The months of summer are the Berry Moons in the Pacific Northwest. The first summer moon of the Salish Seas is named after the Salmonberry, sung to gold-and-ruby-ripe by Swainson’s thrush as noted in local legends. This is followed by sweet black Dewberry which hugs the ground with its lime-green stems in the moon cycle of July. At the peak of summer it is the moon of the deep-purple Salal berry, abundant in the forest, filled with tiny, protein rich seed and rich with anti-oxidants. In the past it was perhaps the most important berry harvested in quantities in the lowlands. Mixed with other berries it is mashed into a paste and dried in the sun over a smoky fire then stored, to be brought out in the winter moons to be added to soups and stews, made into a sauce served over fish, mixed with dried salmon meal cooked into a pudding, or simply eaten like fruit leather, dipped in fish oils, for a nutritious snack.
There are over 50 edible berries here in the Northwest. Berries were one of the three most important food groups of the people of Cascadia along with Meat & Seafood, and Roots & Bulbs. Berries provide key vitamins and minerals and were the sweet food. Their ability to be dried and stored for winter, preserving their nutritional value throughout the year, made them essential in the food menu. Today traditional longhouses of tribes throughout the Northwest honor the return of the berries each year with a feast. This is a core cultural event where the cultural knowledge and skills are passed on to each generation through learning the harvesting traditions, basketry, tools, songs, proper behavior and the way in which the foods are prepared and served.
Yakama tribe huckleberry harvests in traditional baskets, handpicked by dozens of families over several days of camping.
My friend Eleanor (left, standing), also called Aunt Sissy, is a longhouse leader, and calls the timing for the harvests throughout the seasons. Her sister Marlene is sitting next to her. Here she is teaching and asking that the people “Try to remember!”.
I’ve learned that berry fields were managed by fire in the same manner and for the same reason as the camas prairies. One first person account by an early settler in Fall City, along the Snoqualmie River, noted that after the meadows along the river had been burned the dewberries will have a bumper crop in three years. Another account, written in September by an explorer seeking mining opportunities, spoke of the ‘Sallal Prairie’ near North Bend above Snoqualmie Falls, describing the low-growing salal plant as brown with a ‘verdant green’ understory of fine grasses. I interpret this to mean that, a few weeks before, the prairie had been set to fire, as salal, Gaultheria shallon, does not turn brown normally, and the presence of lush new grass is one of the intended results of prairie fires, drawing in elk and deer for easy harvest. I have visited research sites on the Olympic Peninsula which have shown that occasional burning of Salal increases new growth and, theoretically, berry abundance.
Berries are abundant here in the Pacific Northwest, ideally adapted to a forest ecosystem, feeding animals of all kinds. Perhaps the most revered by all the tribes is the mountain huckleberry, Vaccinium membranaceum, much different than the lowland red huckleberry, V. parviflorum, evergreen huckleberry, V. ovatum, or oval-leafed huckleberry V. ovalifolium, each delicious in their own right, but not as easily or abundantly harvested.
Marlene, Aunt Sissy’s sister, harvesting huckleberries by hand, and with love. Eleanor and Marlene remember spending most of the year from May through October under the sky, following the seasonal rounds of harvesting.
Mountain huckleberry is only attainable by those willing to travel up into the high mountain passes where it grows in thickets which cover the open slopes, thriving with disturbance of fire and logging. It is now threatened by climate change which has altered the snow cover which provides insulation during the most frigid months, and pollination of its flowers in the usual timing. The leaders of the traditional longhouses who forecast the time to harvest huckleberries are troubled by the early ripening, historically in August, now called out for harvest in July, in one recent year as early as late June.
Serviceberry is most abundant east of the Cascades where there were many different varieties known and named, presumably based on their flavor and growth habit. On the Westside, I find mature serviceberry stands associated with camas and Garry oak at all the historically managed prairie sites, one of the many abundant foods in these amazing plant communities. I’ve recently discovered that Serviceberry, when dried like raisins, adds a delicious lemony twang to elk stew and salmon soup, possibly due to its high sugar content which may cause a slight ferment as it is dried.
Today, loss of habitat has meant that many of the berries have nearly disappeared from their usual harvesting grounds. Gooseberry Point in Lummi Nation only recently had gooseberry return as part of restoration efforts after elders lamented their loss. Coastal Black Gooseberry (Ribes divaricatum) is considered one of the best of the many gooseberries and currants of the Ribes genus which grow in our region. Others include Golden currant, R. aureum, Swamp currant, R. lacustre, Stink currant, R. bracteosum, and others which made up part of the berry harvests each year.
Another important berry impacted by loss of habitat is the bog cranberry, Vaccinium oxycoccum, historically found growing in hundreds of known and named bogs throughout the region. One very large bog was located just south of Duvall in the Snoqualmie Valley and it is said that tribes came to harvest there for weeks in late summer, storing the green berries in moss until they ripened during the fall and winter. Snoqualmie elders lamented the loss when it was drained for farmland in the 50’s. Once common, most of us have never seen our native cranberry, and if so, they are best left to keep the species alive and feed the wildlife who depend on them.
Highbush cranberry, not a cranberry at all, Viburnum edule, is also recorded as part of the local berry harvests, now nearly absent in our region. I have only just recently found a patch of V. edule in the foothills of the Cascades in the Snoqualmie watershed and am excited that we may be able to propagate and restore this plant to its original habitat. Unfortunately many of the V. edule (‘edule’ is Latin for edible) plants sold in nurseries are mislabeled, actually are a V. opulus speces, not really palatable and perhaps toxic in larger quantities.
Soapberry, Shepherdia canadensis, is an unusual berry high in saponins which can be mixed with water and sweet berries, then whipped into a foam, and is called Indian Ice Cream at the gatherings. Its saponin content made it hard to swallow for me, but my Haida husband, ate all that I couldn’t.
There are some berries which are toxic if eaten raw, but when properly prepared are an important part of the traditional food system. Chokecherry, Prunus virginiana, is sour, and its seeds, leaf and stems are high in cyanide compounds, so today it is cooked into a jelly; and historically pounded with its seeds into a paste dried with meats and fish. Heat and exposure to air releases the toxic compounds. Red elderberry is also toxic eaten fresh, but was similarly treated, and found in the archeological sites and noted in the ethnobotanical record. I’ve heard of elders eagerly anticipating the return of red elderberry, though my and others limited experience have so far yielded poor results.
There was one native pome fruit used in abundance, the Pacific Crabapple, Malus fusca, and it was coveted, harvested while still green and stored in boxes filled with water or oil until ripe in winter. I’ve tried this in small scale and it works, they ripen to a sweet tasty fruit, it is one of my first native harvests requested by my Haida father-in-law, Kwan Kilt Kwan. There were crabapple orchards located near many villages, one of the many instances of tended wild harvests, and I still find ancient groves near many of the old village sites.
Berries continue to be an important cultural element in traditional foods meals. At the many Haida gatherings I attended with family, berries were always part of the meal, usually cultivated strawberries, blackberries and raspberries frozen in their own juices, and often served with oolichan oil (a fermented fish oil, made from a species of smelt). Jams and jellies are gifts shared between families and as giveaway items at potlatch events and my in-laws appreciated the low-sugar ones I made for them.
I have had the privilege to attend numerous First Foods celebrations at longhouses in Warm Springs and Nisqually, and to participate in harvesting with a Yakama longhouse community. Berries are an important food at these feasts, served in sequence with other foods according to their harvest timeline, which is called the ‘line-up’. Mountain Huckleberry is held in such high regard that one of the First Food feasts is dedicated entirely to this berries return. Tribes east and west of the Cascades make their annual gathering trips to traditional berry patches each year and do not eat them until the feast is held, where they are served fresh, and then canned for later feasts.
Competition and questionable harvesting practices by commercial pickers is a serious threat to these traditional harvests. The forestry is beginning to respond by requiring permits, and limiting access to campgrounds to non-commercial pickers and tribes are protecting their treaty rights to lands and harvesting sites. Perhaps more threatening is the loss of habitat due to logging practices, restrictions on traditional management by fire, and worst yet, climate change. I personally avoid purchasing huckleberries at stores or markets, and return to my own patch each year to harvest the few I use for personal use, and to sometimes share with my classes. Huckleberry picking is part of my daughter Dea’s childhood in Montana (see her blog on her experiences) so we make it a family tradition to return to ‘our patch’ each year, although we’ve seen this site decline due to lack of traditional land management.
Traditional foods programs are thriving in native communities as part of preventative health programs for food related chronic diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, which are taking a heavy toll. Berries are being restored in habitat restorations to provide harvesting opportunities, and recipes for using them in ‘cakes’ (thick dried patties), soups or puddings, or simply fresh are being shared. Berries are generally higher in nutrition than the super-sized fruits we now get in the store which are bred for size and sugar content. Berries have seeds and concentrated flavors and are important sources of Vitamin C and trace nutrient such as Vitamin K, manganese, folate and copper. They are super high in anti-oxidants and studies show that berries may improve blood sugar and insulin responses, and they are also high in fiber.
I’ve discovered syrups as a contemporary, yet traditional, way to use berries of all kinds, fresh and dried, even mixed together, whether on pancakes, in muffins, or on meats, using honey or sugar if needed, I simply cook, strain leaving lots of pulp, add sweetener to taste and store in the fridge or freeze. The photo below was actually taken in the mountains of Spain where I found Oregon grape planted as a landscape plant, and an abundance of black elder.
Syrup made from Blue elder, Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea, is an amazing anti-viral, and delicious too, used to prevent colds and flu. Berry sorbets using huckleberry, blackberry and thimbleberry (among others!) are crowd pleasers, and can also be made using low sugar. Berry shrubs are easy to make using vinegars of all kinds and have been a favorite ingredient in our Foraged Cocktail classes, in fact ideal for a non-alcoholic drink. We are experimenting with Oregon grape juice as a lemon substitute in our cocktails, it certainly makes a nice lemonade substitute.
Purple Martin-I designed for our ‘Foraged Cocktail’ classes at Seward Park Audubon Society, using Oregon grape juice as the sour.
We have a few toxic berries- baneberry, Actea rubra; snowberry Symphoricarpus alba; twinberry, Lonicera involucrate; and yew, Taxus brevifolia (actually a cone) come to mind, so make sure to know your plant ID before harvesting. We have many introduced plants as well which produce berries, so one should never use taste or use a ‘rule of thumb’ to determine if a berry is edible. Instead take the time to learn how to properly identify our many wonderful berries.
Berries are an important part of our past, present and future here in Cascadia and well worth taking the time to know, protect, restore and preserve.
Heidi harvesting huckleberries….