THIMBLEBERRY, WESTERN THIMBLEBERRY
Pronounced: RUB-us par-VEE-flor-us
Sunset zones: All.
Height: 10 feet (3 m).
White, crinkled petals on flowers blooming in clusters on 2nd year canes.
Up to 10 inches long, fuzzy, deciduous maple-like leaves.
Full sun to shade.
Moist to dry, humus rich soil. Thimbleberries do not grow well on sandy or gravelly soils, but in the Northwest, a small percentage grow in wet soils.
Seed (needs stratification)
Dormant rhizome segments.
Prune out older canes.
Rainy Side Notes
Our native thimbleberry, Rubus parviflorus, grows as a common understory shrub, rubbing elbows with:
- Acer macrophyllum (big-leaf maple)
- Berberis aquifolium (Oregon grape)
- Ceanothus (summer lilac)
- Epilobium angustifolium (fireweed)
- Gautheria shallon (salal)
- Heracleum lanatum (cow parsnip)
- Holodiscus discolor (oceanspray)
- Lupinus (lupine)
- Physocarpus malvaceus (Pacific ninebark)
- Polystichum munitum (swordfern)
- Prunus emarginata (bittercherry)
- Ribes (flowering currant)
- Salix (willow)
- Sambucus (elderberry)
- Symphoricarpos (snowberry)
- Vaccinium parvifolium (huckleberry).
In my native garden, this close western raspberry relative grows with abandon next to a stump, alongside Gaultheria shallon (salal), Sambucus racemosa (red elderberry), Polystichum munitum (Sword fern), and Alnus rubra (red alder). I try to keep it out of the tamer areas of the garden, because it can be thuggish; however, it is a handsome subshrub, growing in thickets, where it covers itself in soft, velvety, maple-like leaves. The good news for the gardener is the plant is disarmed of any thorns, making it easy to work around.
Thimbleberries are good subshrubs for use as streamside erosion control. It forms thornless bramble thickets with good soil-binding attributes. Because it is vigorous and adapts well to sun or shade, it makes a fine native species for re-vegetating disturbed moist areas, especially those spots located in shade.
The raspberry-like fruit tastes on the bland side, but when I am out in the wilds, I like to find thickets where I can browse on the fruit in season. The berries make tasty jams, jellies and syrups; there are many recipes available on the web.
Although not ideal, the leaves come in handy as a substitute for toilet paper when hiking far away from any bathroom facilities.
Rubus is the Latin word for bramble. The species name parviflorus, meaning small flowered, is a poor name choice, since the flower is bigger than all the other flowers in the genus. I can only venture to guess that the name choice came about because the flower seems small compared to the plant's large leaves.
A good shrub for wildlife, thimbleberry provides cover in thickets and food for birds and mammals.
The flower provides nectar for hummingbirds, but isn't as important a food source as salmon berries (Rubus spectabilis.) Birds such as bushtits, finches, jays, quail and wrens eat the berries, as well as the mammals-bear, coyote and fox.
If you see a thicket of thimbleberries, most likely you will notice the insect galls on the stems. The deformity is a curiosity, and these native subshrubs always appear to have them. The insect responsible is a short-lived parasitic wasp (Diastrophus kincaidii) that lays thirty to fifty eggs in the thimbleberry's tissue. The gall forms three to four weeks after the wasp deposits its eggs; it is caused by the larva's feeding, which brings about excessive parenchyma tissue. This process forms the gall. Adding to the intrigue, yet another parasite feeds on the larvae of the wasp parasite. Up to 73% percent of them are doomed to be fodder for other parasites. The next time you look at a gall, imagine all the munching going on inside.
In the indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest, thimbleberries had many uses, from fresh eating to medicinal. The Cowlitz tribe boiled the bark and made soap, while the Quinault tribe used the leaves to line baskets. The Quileute stored cooked elderberries wrapped inside. The Tsimshian used the leaves to clean the slime off salmon.
In early spring, Klallam, Makah, Nitinaht, Samish, Skagit, Swinomish and Thompson people ate the sprouts. The Chehalis, Clallam, Cowlitz, Karok, Kwakiutl, Nitinaht, Quileute, Quinault, Salish, Samish, Skagit, Snohomish, Squaxin, Swinomish and Tsimshian people ate fresh berries. Some tribes picked them green and let them ripen in baskets, while others mixed thimbleberries and blackberries together. The Hesquiat, Klallam and Squaxin dried them, even though the berries were soft and difficult to dry. The Hesquiat also ate them fresh, made preserves and used the leaves as a flavoring for fish. The Kwakiutl and Salish dried berries in cakes for winter use, and the Kwakiutl lined steaming pits with the leaves above and below the seaweed. The Hoh ate the berries raw and stewed the fruits. Thompson people made a sweetener from the roots.
Medicinally, this plant was used for a variety of maladies. The Makah boiled the leaves and drank as tea for strengthening the blood. The Cowlitz made a powder from dried leaves and applied to burns to minimize scarring. A remedy to bring down swelling, a mixture of ashes from burnt leaves and grease, came from the Skagit people. The Karok made an infusion from the roots for a tonic for thin people. The Kwakiutl used it several ways—leaves to help with vomiting or blood-spitting, and powdered leaves for skin wounds. The Saanich people chewed dried leaves for diarrhea. To help a baby's naval that was not healing, the Thompson people burned insect galls found on thimbleberry stems and rubbed them on the child's belly button.
Photographed in author's garden.