me to my most cherished summer memories from Germany.
I still crush a couple of black currants leaves between my fingers when I walk by the patch, and then inhale their signature aroma. This makes me remember when as a kid my friend and I – despite warnings from our parents – picked unripe black currants from a neighbor’s garden and got quite sick. I love standing on the hill above the elderberries, which are in full bloom right now, their delicate sweet scent wafting over to me as they sway in the summer wind.
In a previous blog post I wrote how I owe my beginnings as a gardener to those berries because I could not find them here in the northeastern United States.
Things have changed for the better since I started the berry patch in 2004. Today I sometimes see elderberries, black and red currants, and gooseberries at farmers’ markets, albeit at a steep price. And luckily for us gardeners, more nurseries have started to carry the plants.
I should note that in Germany, too, you don’t just walk into any grocery store to buy these berries by the bucket. Compared to strawberries, the second most important commercially grown fruit in Germany after apples, the domestic production of these berries is very small. Like many others, my father grew the red and black currants and gooseberries for our own consumption in our garden.
I make no secret of it: the berry patch is work. Gooseberries with their long, needle-like spikes are the worst. No matter how much I cover my hands and arms, I always end up with bloody scratches when I prune or harvest them.
Also, these berries require patience. A few years ago I was given three jostaberry plants (a German crossbreed between a gooseberry and a black currant). Last year there was exactly one jostaberry; this year the shrubs might yield a handful.
There are numerous enemies, too. In mid-spring when the gooseberries and currants are in bloom, I fear late frosts. Then there are the birds and raccoons that have decimated my entire unripe gooseberries overnight more than once. Now I suspend old CDs glittering on a wire across the entire patch. This seems to work.
This year looks like a bumper crop but I will only believe it after the ripe berries have landed in my kitchen.
With my mother visiting from Germany right now, I could not ask for a better helper. She does not like to cook but she is always ready to lend a hand with picking and sorting. And she is meticulous, not a berry is squeezed or a leaf left on! On our to-do list for Saturday is prepping the gooseberries for canning which includes removing the blossom ends. The tool that works best for that tedious and time-consuming job: cuticle scissors.
When it’s all over and I look at the lineup of jars with jams, jellies, and other preserves, and bags of frozen berries for delectable desserts and cakes like my grandmother’s Red Current Meringue Pie, all the scratched underarms, aching neck, and hours of work are forgotten.
You can find many of my favorite recipes with berries on this blog, on my gardening blog, and in my book.
June 26, 2015 at 6:33 am
My grandmother had all the berries in her garden.She was born in bruck Germany came to usa in 1927.She made all sots of things.She used to call the day names day for my grandfathers birthday!!!She used elderflower and dipped it in a tempra batter fried quickly and sprinkled powdered sugar on it delicious!!!
June 26, 2015 at 10:31 pm
Debra, I have a recipe for those elderflower fritters here:
January 21, 2016 at 7:24 am
I used the recipe this past spring thank you it was delicious.
June 28, 2015 at 8:27 am
We had all those berries in our garden and when there were not enough of them, my mother bought some buckets full of red currants at a neighbour who had many more shrubs. We as childrend sat hours and hours with a fork in our hands in front of the buckets and had to sort the berries…
July 2, 2015 at 8:18 am
That sounds very familiar, stripping the red currants with a fork 🙂
June 30, 2015 at 2:36 pm
Ohhh the berries looks so so good. Reminding me of the summers back in Denmark. Sadly I never see gooseberries or black currants at farmers markets here in Northern California.
Enjoy You visit from back home.
July 2, 2015 at 8:23 am
Thanks! I’ve received several questions on my FB page from folks in northern CA asking where to find them, it seems they are almost impossible to find, and since they do not grow in a warm climate, you cannot just start your own which I always encourage people to do here at the East Coast.
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May 11, 2016 at 10:13 pm
What about schwartzaberries? Has anyone heard of them or know where I could get some? I’m sure the spelling is wrong. They looked like blueberries but taste was better to me.
May 12, 2016 at 7:57 am
Schwarzbeeren is a south German term for the non-cultivated wild cousin of the blueberry, known as huckleberry in the US, or whortleberry or bilberry. From what I know they mostly grow in the wild in the western US, but you might find some them for sale out there. I remember picking them in the woods in northern Bavaria, very labor-intensive because the berries are very small and they grow close to the ground but their taste was indeed absolutely delicious.
July 7, 2016 at 9:31 pm
Oh yes, my mother had them and now I do. I live in Colorado and very easy to grow and very delicious!
November 5, 2016 at 1:42 pm
Sueann, Yes I do have them. If you can send me an email, we can talk.
October 30, 2016 at 11:22 pm
Wherecan I find gooseberry plants in colorado
November 2, 2016 at 11:06 am
Else, Because of a plant disease called White Pine Blister Rust, several US states incl. Colorado are prohbiting the cultivation and sale of currants and gooseberries so unfortunately you will not be able to find them in your state.
November 5, 2016 at 12:12 pm
I do not sell then nor do they have the disease.
November 5, 2016 at 12:25 pm
Joan, Are you growing wild blueberries (huckleberries aka whortleberries or bilberries) or are you indeed growing gooseberries, red or black currants in CO? Nurseries that carry those will not ship those to several states incl. CO but that does not mean that every plant necessarily has the disease. Mine don’t.
November 5, 2016 at 1:34 pm
I have the Schwartzberries.
November 5, 2016 at 1:39 pm
But I am willing to give them away to whom ever would like.
March 15, 2017 at 3:38 pm
Part of my family comes from parts of Austria and Germany. When I was younger I remember being on the family farm where they grew a certain kind of berry. They looked like small black currants, had a sweet taste, but were gritty in texture, and my family always baked them into pies. I vaguely recall asking my grandmother what they were called, and she said “swatstinger berries”. I have absolutely no idea if that’s anywhere near the correct spelling. I have tried finding them, but so far have had zero luck finding anything by that name. Have you ever heard of anything like that?
March 23, 2017 at 7:11 am
Claire, I have never encountered berries with that name or anything similar. The term Schwarzbeeren is used in different regional dialects for blackberries, black currants, blueberries or black mulberries but none of these fits your description. The only other possibility could be that it was jostaberries which are a cross between black currants and gooseberries, they are black like black currants but have the size of gooseberries and because of the seeds they are gritty and usually used for jams.
August 11, 2017 at 10:56 am
I lived in Germany when I was a child and in the Base housing their was a bush with hard red berries with itchy orange seeds. As kids we called them itchy Berries and would have wars with them where we’d break them open and throw them at each other (we weren’t very bright). For years I have wondered what are those berries?
August 27, 2017 at 8:29 am
Those were not berries but rosehips, the seedpods of roses, and the seeds cause itching. The are commonly called “Juckpulver” (itching powder) in German. You were not the only one throwing them at each other and possibly like me, getting in trouble for it 🙂
August 27, 2017 at 9:13 am
Wow thank you so much i looked up “juckpulver” and as soon as i saw the images was a flood of memories. No wonder i wasnt finding it. All these years we called it a berry and its not one. Thanks again.