Thimbleberry - Rubus parviflorus

thimbleberry botany with brit

Thimbleberry is one of the most delicious berries in the Pacific Northwest, and it is not widely known in the way that raspberries and blackberries are largely because it is not commercially shippable. The sweet red berries have a tendency to fall apart easily and would not stand up to the tortures of trucks, but they are fantastic when eaten fresh.

Not only are the fruits tasty, but they give the plant its cute name. The berries are domed in a way that makes them fit perfectly on the pad of your finger, rather like a thimble. Just one of these berries contains 70-125 seeds, but the plant also spreads through rhizomes, resulting in lush thickets. And best of all, the plant is unarmed! There are no thorns to stab you as you reach for that red berry.

Deer, elk, moose, and bear enjoy foraging on the soft, slightly fuzzy leaves. The leaves are shaped rather like a maple leaf, being both lobed and toothed. They also make great little makeshift berry baskets because they're so broad and malleable. The flowers have white crinkly petals and look like a cross between a giant blackberry blossom and a wild rose.

The berries and shoots were eaten by all indigenous Northwest peoples. The young shoots can be eaten raw as a green vegetable, and they are high in Vitamin C, as are the berries. The plant was also used medicinally: the dried powdered leaves were applied to wounds to prevent scarring and a tea made of the leaves was used to treat anemia.

The Quinault would pick the berries before they turned red and store them in cedar bark bags to ripen, which was probably a very smart way to beat the birds to the coveted berries. Robins, Crows, and Swainson's Thrushes all feast on them, and the average ripe berry lasts less than 2 days on the plant before a bird gets to it.

One field guide I read described the berries as "insipid," which I cannot disagree with more. I think it's likely that there is some flavor variation between plants, so if the first thimbleberry you try doesn't meet expectations, seek out another. They are deliciously sweet and flavorful - it's worth trying to beat the birds to sample one.