The gooseberries are ready for picking as I write on July 18.
They’re such a productive crop and easy to grow; not surprising as they are native to Britain. The plant is a scrambling bush of rocky ground, usually in limestone areas, but it adapts to acid soils. I have seen it in hedgerows in Cumbria, where it might be survivng from wild bushes, or spread by birds from gardens. It isn’t first on the birds’ list to eat – that’s the redcurrant, another fruit brought in from the British wilderness by gardeners long ago.
Gooseberries are often referred to as goosegogs, as if they are different from berries, and they are certainly bigger than most. It has a delicious taste all of its own when cooked into crumble or pies, and makes good jam too, or compote, which can be frozen. Interestingly, cooked green gooseberries go dark red. The colouring must come out of the seeds. Some varieties are red when they are ready for picking, which has to be done before they are ripe enough to eat raw.
These slightly under-ripe fruits have the best flavour when cooked. If you wait for them to be soft and ripe enough to be eaten raw, they will have little flavour when cooked. Fully ripe and eaten raw it is the pulp around the seeds which tastes the sweetest. If you munch the whole thing, the flesh just under the skin retains some of the sourness.
Traditionally, gooseberries were the first fruit of summer for cooking. The apples stored over the winter would have been used up well before them, and I’ve read that to bridge the gap the plant sorrel was cooked with sugar to make a substitute pie-filling, but I’ve never tried it.
I heard an elderly lady asking the greengrocer if he was getting any gooseberries in this year, and his reply was “probably not”, as many growers were now replacing their bushes with blueberries, which seems sad to ditch a crop so suited to our climate for an exotic, and one with a bland flavour – good for training kids to like fruit.
Gooseberries are quite disease resistant; powdery mildew being the main fungus disease, but the variety Invicta is resistant to it. This has been said to have a poor flavour, but I find it good. Perhaps the critic was cooking them when they were too ripe.
An insect sometimes strips the foliage. It looks like a caterpillar, but is the larva of the gooseberry sawfly. I noticed the birds don’t eat these larvae. They must have a repellent taste as I gathered a handful once and threw them into a pond containing big goldfish. The fish went for them but immediately spat them out! Bushes attacked by the sawfly soon recover and grow a fresh crop of leaves.
I notice some gardeners let their gooseberry bushes get grassy underneath. This is best avoided as the long grass threading through the branches makes picking the berries among the prickles even more difficult. It’s best to prune the bushes so they stand on a single short trunk, about four to six inches high (10 to 15 cm) then they are easy to weed round. It’s also best to thin out the branches drastically in winter to aid picking. There are spineless varieties and one I have like this (lost label unfortunately) is my favourite for flavour as well as being great to pick from – no gloves needed.
July and the first signs of the changing seasons for the birds are noticed.
Numbers of curlew going over high up is one of them. As there is less to discover this month and on through August many birdwatchers turn to butterflies and moths to occupy their identification skills.
The ringlet butterfly is much in evidence this hot spell. It’s similar to a meadow brown, but is very dark above and below, with narrow white edges to its wings noticeable as it flies by.
It rests usually with its wings together over its back showing its underside, and the row of small pale rings which give it its name can be seen. I remember the first sightings of ringlet in Calderdale only about 10 years ago.
The orangey-brown gatekeeper butterflies are also now starting to appear in areas with long grass, where the two skippers we get – the large and the small – also live. These look like little paper darts, and have moth-like, fat bodies. People ask what the difference is between a moth and a butterfly, because there are several day-flying moths, though no night-flying butterflies.
About the only thing that those we call butterflies have in common is club-shaped antennae.
Butterfly as a name doesn’t arise because of their colour, as only the Brimstone and Clouded Yellow could really be described as butter-coloured. One theory is that as the old French for beauty is “biaute”, and the insects could have been named for being beautiful.
It’s very important not to tidy up all the long grass and tall flowering wild plants around our houses and neighbourhoods. Brambles are also very important for many gorgeous and useful insects, which sip the nectar, and in the process fertilise the flowers enabling the blackberries to grow.
Time now to save some jam jars for the upcoming blackberry crop. It could be huge!