Eart to the Ground - Calder Valley nature with Steve Blacksmith: Searching hard for winter berries

White Sorbus, pictured by Steve Blacksmith
White Sorbus, pictured by Steve Blacksmith

It never occurred to me when I was young and helping to trim up the Christmas Tree, what the colourful baubles represented (is to trim up a local term I wonder? – maybe most would say to decorate).

Since then I’ve come to appreciate all the different offerings that Nature leaves through the early part of winter, suspended in garden, hedgerow and woodland trees and shrubs.

A new one was pointed out to me in Pudsey Clough last weekend by a friend very knowledgeable in fungi. It is Amber Jelly, and grows out of dead willow twigs high in the tree like so many re-emerging amber-coloured fruits, especially with the light shining through them.

It is related to the common Jelly-ear fungus, which grows usually much lower down, and often on dead Elder. There’s an even brighter one called Yellow Brain Fungus, which is a brilliant translucent golden yellow, and shines out in a dull winter woodland, growing on dead wood.

I saw it in Luddenden Dean recently. It doesn’t grow in large colonies like the Amber Jelly, though, and neither of these two fungi are edible as far as I know.

The Elderberries are long gone by December, having been eaten quickly by Starlings and other birds, as have the red berries of the native Mountain Ash or Rowan. Some berries that are ignored by the birds are the white berries of Rowans from overseas, such as the one from Kashmir.

This seems to be the species Sorbus casheriana, with marble-sized white berries. There’s another, possibly Sorbus hupehensis, a smaller tree with masses of small pink-tinged white berries, the one in the picture.

I’ve got both types coming up as seedlings, having extracted the seeds from berries. The large berried type were from branches where they overflowed from the skip at the Household Waste Recycling site.

A Robin in the garden today was taking the red berries of Berberis. The types with the waxy red berries hold on to them a long time. I think the birds, normally almost immune to prickles, find this group of shrubs just a bit too painful. It was pecking them up where they had fallen onto the paving.

The Common Barberry, Berberis communis, is a scarce native plant.

It was found to be a secondary host for a wheat rust disease, a kind of simple fungus, so has been all but eradicated from hedgerows where it once grew. I was invited to a meal recently with some of the Iranian community in Halifax.

There was saffron rice, with a sprinkling of small red berries, previously dried then cooked into the rice. They had a pleasant, sharp, acidic taste. A man opposite looked it up for me on his Farsi-English translating app and showed me the result.

It said Barberry! I had known it was edible, and had its uses in pickles and preserves, but didn’t imagine it could be cooked like this. Apparently you can buy them dried in Asian shops here. I’m not sure if the berries of all the different kinds of Berberis in gardens are good to eat.

Another tree that often hangs on to a crop of fruits is crabapple. They can look very festive as they hang, yellow or red, among frosty twigs. It’s the generally dull and dark backgrounds that bring the colours out.

Eventually they might be eaten by the birds as they get hungrier. They sometimes swallow them whole which takes quite an effort on the part of a Blackbird or a thrush.

Hawthorns are another tree that hangs on to its fruit a long time, until the hordes of winter thrushes, Fieldfares and Redwings that come over the sea from Fenno-scandinavia get to them.

We watched a group feeding in a mixed group in Pecket Well Clough last weekend. The fruits, haws, don’t taste all that good, but I was once given a taste of a kind of fruit leather made in Todmorden by squashing them together which wasn’t bad at all, and I was assured there had been no sugar or fruit juice added. Our prehistoric ancestors probably knew just how to exploit them, unless they had even better things stored away and fermenting nicely in their pots.

To go back to the Amber Jelly Fungus. I wrote I don’t know if it is edible like its relative, the Jelly Ear. I ate this, the one that grows on dead Elder, once in a Thai restaurant in France.

It was cut into long strips the thickness of shoe laces and mixed with crispy noodles, with which it had an interesting, contrasting texture.

A friend here tried it and said it was no good to cook because when he tried to fry it with his bacon and eggs it kept jumping out of the pan! It’s one of those things you have to stir-fry it with some liquid as well as the oil.

It can be dried, when it shrinks to a fraction of its size. I once re-soaked some I had dried and made a meal with it. I don’t know whether I had not soaked it long enough, or ate too much of it, or both, but I had bad reaction, with a very uncomfortable bloated feeling for hours.

It’s important to be very careful when eating fungi, and hedgerow fruits, but don’t just stick to the chocolate baubles from the Christmas tree.