Bears and berries
SOME years ago, we were lucky enough to visit Alaska and to travel into the state’s huge Denali National Park, dominated by North America’s greatest mountain. It is a land where the wildlife is king and humans are there on their best behaviour. During our visit we saw many grizzly bears, wild mountain goats and caribou.
It was the edge of autumn, and the land was rich with wild food, if you knew where to look for it. We went on a guided walk across the heathland with a ranger who was a botanist and with her expert guidance we tried many of the berries growing there.
From a distance the heath is a palette of reds, purples and rich deep wine colours. As you get nearer you realise the plant stems and leaves are deep autumnal colours, covered in tiny vivid berries, much-loved by bears preparing for the long, hungry winter sleep.
Bearberry gets its name because bears like to feast on them. All parts of the plant can be used in some way. The fruit can be eaten and cooked with other foods and native Alaskans know its many medicinal uses.
Blueberry, also known as Huckleberries, comes in different varieties in Alaska and Arctic areas – tundra, bog or alpine. The intensity of the flavour of these tiny northern berries is like nothing you have eaten – totally different from the often insipid blueberries in supermarkets.
Bunchberry is a low growing, miniature dogwood, which produces pretty white flowers in the summer followed by a bright red berry, which has a mild flavour that is compared to apples.
Cranberry, also known as Lingonberry, is best known for Christmas cranberry relish or sauce, but the tiny low growth berries of the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions have a sweetness as well as the familiar tartness. The flavour deepens as the autumn frosts intensify.
Crowberry is one of the most abundant berries found on the tundra, growing in heaths, bogs, and alpine slopes in thick shrubs with small, needle-like leaves. The berries are firm and juicy, but full of seeds.
Haskaps, also known as blue honeysuckle and honeyberry, grow in Alaska and Russia as well as Japan (from where the name comes). The plants produce a deep blue berry which is both healthy and delicious in jam or sauces.
Salmonberry, also known as cloudberry, is juicy, orange raspberry-shaped fruit, which is quite tart, but can be eaten raw or used in jams and jellies.
Soapberry is one name for two very different plants – the soapberry of the genus Sapindus is a natural detergent (and therefore not recommended for eating!) but as Canada buffaloberry it is edible, although bitter.
Watermelon berries are quite rare but if you find them are a real treat. They are like small grapes, with a skin surrounding juicy flesh and a few seeds and are said to taste eerily similar to watermelon.
• Here in the West Country, blackberries are already beckoning in our local hedgerows and our own raspberry bushes are heavy with fruit, but while many European berries are delicious, there are also some that are poisonous (the inviting berries of Deadly Nightshade are a case in point). It’s the same in the Arctic regions – the clue’s in the names of Baneberry and Devil’s Club, but red Elderberry is also toxic when raw, although it makes delicious jam or wine
Pictured: Low growth Cranberries, Bearberries, Huckle or Blueberries, Watermelon berries and Salmonberries. Photographs from Mary Hopson’s Alaskan Wild Berries www.turtlepuddle.org