Local berries are delicious, nutritious and a lot of fun to pick this summer
By Alison Brownlee
Berries are nature’s little hidden treasures.
Foraging for these tasty treats in Muskoka’s farm fields and wilderness can be fun for kids of all ages, and their parents, too, plus it gets everyone out enjoy all the natural wonder the region has to offer.
According to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, there are several berries that do well in the province’s climate, including blackberry, blueberry, black currant, red currant, gooseberry, black raspberry, red raspberry and strawberry.
Each species of berry has varieties that perform better in different regions, and with different varieties comes different harvesting periods.
Generally, berries are ready to pick during the summer months and, according to the Ontario Berry Growers Association, producers are finding ways to extend the growing season to May through October.
For berry lovers, the logistics of production may be less exciting than choosing which berries to enjoy.
The strawberry is an obvious front-runner. This fleshy red berry is a member of the rose family. Each berry carries about 200 seeds, which sit on its outer layer. Strawberries hit their peak season in June and July.
Although they were first cultivated in North America in the late 1800s, there are references to strawberries in texts from ancient Rome.
Another favourite is the blueberry. Native to North America, blueberries are ready to pick from early July to late August. As with strawberries, smaller blueberries are generally sweeter.
According to the Ontario Berry Growers Association, North America produces 90 per cent of the world’s blueberries, making it the largest producer.
What’s more, the little berries are purported to have health benefits, which include preventing cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
Cranberries are cousins of blueberries. According to Foodland Ontario, there are only three commercial cranberry bogs in the province. Two are in Muskoka – one is near Bala and the other south of MacTier.
These tart red berries are also native to North America, and were the first North American fruit sold in Europe in the 1700s, according to Foodland Ontario’s website. The website also says the berries were first grown on Canada’s east coast and Newfoundland.
And any list of favourite berries would be remiss not to include the raspberry, even if raspberry seeds do get stuck in the teeth far too easily.
Raspberries are one of those berries that cannot be defined by colour. Although the most popular kinds are red, the species also comes in gold, black and purple. Each is equally delicious. There are over 14 varieties of the berry found across the world.
Peak season for raspberries in North America is July to September.
Another homegrown berry is the Saskatoon. The purplish-blue berries grow on shrubs found primarily in western Canada and were a staple for both First Nations people and pioneers throughout history.
The berry’s English name was derived from the Cree word misâskwatômina. And the city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, is named after it.
There are a few ways to go about getting your hands on these delicious mini-fruit.
One is to head to an area farmers’ market. These open-air summer stores often offer the best in Ontario produce, right from farm to table. This option also provides the added bonus of not having to pick the berries yourself, and you may find some different varieties to try for the first time.
Get in touch with a municipal chamber of commerce or tourism information centre to find the farmers market nearest you.
Another option is fruit stands. These are usually found along the road or on a producer’s farm and they give visitors the opportunity to see their food’s place of origin. It may even give them a greater appreciation for the hard work that goes into growing Ontario’s delicious fruit.
But if you’re angling for an experience that will create memories for a lifetime, try a pick-your-own operation or go on a wilderness berry hunt.
Muskoka offers several pick-your-own locations, some of which can be found online through the Ontario Berry Growers Association website at ontarioberries.com.
These operations offer row upon row of berry-picking fun, and producers often manage rows, ensuring that there are plenty of ripe berries to be had every time you visit.
Hunting for berries in the great outdoors may be a bit more challenging, but once you find a patch, the rewards can be great.
But if you do head into the bush, make sure to keep your eyes peeled for poison ivy, ticks or other pests. And be sure to pick berries that are safe to eat.