Having the opportunity to become a park ranger for the summer at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge has been a truly unique experience. Talking one-on-one with fellow Alaskans as well as visitors hailing from Germany to Georgia, and everywhere in between, has been incredibly informative. One of the many benefits of being a “park ranger” has been the chance to stretch out my legs in the field and hone the art of flora and fauna identification, while patrolling the campgrounds or removing abandoned fish carcasses.
With the approach of August, the berry situation has become a temptation not to be passed up. Recreational berry picking is cheap, easy, and doesn’t require heavy planning or equipment. For the good majority of us, it’s just a matter of putting down the remote control and taking a couple steps out the door.
In Alaska there are around 50 different types of edible berries, and the Kenai Peninsula is no barren wasteland. There’s such a wide variety to choose from that sometimes it’s easy to forget about the few toxic berries that we do have in the area. While easily identified when we take a closer look, it’s easy to get so caught up in the spirit of berry-picking that we (especially young children) lose perspective as to which are safe and which should be avoided. Most of our edible berries are reddish: salmonberry, cloudberry, raspberry, watermelon berry, soapberry, highbush cranberry, lowbush cranberry, red currant, timberberry, and Kinnikinnick. Mountain ash and dwarf dogwood aren’t poisonous but they also aren’t edible. The three red berries that can actually make you sick are baneberry, elder and Devil’s club, all commonly found on the Kenai this time of year.
Baneberry (Actaea rubra) somewhat resembles the highbush cranberry. They ripen mid-July through August, have a long stem with the berries upright in a pin-cushion-like cluster. The berries are often a blood red color, but can be white, with a black dot on the end. The leaves are elongated with three lobed, serrated edges. Containing protoanemonin, baneberry causes burning of the mouth and throat, salivation, severe stomach cramps, headache, diarrhea, dizziness and hallucinations. A mere 2 to 6 berries could send a child into cardiac arrest, or thoroughly poison an adult. Luckily, the berries tend to be extremely bitter and unappetizing, which is usually enough to prevent over-eating.
Red-berried elder (Sambucus racemosa) can be seen frequently along hiking trails and has a higher likelihood of accidental ingestion. This type of “elderberry” should not to be confused with the highly edible, bluish black common elderberry that can found throughout the Lower 48. Our elder has long, oval leaves which form into a feather-like shape. There are three to four lightly serrated leaves on each side. The plants have large clumps of approximately fifty small, bead-like red berries which are positioned at the top, above the plant leaves; they come to season in August. The elderberries must be boiled, or specially prepared, to be edible. Containing cyanogenic glycoside and alkaloid, elderberries can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and even coma.
Another plant with thick clumps of berries above the leaves, in a similar fashion to that of the red-berried elder, would be none other than the family favorite, Devil’s club. This shrub can stretch up to eight feet tall, has leaves that resemble that of the maple tree, and a triangular clump of black-dotted, red berries that sit at the top. The berries ripen in August. Its signature thorny appearance is hard to miss; the thorns are present on the stems, leaves and even the berries. While the berries are a well-known black bear delicacy, and also favored by squirrels, they are not for human consumption — the berries are toxic when eaten raw. Alaskan Natives have traditionally used Devil’s club to induce vomiting and, of course, the spiny thorns explain the Latin name, Oplopanax horridus.
We all grew up with the simple, yet accurate, words of wisdom “don’t eat something if you don’t know what it is” — these are words to live by. Being lulled into a false sense of security can have its negative consequences. However, on the other side of the coin, it’s not uncommon for berry, or especially mushroom, picking to be demonized.
Berry picking is a fun, easy way to get out and about the neighborhood. Most berries on the Kenai Peninsula (even the ones that are not considered edible) have a low probability of causing death or irreparable harm. However, being able to identify which berries are poisonous, not-edible, or edible will help foster a more enjoyable, educational experience whether alone, or in a group. Learn more about berries at the Wild Berry Fun Day on Aug. 25 at the Refuge!
Kahlia McDermott-Johnson is enrolled in the Student Temporary Employment Program as a summer park ranger at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.