Riverdave’s Journal

This essay appeared in the News & Observer on 1-16-10
As I walk the banks of the Eno RIver in early winter, one of my favorite trees stands out against the bare and mostly deciduous backdrop.  The farkleberry still clings to its slowly reddening leaves and ripe black berries into January. This common native tree, found in the  Piedmont and coastal plain of Southeastern United States, is attractive to me on several counts. 

First is its distinctive shape.  This is a small tree, ten to fifteen feet in height, often with twisting and contorting limbs giving it a gnarled appearance. It is rounded off at the top with a dense crown. It is taller than what most of us would consider a bush but smaller than almost all the other trees in our forests.  To me it has a peculiar, gnome-like personality.

The bark of the farkleberry is also unique.  It is often shedding and curling back, revealing a smooth inner montage of dark reds, purples, browns and grays. Added winter color is provided by its persistent, glossy leaves as they turn various shades of red and purple before finally dropping in mid winter.

Also persistent are the dark blue-black, quarter inch berries.  The farkleberry is closely related to our common commercial blueberry, these two species being among the forty species of North American Vaccinium.  Often inhabiting the rocky slopes of the Eno River Valley, the tree offers to winter hikers a novel sweet treat with a familiar blueberry flavor. 

Not wanting to completely exhaust the local berry supply with a large pie,  this morning my wife and I had our modest, homemade farkleberry muffins with coffee.  I’m sure that we were not alone as many outdoor creatures, especially birds, take advantage of this wild winter fructification as well. And if any reader is looking for a special New Year’s baking tradition, why not join the winter birds and serve up hot farkleberry muffins!

In case the word farkleberry still sounds unappealing to readers, I will note that this tree is sometimes known as sparkleberry.  While the etymology of farkleberry seems to be unknown, the justification for calling the tree spakleberry, in my opinion, is weak.  I find nothing sparkly about its dark berries.  So I’ll just be content with the odd sounding name of farkleberry and say please pass the butter for my second farkleberry muffin!