Wild and plentiful

MARQUETTE – Most people are accustomed to finding produce neatly collected and arranged in the grocery store, but in the Upper Peninsula, where thimbleberries and other edible native plants are plentiful, foraging among trees and brush for food can be novel and even support a seasonal industry.

Foraging in the bush is Paul Mihelcich’s favorite part of his business, he said. Mihelcich, 60, is the current owner of the Eagle River jam and jelly company known as the Thimbleberry Jam Lady, started by his grandmother, who taught him how to make jam in her retirement as she was going blind.

He said his family, who immigrated from Croatia in about 1885, has been making thimbleberry jam for about a hundred years and selling it for more than 50.

“I started cooking jam, and, as her sight grew worse and worse, she would ask me what the pot was looking like and then tell me what to do,” Mihelcich said. “There’s a lot of history here…Every one of us (in the family) has been in charge at some point. My dad ran it through having cancer of the kidney, and after that was removed, lived another 20 years. So there’s been a lot of longevity, a lot of stories.”

Mihelcich said his mother imparted to him a value that lives on in the business, which is to do things the old-fashioned way and maintain a high standard of quality.

Thimbleberry plants, or rubus parviflorus, grow wild all over the northern Great Lakes region – especially in the Copper Country. Enjoyed by bees, butterflies, birds, humans and other animals, their prevalence dates back to when Native Americans used parts of the plant for medicinal purposes.

The thimbleberry grows to about a centimeter in diameter and ripens to a bright red in mid to late summer. Though they share the same genus, raspberries are smaller, rounder and hardier than thimbleberry fruits.

Like other raspberries, the thimbleberry is not a true berry, but an aggregate of numerous drupelets around a central core. The drupelets may be carefully removed from the core when picked, leaving a hollow fruit which bears a resemblance to a thimble.

Native to western and northern North America, the plant is found from Alaska east to Ontario and Michigan, and south through California and Northwestern Mexico.

“You can find them pretty much from Washington all the way to Conneticut, but the reason why we have so many here is the select logging that goes on throughout the peninsula,” Mihelcich said.

This gives the berries the chance to replenish, he said. The plants also require moisture and cool weather to grow, and sunlight to ripen, he added, noting that this is a later season, due to ongoing cooler temperatures.

Because the fruit is so soft, it does not pack or ship well, so thimbleberries are rarely sold commercially – except in the Copper Country, where there are around 10 small businesses in the industry, Mihelcich said.

The Jam Lady sells about 10,000 jars of jam and jelly every year, Mihelcich said – from Copper Harbor to Alaska, Hawaii, California, Texas and even the Thimbleberry Islands in Conneticut, where, despite their name, there are few thimbleberry plants anymore.

The Jam Lady sells thimbleberry jam for $10 per jar, even though the price often reaches beyond $20 in other stores.

“I think the jam is kind of at its maximum price in general for the regular people,” Mihelcich said. “Maybe rich people can afford to pay more, but poor people, too, I think, like a taste.”

Usually about waist high, thimbleberry plants are a dense shrub that can grow up to 8 feet tall. The leaves, up to about 8 inches across, are soft and fuzzy with five lobes resemblant of Maple leaves.

The thimbleberry plant typically grows along roadsides, railroad tracks, and in forest clearings, commonly appearing as an early part of the ecological succession in clear cut and forest fire areas.

The berries should be plentiful throughout the rest of the summer, Mihelcich said.

They can be eaten in jam and jelly, as well as pie, muffins, pancakes and right off the bush.

The Jam Lady’s products can be purchased online at www.thimbleberryjamlady.com/store.

Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is mwardell@miningjournal.net.