The first fall after I married, I made a bee line to my grandmother’s house to learn to make jelly. Both my mother and grandmother were Missouri farm girls, so they were expert canners and bakers – their life simply depended upon it. I was raised in the city (Tulsa, Oklahoma) and while I had seen the process, seeing is not DOING and I was in desperate need of tutorials.
There was an apple orchard close to Mama’s house and one weekend when Kyle and I went for a short visit, we came home with a couple bushels of apples. What I learned that day in her kitchen was that making jelly is the easy part of the process. Picking the fruit can be downright dangerous and prepping, cooking, straining and canning the juice is flat out laborious. Since I didn’t even pick the apples we made jelly from on my tutorial visit, I had so much more to learn!
My newly acquired jelly making knowledge came in handy the next summer on the Thompson side of the family. It turned out they had traditions in the jelly making world too. My mother in-law, Mary V, and her sister, Chloe T, spent their summers on Lake Texoma, starting in 1971. The two sisters would move their children to the lake and turn the kids loose to drive boats and jeeps, water ski, and whatever else they could find to keep themselves busy. However, before the kids got too carried away at play they had to take care of a little family business. And this business was picking sand plums. These grew wild in the fields surrounding the cabins. We have continued this family tradition, only now our kids are now the prime pickers. They, in turn, have passed it along to friends, roommates and anyone else willing to learn.
Wild sand plums make the sweetest, most delectable jelly you will ever put in your mouth. Take 5 1/2 cups of sand plum juice, pair it with 6 1/2 cups of sugar and you have something that is just shy of the taste of heaven. Those who receive this delectable delight have NO IDEA though of the hell one must go through to get to that sweet concoction. Picking this particular fruit and making its jelly are not for the faint of heart. Wild sand plums grow, as their name implies, wild. This simply means they sprout up it the middle of fields full of brush and undergrowth. The plant itself is 6-8 feet tall and bushy – its very unassuming. Thorns 1-2 inches in length span their branches and Oklahoma fields (where our cabin is located) are full of bull nettle (a weed with a beautiful white blossom that shoots hundreds of poison laced needles into your skin if you brush up against it), copperheads and pygmy rattlers. If those factors alone aren’t enough to scare you off, then perhaps the nearly 100 degree temperatures in late June will do the trick. It literally is a jungle out there.
To begin, one must arm themselves to wage war against the elements mentioned above. We recommend the following gear for your “wild” berry picking adventure:
- Snake boots — ESSENTIAL in patches where known poisonous snakes dwell. Chippewa is our favorite brand, and bonus, they’re super cute.
- Long sleeved, breathable shirts — Columbia fishing shirts are great and ditto above
- Jeans — keep chiggers away and brush from scraping your legs
- Clippers and tree loppers — for cutting away needless branches and bull nettle
- DoTerra Terra Shield (essential oil insect repellant) — for pesky flies and other crawling creatures
- Small bucket — to hold your harvest in with one arm so you can pick with the other!
As you can see from our photo, I wore shorts and a t-shirt. At my age, the heat really gets to me so I choose lighter clothing. That comes with a price however, as my arms and legs are totally scratched up–newbie pickers beware!
Many times when picking in the field you will find berries in various stages of development. Is it ok to pick the fruit prior to that beautiful red ripe color? Yes you can, so we’re glad you asked. Once the berries begin to show hints of color, you can pick them. The transition in color moves from green to soft yellow or peach, to its final state, a deep ruby red. Once the berry shows ANY signs of color, the sugar has set in the fruit (this means the berry will continue to ripen on its own, off the vine) and you can pick it. This is important to us since we usually pick on weekends at the lake. We can’t always stay for a week and wait for them to ripen. As they say in the harvesting world, “make hay while the sun shines!”
After picking, I’m too pooped to process the berries and can my juice. So we take an interim step by freezing the produce in Ziplock Freezer bags. Do NOT wash your berries prior to freezing as it causes fruit to turn mushy when thawed. I simply pour them straight into the bags, trying to pick out the twigs and leaves. They keep nicely for 6 months. Since we use our harvest for Christmas gifts, this timing is perfect. Step 1 is done but there’s so much more to come with processing, canning and the jelly making itself. Stay tuned, we’ll keep posting as the fall season approaches!