Foraging for the Berry Bounty on the Olympic Peninsula
It is early august on the Olympic Peninsula. Slant beams of afternoon sun feather through a canopy of Douglas Fir and Red Alder trees and fall onto the delicate huckleberries that gleam like candy in the shadowy forest. Sticky and deep black orbs hang heavy from the branches of Salal leading a trail to the rocky edges of the Pacific. Velvet soft thimbleberry leaves as big as maple leaves reach across roadside ditches and threaten to interfere with the passing traffic; the bright red berries hiding beneath are just as soft. Everywhere I turn, I see the luscious offerings and bounty of this landscape.
The wild berries native to this region heighten the promiscuity of summer. They are seductive in their generosity—undressed—their juiciest flesh laid bare for the knowing forager to admire, to touch, to taste. However, I am not lustful for their sweetness. I cannot be. Their sheer abundance inspires not greed, but humility. I accept their gifts with gratitude.
To learn these plants—Thimbleberry, Salal, Huckleberry, Salmonberry, Saskatoon—is to see and receive their gifts. Shirt pockets full of oozing purple fruit, folded apron sagging with tender berries, buckets or baskets overflowing with this summer harvest, and you’ll be smitten, like me, with these loving plants. Find your trail snack; find your best-pie-ever; find your morning commitment to fresh jam. It’s out there and waiting to meet you.
Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus)
The fuzzy leaves of the thimbleberry grow larger than your spread hand and feel softer than the skin of a peach. A close relative of blackberry and a member of the rose family, thimbleberry loves shady, cool and moist areas in mountainous regions, though you can find them at lower elevations. The pinkish red berries resemble a thimble, as the name implies, or a slightly smaller raspberry with more fruitlets. This fruit asks that you meet its softness with your own. Be gentle and slow in releasing the berries from their stems, or they’ll turn to jam in your hands. But when they are ripe enough, they’ll leap into your palm and beg for your tongue. These sweet berries are delicious raw, and want to be made into any variation of jam, fruit leather or pie filling for their velvety texture.
Salal (Gaultheria shallon)
One of the most common shrubs in our second-growth coniferous forests, Salal is distinguished by oval-shaped leathery evergreen leaves. When it flowers in mid June to late July, pinkish-white delicate petals hang like tiny bells in a line along a pink fuzzy stem. The dark purple-black berries that follow are also fuzzy and can be seen drooping heavily in clusters of sticky sweetness. It is easiest to pinch off the fruiting stem where it intersects with its main leaf stem and disassemble the berries later.When really ripe and delicious, the bottoms of Salal berries flair open with slightly pointed, petal-like features. Bite one in half or slice open with your fingernail and you’ll find an interior like a fig, full of tiny but tender seeds. The taste of Salal is mildly sweet with a complex herbaceous flavor that feels reminiscent of the firs it grows beneath. It is certainly not a flavor one will find from a supermarket berry. Salal is very rich in antioxidants and fights free radicals that may cause cancer. The leathery leaves can be dried, crushed, and drank as a tea to soothe inflammation in the throat and upper intestines, and through the bloodstream, to the urinary tract, sinuses and lungs.
Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium)
A tender and subtle friend to the forest understory, huckleberry is often found growing from decaying tree stumps, flourishing in the sunny openings of the canopy created by fallen trees. Her understated gentleness is arresting. Small flat leaves branch out from green stems, and sparse bright red berries dot the plant. Some may find the berries to be too tart, but their sour kick compliments sweeter berries well when blended into jams. Others prefer the sweeter taste of the evergreen black huckleberry (Gaylussacia baccata), which is fruit-bearing in the fall through early winter. Red Huckleberries were an important food and were used by virtually all groups within the range of the plant, including the Skallam, Lummi, Makah, Quileute, Quinault, Skagit, Skokomish, Snohomish, Swinomish, and tribes throughout western British Columbia.
Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis)
The yellow-orange fruits of salmonberry diversify the summer palette, indeed. This member of the rose family grows in plentiful thickets across the Pacific Northwest, found in moist coastal forests, stream sides, bogs, and shorelines. It can also be found in disturbed areas such as roadsides and woodland edges.The stems do not grow as densely and are not as sharply thorned as relative blackberry, making for a much more enjoyable harvest. These berries have floral tasting notes, making them distinct from other similar berries. Salmonberry gets its name from its historical culinary accompaniment, smoked salmon—a well-matched food pairing favored by indigenous tribes across Alaska. Try it for yourself and find out why.
Saskatoon (Amelanchier spp.)
A plump deep blue berry called by several names, try Saskatoon, Juneberry, or Serviceberry on your tongue and feel which is best suited to your relationship with this giving tree. The name Saskatoon comes from the Cree word for Serviceberry, misâskwatômina. Personally, I hum a sweet song of gratitude while I pluck fingerfuls of berries to fill my pockets:
Sing me a Saska-tune
Teach me how to drink your juice.
I want to learn from you
How to feel so sweet and blue.
Saskatoon berries look and taste a lot like blueberries, with a subtle nuttiness, like almond, and milder sweetness. They grow across much of the western U.S. and Canada, and are beginning to come into cultivation.
Nourish with berries
Wild berries were an important part of the diets of indigenous peoples who lived in the landscapes of the pacific northwest. They would be eaten fresh in the summertime or dried into cakes and stored for winter. Noted for their vitamin C, antioxidants, and flavonoids, these native berries offer so many nutritious gifts to the body. By foraging for wild foods, we can introduce vital diversity into our diets and foster a connection between body and place. Below are some of my favorite ways to enjoy the sweetest of native fruits.
– Make Wild Berry Jam –
Salal and Oregon Grape are among the wild berries that are most commonly made into richly-colored, flavorful jams, separately, or mixed together. But experiment with other berries you find, too! Because most wild berries are very seedy, they are cooked down and poured through cheesecloth to remove the seeds from the juice. If you like having seeds your jam, skip this step! The berry mash or juice can then be used to make jam, using these proportions:
- 3 to 4 cups berry juice
- 1 package pectin
- 5 cups sugar
Follow the directions that come with the packaged pectin. This makes about six one-cup jars of jam.
– Dry berries to top cereal, oatmeal, or yogurt –
Any berry can be dried in the sun to produce a chewy and sweet treat. Drying this way will take several days and requires daily turning of the fruit. To speed up the process, put into an oven on the lowest possible heat, or ideally a food dehydrator, for a few hours. Berries are sufficiently dried when they are chewy, but not soft. Over-drying will cause them to be too hard to chew.
-Make a fruit leather –
Remember fruit roll-ups? Make a healthier (and tastier) version with your wild foraged berries. Cook down berries like you would for jam and puree in a blender or food processor. Spread mixture into an even layer on a piece of parchment paper on a cookie sheet and bake in the oven at lowest possible heat, or a food dehydrator for several hours.