“Some of the Sweetest Berries Grow Among the Sharpest Thorns”

According to my favorite field guide, Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast, consuming baneberries can kill you. In fact, “As few as 6 berries can induce vomiting, bloody diarrhea and finally paralysis of respiration (179).” “The common name ‘baneberry’ obviously refers to the plant’s severely poisonous nature and comes from the Anglo-Saxon word bana meaning murderous (179).”

Encountering this plant species along Trail 21 in the Anacortes Community Forest Lands (ACFL) this week came as a complete surprise. I showed up in hopes of photographing the dark, leathery-skinned berries of one of the most prolific local shrubs species, Salal, and noticed these, bright red, quarter-inch diameter, with an apricot-like indentation. Having spent nearly a decade traversing ACFL’s trails, I can’t believe I’ve never encountered them before.

“Collecting” is not allowed in the ACFL, but what is a curious berry enthusiast to do? I alleviated my cognitive dissonance by choosing to believe that by picking these few berries, I was surely preventing some unsuspecting creature from death by poison.

Fortunately, several other local species are edible including Woodland strawberries, Red huckleberries, Evergreen blackberries, Himalayan blackberries, Trailing blackberries, and finally, salal. With plenty of spare time on my hands during the summer of the Coronavirus, I paid attention to plants and sought answers to burning questions I’ve had about wild berries. Lastly, I wondered whether or not the Gaelic proverb, “Some of the sweetest berries grow among the sharpest thorns” would prove to be true.

During the early to mid seventies, my family, the Rudolfs, lived next door to the Johnsons. Several times a week, we’d show up at their door asking if Sammy and Misti could come out and play. Sometimes, we were granted the opportunity to GO INSIDE their house where we listened to records, played games, and marveled at their twice-the-size-of-ours house and several-times-larger yard. At the Rudolf house, we ate lots of PB&Js for lunch, while at the Johnson’s we were offered tuna sandwiches on buttered white bread cut into quarters…with napkins and silverware adjacent our plates. And every summer, Mrs. Johnson would prepare a pie from the red huckleberries we had picked within the limits of their massive yard. It was epic before epic ever was!

Red huckleberries (Vaccinium parvifolium) “were used as fish bait in streams…eaten fresh by all coastal aboriginal groups within the range of the plant…either eaten dried singly like raisins, mashed and dried into cakes for winter use, or stored soaked in grease or oil (57).” At Washington State Parks, including Deception Pass State Park, the collection of berries for personal use is allowed in limited quantities. Recently, my sister and I spent a solid hour along the Cornet Bay trails picking 5.5 cups of red huckleberries to prepare a crisp and a cake. Eating these treats brought us back to our childhoods. The mosquito stings and pokey shrub spines we endured were a fair trade for the nostalgic feelings eating sweetened baked berries evoked.

Three additional red berry species are common locally, the salmonberry (Rubus specabilis), thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus) and Woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca L.). Salmonberries, “[y]ellow or riddish, mushy raspberries” are named because “the berries were often eaten with salmon” and “are one of the earliest berries to ripen (76);” while thimbleberries, also a type of raspberry, “were eaten by all Northwest Coast people (77).” The absolutely tiny Woodland strawberries (part of the rose family) were “only eaten fresh” by aboriginal people “being too juicy to dry like other berries (183).” The minute size of the strawberries and the sketchy taste of salmonberries and thimbleberries have prevented me from making the effort to do little more than gingerly swirl an occasional one around in my mouth when I encounter it while hiking.

One of the most common local berry species may be the least understood. Salal (Gaultheria shallon) was “in many places on the Northwest Coast the most plentiful and important fruit for aboriginal peoples. They were eaten both fresh and dried into cakes (53).” These shrubs can be found everywhere on Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands and the berries, currently (in midsummer), “have been prepared as jam or preserves, and ripe berries from healthy bushes are hard to beat for flavour and juiciness (53).” Today, (with the encouragement of a friend) I tasted my first salal berry, straight off the shrub, which, barely sweet, was better than expected, but not as good as my favorite: blackberries.

How to tell raspberries and blackberries apart

This summer’s new-to-me berry tasting (thimbleberries, salal and Woodland strawberries) haven’t changed my mind one bit; Blackberries are the best berries the local area has to offer. Trailing blackberries (Rubus ursinus) “were widely used by northwest coast peoples as food…eaten immediately or dried for winter storage” and this species “is our only native blackberry (79).” The Himalayan blackberry (Rubus discolor) is the most common introduced “from India via England” blackberry species (78). Just this week, I observed a second introduced (from Europe) blackberry species for the first time, the Evergreen blackberry (Rubus laciniatus) in Anacortes, which has different flowers and leaves than the Himalayan (78).

Taste-testing thorny-branched berries during the past few months has led me to conclude that the Gaelic proverb Some of the sweetest berries grow among the sharpest thorns is true; however, there isn’t a straight line relationship between the sharpness of the thorns and the sweetness of the berries. Neither salal berries, strawberries, or huckleberries have thorns. Thimbleberries are minimally thorny and not very tasty; followed by sweet and slightly thornier trailing blackberries, and lastly, slightly sweet and very thorny salmonberries. Himalayan blackberries are, to me, both the sweetest berries and those with the sharpest thorns.

Q.E.D. (Well…kind of).

Pojar, Jim, et al. Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia & Alaska. Lone Pine, 2016, (53, 57, 76-79, 179).

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