Find your own berry patch

A little research can go a long way toward filling your baskets

Posted: Friday, September 08, 2006


  Highbush cranberries are ready for picking. Photo by Joseph Robertia

Highbush cranberries are ready for picking.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

Alaskans are known for their independent nature, and while friendly and cooperative — particularly to visitors and newcomers — Alaskans aren’t going to hold anyone’s hand when it comes to doing anything.

Berry picking is no exception. Getting choice berry locations out of someone is more difficult than getting them to divulge a secret salmon hot spot.

It’s more difficult be-cause with regard to fishing, a person can learn where to wet a hook but they still may not know how to fish the hidden hole. However, with berry picking, once the location is revealed anyone can capitalize on the knowledge.

That being said, rather than relying on others to point you to an exact location, the best way to find fall fruit is to educate yourself.

“You have to be knowledgeable about berries, how to identify them and where specifically to be looking for them,” said Linda Tannehill, home economist for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service in Soldotna.

Tannehill said the Kenai Peninsula has numerous species of berries, but many tend to grow in specific environmental pockets. Knowing what habitat a particular type of berry grows in leads to looking in the right place for them.

As an example, Tannehill cited the highbush cranberry — a slender shrub with leaves that bare a similarity to a maple leaf, but not as strikingly similar as the leaves of the red currant.

Highbush cranberries reach the peak of ripeness in late summer to fall, and commonly grow in cool woods and thickets, or on gravely or rocky banks, she said.

Gravely or rocky banks are more frequently found near lakes, rivers and creeks, and knowing this can narrow where a would-be berry picker might start their search.

Knowing where to look is only part of the process, though. Like foragers of mushrooms and other wild plants, berry pickers must be absolutely certain they know which species they are picking.

“Sometimes two species that look alike can grow in the same area, and if you don’t know which one you’re picking that can be bad news,” Tannehill said.

As another example, Tannehill cited the baneberry. The fruit of this plant looks a lot like a highbush cranberry, but is extremely poisonous.

By doing a little homework, though, baneberries can be positively identified by looking for features such as all the fruit growing from one stalk, as opposed to the highbush cranberry, which will have smaller fruit clusters growing from multiple sites.

Knowing the difference between poisonous and non-poisonous berries is critical to the picking process, but it never hurts to take one step further to distinguish between berries that are just edible and berries that are palatable. For example, the low-bush cranberry — which unlike its taller cousin, grows more or less on the ground and rarely exceeds a plant height of greater than six inches — has fruit that is highly sought after for use in jams, jellies, sauces and liqueurs.

However, the bunchberry — frequently called the ground dogwood — also grows close to the ground and has berries that can look similar to lowbush cranberries, but instead of being sweet to eat, bunchberries are about as palatable as construction paper.

Tannehill said in addition to knowing where to pick berries, learning when to pick them can also lend to their palatability.

“We’re heading into cooler weather and some berries are better if picked after the first frost,” she said.

Again, the lowbush cranberry is a good example of a berry that becomes sweeter after the first frost, but highbush cranberries will be less sweet and not as firm if not picked before the frost arrives.

Berry pickers may also find this season to be especially fruitful, according to Jack Sinclair, area superintendent for Alaska State Parks.

“A lot of berry plants are fruiting very successfully,” he said.

Sinclair attributed this flush of fruit to the wet weather that has persisted throughout the year.

“It seems like the rain we got at the end of summer really helped create bigger and better berries,” he said.

Sinclair said this was especially true for the blueberry plants he has seen in and around the state parks. In his experience, blueberries typically grow on the margins of large marshy meadows.

“Your not going to find blueberries in heavily forested areas,’” he said.

There is, however, a species of (bog) blueberry found on the peninsula that grows in the alpine zone.

It is particularly plentiful on mountain tops in the Mystery Hills area, where it is not uncommon for black bears to feed on them.

According to the Soldotna UAF Cooperative Extension Service’s “Edible Wild Berry Ripening in Southcentral Alaska,” there are eight species of berries that reach their peak in September.

Like the salmon returns, though, Tannehill said “berries are also off a little bit this year and running later than usual.”

As such, she said many of the berries that typically peak in August — 13 species in all — may still be available as well.

The Cooperative Extension Service has numerous books and other resources on berry identification, picking and preserving. There are also numerous recipes available.

“Berries have use beyond jams, jellies and sweet spreads. Some can be frozen and used throughout the year in things like smoothies, cereal and in baked goods like whole grain muffins,” Tannehill said.

The Soldotna and Kenai libraries have numerous books available on the subject of berries, including some pocket-sized field guides.

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