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  • Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

    Rubus Trivialis
    is Not a Rural Contestant on Jeopardy

    by Mike Cox
    Mike Cox

    Early spring is dewberry time across much of Texas.

    So named because dew often covers them in the morning, dewberries bloom in late February and early March and can stay around until May. The berries go from green to red to a purplish blue, which means they’re ripe. Savvy pickers usually let the berries be for about a week after they’ve ripened before harvesting them.

    Rubus trivialis, or southern dewberry, are trailing, low-growing thorn-covered plants that grow best in disturbed soil. Part of the rose family and common all over the usually wetter South, dewberries like loamy or sandy soil. The plant grows along rural roads, railroad right of way, fence lines, in draws and old fields.

    Full of vitamin C, dewberries also have lesser amounts of vitamins A and B, along with minerals. And they taste good, sweeter than their relative, the blackberry.

    While a gift of nature, dewberries don’t always come cost-free. Since spring is also when snakes are most active, a dewberry picker has to keep an eye out for rattlesnakes and copperheads in addition to looking for ripe berries.

    “I always pick with a stick in my hand to scare off snakes,” one Bastrop County oldtimer told me years ago. “They raise up looking for insects and rodents and if they see your hand, their liable to strike.”

    In fact, this man’s father had been bitten by a copperhead while collecting dewberries and while he recovered from the venom, he got plenty sick.

    Dewberry pickers should also wear gloves, unless you want lacerated hands stained purple. Bramble-like, dewberry plants can scratch legs and tear clothing if you’re note careful.

    Archeologists and botanists know that humans have been willing to poke around snaky, prickly vegetation for the sweet berries for a long time. Texas Indians not only gathered and ate the berries, they used them for medicinal purposes.

    Cherokees, for instance, ingested a concoction of dewberry roots and leaves to treat diarrhea and rheumatism. They used a similar preparation as an external wash for hemorrhoids. For sore throats, the Indians mixed dewberry roots and leaves with honey as a remedy. Finally, a dewberry leaf-based preparation was used for urinary problems.

    That early settlers had a taste for dewberries is scientifically proven. According to one online overview of Texas dewberries, an archeologist analyzing soil samples from 19th century outhouse sites in Houston unearthed ample evidence of the fruit’s popularity.

    “I found thousands of dewberry seeds in samples collected from the privies,” he wrote. “The dewberry brambles had not yet given way to urban sprawl, and Houstonians were picking their own and enjoying that springtime delight. They obviously enjoyed preparing and consuming dewberries, and they left abundant deposits in their outhouses.”

    Dewberries can be eaten raw, folded into cream (from low-calorie to ice cream), cooked in cobblers or transformed into jam. The berries also can be used to make wine, and young dewberry leaves supposedly make a good tea.

    However they may be prepared, don’t go looking for dewberries at your local grocery store. Some farmer markets sell them, but since they don’t store for long if not frozen, the majority of Texas’s annual crop is harvested individually.

    Homemade dewberry cobbler is a classic Texas dish. While not for dieters, it ranks right up there with peach cobbler.

    Here, collected in my interview with a long-time rural Bastrop County family in 1976, is their recipe (with some modifications) for this tasty treat:

    Crust:
    1 cup flour
    ½ cup milk
    1/2 cup sugar
    1/3 cup shortening
    2 teaspoons baking powder
    ½ teaspoon salt

    To make the crust, combine ingredients and mix until crumbly.

    Filling:
    1 pint dewberries fresh or frozen
    1/2 cup sugar
    2 tablespoons cornstarch
    1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
    1 teaspoon lemon juice

    Rinse the berries, mix with the ingredients and let filling sit for 20 minutes. Place the filling in an eight-inch pan and pat crust down on top. Bake at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes until the crust is brown.

    For a topping, the family cook I interviewed suggested a mix of a quarter-cup of butter with two tablespoons of flour, sugar and cinnamon spread over the cobbler before baking.


    (A caveat: I’ve not tried this recipe, but it should work. However, comments are welcome.)

    Dewberry cobbler is not for the diet minded, but at least you get some exercise, sunshine and fresh air when you pick them.


    © Mike Cox - February 27, 2013 column
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