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Aside: A Thimbleberry By Any Other Name…


Common names of plants cause all sorts of problems.

Common names are often regional, with identical species having disparate names in two different locales. The opposite case, where more than a single species share the same name in different areas is even more common.

Differences in common names readily lead to misunderstandings. It is easy to imagine someone referring to a plant using a common name, while their audience believes they are referencing another plant species altogether. Cases of miscommunication like these are the reason scientists came up with unique scientific names, using a binomial nomenclature, governed by an international code of rules. That, and to make it difficult for laypeople to understand what they are saying.

I experienced such a misunderstanding first hand during my Isle Royale trip last summer.

During the orientation at Rock Harbor, the ranger enthusiastically mentioned that thimbleberries and blueberries were abundant along the trail on the island. The feeling of excitement was palpable after this announcement, as if the assembled crowd failed to bring an adequate amount of supplies for their journeys. This enthusiasm was not lost on me, since I am a big fan of both of these delicious berries.

My central New York upbringing led me to believe thimbleberry meant Rubus allegheniensis, also known as blackberry or bramble. This shrubby plant yields large, succulent, deep blue berries that ripen late in the summer. This species is quite common in upstate New York, where it is highly protective of its fruit, using its sharp prickles to ward off all but the most persistent and pain-tolerant.

Unfortunately, in reality, the ranger meant Rubus parviflorus (also known as salmonberry), a common raspberry ranging from Michigan to Alaska. Since my experience with the north-central United States was confined to only two summers (one in central Minnesota during 1996, and another in northern Wisconsin during 2000), where I do not recall coming in contact with this species, I was totally ignorant about this species.

Much to my surprise, I never found any blackberries along the trail, regardless of whether I was crossing the Greenstone Ridge on my way to McCargoe Cove or traversing the seemingly infinite ups-and-downs of the Minong Ridge Trail. Instead, all I ever saw were these large, flattish, dull red berries resembling the raspberries found in the supermarket.

Being a cautious person when it comes to tasting plants in the wild, I avoided the temptation of eating one of these red berries until I reached Todd Harbor along the northern shore of Isle Royale. There were many of the berries scattered along the edge of my campsite and the temptation to try became too great for me to resist. The swollen, red berries, with raindrops hanging off them, appeared so succulent and tantalizing, I could not help myself, and I popped one in my mouth.

Thimbleberry bush

Eeeeewwww!! The bitterness quickly washed over my entire tongue, and I immediately spit it out, much as Tom Hanks did with caviar in the movie Big. I gave up on these berries and refrained from sampling another all the way to the Windigo Ranger Station at the southwestern tip of the island.

It was at Windigo, while talking to some Isle Royale veterans, that I learned of my mistake. The thimbleberries are indeed these raspberry-looking berries that were so plentiful along the trail. The bitter one I tried was probably just a fluke, perhaps it dried out a little, a nasty bug was on it or an animal peed there(most likely a red squirrel).

When I had an opportunity to try one of these berries again on my way to Feldtmann Lake, I jumped at the opportunity. Although tart, it was delicious, and I made a point of sampling some whenever I encountered them. I took great care not to eat too many in a single sitting though, as these berries can sometimes do a number on my digestive system. And serious digestive issues are no fun in the backcountry.

I never did see any blueberries. Or, maybe blueberries mean something totally different on Isle Royale.

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