August 2005, Isle Royale My wife and I went ashore from the ferry as it stopped at Windigo. With half an hour until the ferry continued around the island, we went into the visitor center to get our book stamped and ask about what we might find on the trail. We learned about the wolves, moose, and thimbleberries. “Whatberries?” I wasn’t sure if I’d heard correctly. “Thimbleberries,” repeated the Park Service employee. She described the berry she was talking about, and sure enough, we found plenty over our 6 days of hiking the island.
July 2018, Superior National Forest I took my kids out for a couple days on the Superior Hiking Trail with the hope of finding some berries to eat. We ate juneberries, strawberries, lots of blueberries and raspberries, and even a few thimbleberries. My hopes were high that they would have the chance to try thimbleberries, because they aren’t widespread, and even where they live, there aren’t usually many to be had. To me, they’re a novelty, and I know my kids would probably be the only ones to include thimbleberries in their “what I did this summer” summary when school starts.
Thimbleberries are a member of the genus Rubus, along with raspberries, blackberries, and many others. In the United States, they are found around the western Great Lakes, in the Rocky Mountains, and in the west coast states. In Minnesota, this species grows along the Lake Superior shore, and, as the website Minnesota Wildflowers puts it, “diminishes quickly as one heads inland.”
You don’t often hear of thimbleberries, even among berry pickers. That’s probably because they don’t seem to be prolific fruit bearers. One can encounter an extensive thimbleberry thicket without a single berry; it seems conditions need to be just right in order to produce fruit. I have never gone out with the sole purpose of picking thimbleberries because the most I’ve ever picked from one location is probably only 15 or 20, and patches can be few and far between. Still, their flavor is unique and a special treat while out enjoying the woods in summertime.
Once you know what thimbleberry plants look like, they’ll be easy to spot. They are usually about 3 to 5 feet tall, with large maple-like leaves. The leaves are finely hairy on the upper and lower surfaces, giving them a velvety feel. They often grow in dense thickets which I have observed to be 20 or 30 feet across.
The fruits are like big, floppy raspberries (about the size of the thimble) with a deep red color when ripe. At peak ripeness, they tend to fall off the stem quite easily. Unlike raspberries, it seems a low percentage of stalks produce berries, but what berries there are will be spotted easily above the leaves. Their flavor is quite sweet at first, followed by a fairly strong tartness.
Again, it is unlikely you will ever pick many at once, at least in Minnesota, so don’t plan on making thimbleberry jam or anything. If lucky, however, you may pick enough to add to other berries in a mixed-berry endeavor. Their flavor profile might add nicely to other, purely sweet berries (like blueberry) in a syrup or jam. Personally, I’m just glad to stop every once in a while along the trail to pop a few in my mouth.
If you’re interested in learning about more foraged foods, please visit my What to Forage page.