Sunday, September 21, 2008

Berries! Berries! Berries!

I have been looking forward to sharing my berry pickings for awhile now, and finally amassed the pictures to go with the names after a weekend of berry picking!

Crowberries have to be one of the most common berries in Alaska. Many people don't like their flavor, but I had a friend from Michigan visit recently and she made us a crowberry pie with 4 c. crowberries and 1 c. regular mixed berries from the store (along with the usual amounts of sugar, etc.) and it was delicious! The berries kept their shape so there was a little crunch, which is not something you can usually say about pie. Because many people don't like them, we find them everywhere and pick them everywhere! I throw them in my morning fruit & vegetable smoothie, and my daughter says crowberries are one of her favorite foods. We'll be just fine if nobody else picks them, since then we won't have to drive far for a great, producing patch!

Low bush cranberries were my goal for the weekend. My aunt makes homemade cranberry juice from her cranberries, and though the low bush are not as juicy as the high bush, they are still delicious. Of all the berries, these are my favorite, and my mouth is watering just thinking about them. The plants are low to the ground (and grow interspersed with crowberries quite often), but the berries are on the end of the stem and easy to pick. Our family of 4 picked a gallon of them in less than an hour of sporadic picking. The berries are much better after a frost has hit them and the sugars have come up. The berries soften up after a frost too. Last summer I was picking and eating them before a frost, and didn't know what I was missing until I tried some later in the season. I will never go back! Late season camping trips will become the norm so we can get the cranberries after a frost!

Bog blueberries are very common as well, growing in all but the very northernmost tip of Alaska. They are a pain to pick; as you can see from this picture, the plants are close to the ground and each stem is loaded with berries. Thus, it is a matter of crawling along on all fours, and picking berries off the ground as they fall as much as picking from the plant. My counsin just introduced me to "berrypickers" today, so next weekend I plan to try this little gadget out to see if it makes picking any easier.

I've only found salmonberries in areas off Prince William Sound or in other temporal rain forest areas. My berry book shows them growing on the entire Kenai Peninsula, but the Seward area is the closest I have found any. These remind me of a cross between a raspberry and and thimbleberry. They are bigger than a raspberry, and not as hairy as a thimbleberry. They grow on big plants and form huge thickets. I would use them to make jam, though we've always found them on hikes, and only picked enough to eat as we walked. They are soft, and so would turn to mush quite quickly.

High bush cranberries were a side treat this weekend that I wasn't expecting to get. They were growing in Kenai near my crowberry patch (notice my possessiveness--"my" crowberry patch!!). The kids were getting tired of picking berries, so quickly filled up a quart, which I will use to make syrup. These are easy to pick, on bushes about 2 feet high, and the leaves had mostly fallen off. The berries are in clusters on the end of a stem, which is one of the distinguishing difference from currants,which are spread out along a stem.

Watermelon berries have always been a treat for the kids (and horses!) when out on the trail. These berries are quite watery, and do have a hint of watermelon flavor to them, thus their name. I mentioned to my aunt that we were going berry picking a few weeks ago, and she gave me a recipe for watermelon berry jam. We tried it, and it was delicious! In the past we've never done more than nibble on these, so it was fun to actually pick them to use. The campground we stayed at in Seward was just filled with watermelon berry plants, though if we hadn't been looking for them, we wouldn't have noticed since they blended in well. Again, few other people seem to pick these to use, so they are plentiful. Plants do not grow in clumps, normally, so you have to pick when you find them and freeze till you have enough.

Rose hips are common in some places, and were mixed in with the high bush cranberries, so we picked and snacked on these. The hairs inside the rose hips are a pain to take out, so we don't use these to make anything. Apparently the hairs irriate the lining of the stomach if eaten. I found them pricking the inside of my mouth.

Nagoonberries (no picture) are actually the berry we have picked the most of this summer (3-4 gallons in our freezer, not counting many eaten raw). A field near where we live is covered with them. The plants are not more than a few inches high, so it is a crawling pick. The berries almost appear to be growing out of the ground at times. When we are done picking these, the kids (and me too sometimes!) have berry stains on our knees or backsides! The flavor and shape of the nagoonberry is similar to raspberries, and my plan for these is to throw them in smoothies. We picked through August, but the past couple weeks they've been over the peak and not good anymore.

There are elderberries everywhere up here, and I have been itching to pick them, but the berries are tiny, and I know they will be a lot of work to pick and clean. They are poisonous when raw, which explains why I've gotten stomachaches after eating them in the past. The seed contains glycoside, which is related to cyanide, which is destroyed when cooking. I would use them to make elderberry jelly, which I recall eating as a kid.

While it is a bummer that few berries ripen in Alaska before mid-August (on the Kenai Peninsula, anyways. In the interior where it is very hot berries ripen sooner), I find it so exciting that there are so many different kinds of berries! Berries can be a significant part of a subsistence lifestyle. It takes little skill to pick berries, they are plentiful, kids can pick them, and they add a tasty, nutritous food to the diet. After we missed berry season last year due to being overwhelmingly busy, I committed to making berry season this year. To my joy, our freezer is filling up!


Unknown said...

Crowberry pie is my new favorite! You can't describe it if you haven't eaten them, they are truly unique and make a darn tasty pie when mixed with a few raspberries and blueberries. I really should have brought a few small plants home to see if they would grow and spread in N. MI. I've tried describing it to people here but can't. I've also had cravings for them - oh Michelle, what have you done!

The Watermelon berry is also a new fruit for me and the taste was amazingly like a watermelon. The little seeds inside taste just like a small white watermelon seed, so you get the 'whole' experience. How amazing. I wish I could taste your jelly, I bet it is wonderful.

Unknown said...

I grew up on Adak Island in the Aleutians and the only berries that grow there are the crow berries. My mom used to make the most delicious pies with just the crowberries. She also made jams, jellies and syrups. It is a flavor I have missed for over 25 years. I was fortunate to have worked in Alaska this past year and was able to introduce my teammates to crowberries. I also sent some home to my younger sister. She made a pie and some jellies and said her family has thoroughly enjoyed them. I am working in Alaska again this year and plan on picking more in late August, early September to send home.

Anonymous said...

My sister-in-law lives in Homer and she sent me some watermellon berry WONDERFUL,I live in wisconsin and would like to grow some here,how could I purchase a plant to start,or will they grow here?Would love to have more!!Betsyhyper

Michelle Waclawski said...

Watermelon berries are wild and are what we called Solomon Seal in Wisconsin (where I grew up), but there was the false type which was very poisonous which is why I was leery about eating them at first.

We have so many plants here in Alaska that have been brought in from other places that are taking over (noxious species) so I don't recommend trying to grow watermelon berries elsewhere. Just come visit AK or have your sister-in-law send you more!

I made watermelon berry jelly once and we weren't wild about it. Would love a better recipe if you have one.

Anonymous said...

For those wanting to buy plants, etc to try to grow in their home state, the Palmer Visitor's Center sells a collection of wild plant seeds for $20, it's like 10-20 different plants I think, including watermelon berry. Just Google the Palmer Visitor's Center and call them up to ask about them mailing you the seeds. Other gift shops sell them too. If you're not an adventurous gardener, call or e-mail Alaska Wild Berry Products, who sells jams, jellies & candies made from wild berries. Also, sells jam & syrup from the Kenai Penninsula, although I've never tried them before.

Anonymous said...

Dear Michelle,

While you are indeed correct that the bog/alpine blueberry, Vaccinium uliginosum, is very common throughout all of Alaska, you should know that the photo you supplied above is actually that of the much rarer Dwarf Blueberry, Vaccinium caespitosum. Which, nevertheless, are a fabulously delicious berry as well! But sadly, as you note, they are very difficult and tedious to pick. I have in exceptional years gathered (with much perseverance) as much as 20 lbs of dwarf blueberries, and they make a wonderfully delicious jam that is quite different from that made from the much more common bog/alpine blueberry.

Alan Kurczynski
Chugiak, Alaska