Hansen's Northwest Native Plant Database

Rubus parviflorus (Thimbleberry)


 Plantae – Plants


 Tracheobionta – Vascular plants


 Spermatophyta – Seed plants


 Magnoliophyta – Flowering plants


 Magnoliopsida – Dicotyledons






 Rosaceae – Rose family


 Rubus L. – blackberry


 Rubus parviflorus Nutt. – thimbleberry

An excellent native bramble shrub with thornless stems - a treat for berry lovers, but not as much of a treat as the taste! Thimbleberry grows rapidly and forms dense thickets of upright 4-6' stems.

The large, downy maple-like leaves are 4-8" across and the blossoms are pure white and 2." The tart, red, edible fruits tumble into your hand when ripe. Birds love these berries and often it is a race to see who gets the first taste! Both the berries and the sprouts were prized by Native groups

Thimbleberries like moist soils but will tolerate drier sites. They are found between Alaska and California and east to the Great Lakes are hardy in USDA zones 3-9.

The following article was written by Colleen Stuckey, who lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.
Thimbleberry should be named the ‘Queen of Berries,’ with her ruby amulets and velvet green robes. And the taste of her berries is a regal treat!

Thimbleberry is an upright shrub with multiple, thornless stems or canes reaching heights of 7’. The bark is distinct in that it peels in tiny fragments.

The sizeable leaves are between 4” – 8” across with five points, reminiscent of a maple leaf. Fine hairs are on either side of the leaf, making it soft to the touch. No other member of the Rubus family has this characteristic leaf.

Between May and early July, clusters of 2 –7 showy 1 ½” flowers form. These flowers are pollinated by insects, after which berries develop. The berries turn from pink to scarlet when fully ripe and are soft, cup-shaped and full of tiny seeds.

It is easy to know when to harvest berries: when ripe they tumble effortlessly from the branches at the slightest touch. They ripen extremely fast–just a few hours on a sunny day can turn a hard, pink berry red, soft and delectable.

Habitat and Range: The Thimbleberry has an extensive range, from USDA zones 3 - 9. It is found from the southernmost stretches of Alaska, south to California and the mountain ranges in New Mexico, east all the way to the Great Lakes and north to the 55˚ N latitude.

Thimbleberries are generally found at lower elevations in damp sites at the forest edge on the coast. East of the Cascade Mountains, however, they grow in drier areas although they far prefer moist soils. Thimbleberries can tolerate partial to almost full shade, although the shrubs will grow more lush with more light.

Photo from Walter Siegmund.

Ornamental Value: Thimbleberry is a beautiful shrub, with prominent white blossoms and wide, velvety leaves that form a dense cover. The vibrant scarlet berries compliment the green foliage.

Native Plant Gardening / Wildlife Habitat: Thimbleberry bushes attract a myriad of wildlife. The flowers are a source of nectar for butterflies, the berries are relished by birds and mammals alike and the dense cover of the large leaves acts to protect animals and birds from predation.

Quail, grouse, partridge, thrushes, thrashers, towhees, cardinals and grosbeaks are just some of the birds that feed on the ripe berries. But competition for the berries is stiff! Bears, coyotes, raccoons, squirrels, foxes, opossums and skunks are also very fond of the juicy little treasures.

Factor in the lower level browsers–the voles, rabbits, porcupines and beavers--and then the taller mammals–the deer, moose and Bighorn sheep–all feeding on the twigs, buds and leaves and it’s a wonder any of these shrubs can survive!

From a gardener’s point of view, these bushes are attractive and pragmatic. Not only can they lure the robins and other winged villains from more prized berry plants (although you ought to taste Thimbleberries, maybe they are the prize–I certainly think so!) but also they can be planted outside of your deer-proof fencing, as the bushes will tolerate browsing.

Consider planting Thimbleberry bushes to hide an unsightly feature in your backyard, as the large leaves will quickly form a low canopy.

Restoration and Mitigation Value: Although not helpful in curbing erosion, Thimbleberry grows well on disturbed sites. In fact, Thimbleberry is one of the first plants to assert itself after a major disturbance such as a clear-cut, a fire or a site clearing. Although the top growth may be killed, the rhizomes remain alive and re-sprout. There is also evidence that disturbances serve to waken dormant seed that have lain buried. After such a disturbance, Thimbleberries compete with certain conifers–namely, Western Hemlock (Tsuga heterophylla), Sitka Spruce (Picea sitchensis) and Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii var. menziesii). They often dominate and may slow the return of these trees.

On the other hand, the Engelman Spruce (Picea engelmannii), Lodgepole Pine (Pinus contorta var. latifolia), Western Larch and Grand Fir can all establish themselves under the shelter of this shrub.

Historical / Cultural uses:  Many First Nations groups harvested Thimbleberries extensively. The leaves were mixed with those of wild strawberry and wild trailing blackberry to make tea. The sprouts were collected, peeled and eaten raw as a vegetable (an excellent source of Vitamin C, as are the berries).

Berries were eaten fresh and dried, sometimes with the addition of clams and pressed into cakes, for winter use.

While still pink, they were harvested by some tribes and placed in cedar bark bags. Water was sprinkled on top and they would ripen in the bag. I am sure this was most beneficial as the birds and mammals simply adore these fruit and they fall so quickly from the canes when ready.

The leaves were also used as padding to line baskets. The boiled bark was an ingredient in soap and the dried and crushed leaves were laid on burns to prevent scarring.

Fruit: Not quite ready

Edible and Medicinal Uses: Before consuming any wild plant be absolutely certain that you have properly identified the plant. It is best to observe a plant through several seasons and stages of growth to be certain you have the correct plant. Use extreme caution in preparation as many wild plants have toxic parts (for example, the roots may be poisonous but not the leaves of some species) and check with a health care professional before using any wild plant medicinally.

Lastly, do not over harvest: leave ample fruit for reseeding and wildlife food. Respect that native plants are already in extreme competition with both human development and such troublesome invasive species as Scotch Broom (Cystisus scoparius), Gorse (Ulex europaeus) and Purple Loosestrife (Lysimachia salicaria).

By depleting an area of a native species, you are essentially inviting an invasive species to establish itself. Pick fruit or leaves in areas where there are large enough numbers of the plant to support harvesting.

Thimbleberries are very edible. In fact, they are one of the tastiest fruit in the Pacific Northwest. Soft, juicy and with a rich flavor, they melt in your mouth. Some people use the leaves in the same way that they use red raspberry leaves therapeutically. However, more research is needed to determine whether the active chemical components are the same between rubus species.

Propagation Techniques: Being one of the more difficult of the Rubus species to propagate, it may be best to leave this one to the professional horticulturalist. Cutting the rhizomes into sections during the dormant winter months and then rooting these cuttings in a cold frame is the easiest means of multiplying this plant, although these cuttings may not root.

Plant Associations: In the moist sites it prefers, Thimbleberry is found in conjunction with other moisture-lovers: Red Elderberry (Sambucus racemosa var. arborescens), Cow Parsnip (Heracleum lanatum), and Ninebark (Physocarpus), Vanilla Leaf (Achlys triphylla), Foamflower (Tiarella spp.) and Salal (Gaultheria shallon).

In the drier sites it can be found among Snowberry (Symphoricarpos spp.), Bigleaf Maple (Acer macrophyllum), Lupines (Lupinus spp.) and Oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor).

Lastly, in disturbed sites it grows alongside other pioneer species: Fireweed (Chamerion angustifolium var. canescens) and Salal (Gaultheria shallon).

Photos We Share!

It is our pleasure to share the photographs in this section with you under the Creative Commons License (see link below for details). We retain ownership of the photos but you may use them freely as long as you credit our website for them.  



Creative Commons License
These photos by http://www.nwplants.com are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Bradshaw, Christopher T. Trees and Shrubs of British Columbia. Vancouver, British Columbia: University of British Columbia Press in conjunction with the Royal British Columbia Museum, 1996

Klinka, K.; Krajina, V.J.; Ceska, A.; and Scagel, A.M. Indicator Plants of Coastal British Columbia. Vancouver, British Columbia: University of British Columbia Press, 1989

Lyons, C. P. and Bill Merilees. Trees, Shrubs and Flowers to Know in British Columbia and Washington. Vancouver, British Columbia: Lone Pine Publishing, 1995

Turner, Nancy J. Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press in conjunction with the Royal British Columbia Museum, 1995

Fire Effects Information, USDA, Forest Services, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory, Missoula, Montana. http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis

Plants for a Future (September, 2001) http://www.comp.leeds.ac.uk/pfaf

Contact:  star@chillirose.com ~ Copyright 2012 © Wallace W. Hansen ~ All rights reserved