Despite it's conspicuous nature, Nannyberry (Viburnum lentago) remains a mostly overlooked shrub, a hidden treasure of the Midwest and one of autumn's finest wild fruits.
I cannot go anywhere with open wildlands around here and not spot Nannyberry bushes. If you've ever snooped through scrubland in search of Partridge, Cottontails or Woodcock, you've doubtlessly walked amongst these small fruit trees. Anyone driving down a road has passed them and yet I know few people who know what they are and even fewer who eat them. This is truly a shame for they taste nothing like anything you can get at the store. I catch hints of banana, prunes, raisins and even a slight "holiday spice," all with a distinctive and unique Nannyberry flavor.
HABITAT & IDENTIFICATION
Nannyberry, also called Wild Raisin or Blackhaw, grows in a variety of habitats. Around where I live they seem to like what I call "Woodcock ground": shrubby and wild open patches with a slight degree of dampness. Here they seem to hug the drier edge of alder brakes and willow thickets. Other associates are Ninebark and the invasive Tartarian Honeysuckle.
In the winter, Nannyberry shrubs can be identified by the fact that they grow vegetatively from an original parent tree, so they take on a curved hill shape for their stands. This means they are small at the edges of their patch and grow larger toward the center because they are slowly spreading thier roots outwards and growing new sprouts. So no matter how large a patch like this is, it is genetically the exact same individual plant. Many shrubs do this but the Nannyberry is very conspicouls espescially because of its distinctive buds that resemble pointy bird beaks at the tips of the branches which are oppositely arranged.
The leaves are broad, very finely toothed, about 3" long and stongly pointed. In late spring flowers from in large clusters of showy white blossoms that can be spotted from quite a distance. By late summer the foliage has begun to turn the color of a Robin's breast and is among the first plants to initiate the autumn color shift. By the time the fruits are ripe, the leaves are the color of fresh liver and are readily falling.
HARVEST & PREP
The key to enjoying Nannyberries is to treat them like Nannyberries. Basically that means they are very unique and thinking of them as normal berries (and treating them as such) will only result in dissapointment. The fruit is dramatically different from others in the fact that it is only ripe when it looks slightly overripe. That is, when it is just beginning to wrinkle like a raisin. Also, the texture is unique in that it is not really juicy, but more fig-like, similar to a starchy pudding. They ripen at differing times so it is common to find under ripe, over ripe and perfectly ripe fruit on the same tree.
Although they are good as a trailside nibble, the fruit-to-seed ratio is a little disappointing since it contains a huge lentil-like seed, so it is best to gather a lot and separate the seeds.
To do this you must gently simmer them in a little water for thirty minutes to an hour.
Then you run them through a food mill while they are still hot.
The result is the distinctive puree of Nannyberry: a thick, black, creamy pudding!
This is great on anything you can imagine, or just by itself. I've even seen a recipe for Nannyberry BBQ sauce in Teresa Marone's Cooking Wild Berries. So hopefully this encourages someone out there to get out and harvest these unique treats!