By Sylvia Feder
Why wait for fall huckleberries when a bunch of other berries are ripe
Probably every Washington hiker recognizes and enjoys huckleberries, but there’s no need to wait for the fall: the bonanza of Northwest berries is just beginning. Here are some lowland berries to enjoy while we wait for the snow to melt.
Not to be confused with the high-elevation Cascade huckleberry (Vaccinium deliciosum and related species), the red huckleberry (V. parvifolium) is a shade-tolerant lowland shrub with delicate bright green leaves and small red, very tart berries that begin ripening in late June. It prefers soil rich in decaying wood and is often found sprouting from stumps or fallen logs.
Another low to mid-elevation shrub is the prolific, widespread salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis). Tolerant of moist and partly shady spots as well as sun, its pink flowers give way to a berry that can range from yellow through orange to deep red. These are among the earliest berries, often ripening as early as May in warm, sunny exposures. The berries are an important food source for creatures from birds to bears; hikers enjoy them too (but trying to carry them home often results in berry mush).
Thimbleberry (R. parviflorus) prefers sunny, open slopes. It is thornless, and has huge, soft leaves (it has been called the “toilet paper of the woods”). The fragile, velvety, soft red berries, ripen from white flowers in lower elevations by early summer. The berries are seedy, but intensely flavorful.
Often competing with these shrubs is a non-native berry–the aggressive, adaptable, invasive Himalayan blackberry (R. armeniacus and related species). While the history and origin of this plant has been disputed, it appears to have been introduced in the 1800s by the famous plant-breeder Luther Burbank (who advertised it as “Himalya Giant”); it quickly spread with the help of birds ingesting the tasty berries. Now widespread, this plant forms impenetrable thickets in open clearings and along roadsides, mostly at lower elevations. Our native blackberry (R. ursinus, or trailing blackberry) is far more timid, creeping along patches of sun or open clearings on supple, thorny vines. Though not nearly as prolific as the non-natives, our wild blackberry has a wonderful flavor. Berries appear from small white flowers beginning in June.
Another edible native worth knowing is salal (Gaultheria shallon), a shade-tolerant understory plant common in western forests. It has thick leathery leaves and dark, sweet, somewhat mealy berries encased in a tough skin. They can be found beginning in July, often lasting into winter. Often found growing with salal is Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa). Spring’s fragrant bright yellow flowers are replaced by edible (though tart) purple berries growing in a grape-like cluster.
While these are the most common summer treats, they are by no means the only ones. A good field guide will help you find and identify other Northwest natives such as highbush cranberry, blackcap raspberry, cloudberry, and several species of strawberry.
Photo: Salmonberry by Sylvia Feder.
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