Who’s eating the local fruit?

It’s not quite winter, but we’re well into the Dark Season, a reference to the tough electromagnetic spot we find ourselves in every year because of our planet’s axial tilt. I also think of it as the Gray Season, no reference to tilt, just a nod to snow clouds and muted landscapes.

Last week, I went out looking for a spot of color that would brighten a late-fall day. I wanted to find something a little more satisfying than stop signs and bright-orange construction barrels, and I think I did. Right here in the urban jungle, I found a substantial supply of wild berries in a variety of colors. Here’s a sampling:

Bitter nightshade The name alone discourages human consumption. Bitter! Who needs it? They look delicious, but for us, they’re slightly toxic and, therefore, forbidden fruit.

Bitter nightshade berries

Wild grapes  I used to eat wild grapes when I was a kid. I don’t remember any pies or jelly, just one grape at a time taken from the vines near our treehouse. I believe we also threw them at each other. Why not.

Guthrie-blue grapes

Buckthorn This is the bad boy of invasive species in Minnesota. People all over the state are trying to eliminate buckthorn. I have mixed feelings about this incredible effort. I’m fond of all the native species that buckthorn out-competes, but is it possible to keep the invader out? I’m not sure. These berries don’t lend much color to the landscape, but I felt I had to include them on this list because they’re abundant on the Mississippi River banks and flats.

Buckthorn berries and the Pillsbury red tile elevator

Highbush cranberries  I tried to make jam or jelly or something like that out of highbush cranberries one year. A disaster. This photo was taken from behind the closed gate at Xcel Energy’s Water Power Park. I suggest they keep the park open all year so that we can get better photos of the berries.

Highbush cranberries in Xcel Energy's Water Power Park

Who is eating all these urban berries? Urban birds, of course. But on this day, all I saw were seed eaters. A flock of juncos was working the ground and chickadees were searching in the trees.

On another day, though, I finally spotted a berry eater, a cardinal — no slouch when it comes to bright color. He was perched on the branch of a tree near the railroad tracks. Every once in a while, he’d launch himself and hover like a little red helicopter next to a cluster of wild grapes. He would pluck one from the vine, then go back to his branch to eat it.

The sun was nearly down (dark season), which rendered the colors dull (gray season). I didn’t have the camera anyway, so you’ll just have to take my word for it: I did finally see a locavore taking advantage of the local produce. If I see him again, and if I have the camera, I’ll try to capture the moment.





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