Berry picking season means fall has arrived

Friday, August 30, 2019 - 17:25
  • Blueberries ripen along the Seward Highway on Friday, July 22, 2016, near McHugh Creek. (Erik Hill / Alaska Dispatch News)

The hunt is on for Alaska’s delectable berries. Our choice of berries is varied and they are bountiful. It seems like everyone is out picking berries right now and putting them away for winter. We are so blessed to have such a variety and abundance right outside our doorsteps. This will not be an exhaustive berry discussion but I will talk about the most common edible berries you will find in Alaska to include the following:

Alaska bog blueberry (Vaccinium uliginosum) is a low growing shrub, up to 2 feet found in tundra areas, in the more open woodland, above the timberline and burned out areas, and in the low-lying boggy areas. They are ready for picking mid July through early September and produce a blue berry with a juicy tart delicious flavor and used in jams, jellies and baking.

Alaska blueberry (Vaccinium alaskensis) is found in moist coastal forests. It is a shrub that grows upright to 6 feet with yellowish-green new twigs. Flowers late May to June and is ready for picking late July and August. Excellent flavor and used in jams and jellies, pies, desserts and of course Pancakes.

The bog cranberry (Oxycoccus microcarpus), is found in wet mossy bogs and tundra. This is a trailing shrub and has one berry per stem. This opaque round maroon colored berry is ready for picking in September after a frost and has a excellent flavor and freezes well.

High bush cranberry (Viburnum edule) is found in open woods and meadows and are a shrub that grows to 8 feet. This berry has maple-shaped leaves on opposite smooth branches and red round fruit in clusters. The fruit is usually ready by August but tastes a little sweeter after a frost. This berry has a musty smell to me which I can’t get past to use it. High-bush cranberries are enjoyed by many and used for jams and jellies, ketchup, syrup and even fish bait, due to their resemblance to fish eggs. Who knew?

The low-bush cranberry (Vaccinium vitis idaea) is also referred to as lingonberry. This by far is my favorite. This low upright shrub 3-8 inches is found in boreal forests and dry tundra. Ready for picking in late September after a frost, this berry is dark round maroon with evergreen leaves that are shiny with edges curved under slightly. Grows in clusters and is tart and delicious in jams and jellies pies, bread, and liqueur.

Raspberries (Rubus idaeus) grow on woody prickly shrubs formed by biennial canes, growing one year and bearing fruit the next. This berry is usually found in thickets and forest edges. Leaves are divided with three to five sharply pointed and toothed leaflets. Berries are dull red with fine hairs. Very juicy and sweet and make delicious jams and jellies, desserts juices and liqueurs.

There are many more berries in Alaska that are edible and delicious for you to gather out in our vast wilderness. There is a fun group to follow on Facebook called the Alaska Berry Pickers that is so encouraging of new berry pickers. The Cooperative Extension Service has a lot of information on berries including recipes, harvesting and preserving tips. Check out uaf.edu/ces/pubs/catalog. My favorite pocket guide of all time is Verna Pratt’s “Alaska Wild Berries.” Verna’s book is a must-have publication for the serious berry picker. Also, one of the first books I purchased when I came to Alaska was the “Alaska Wild Berry Guide and Cookbook,” by Alaska Northwest Books. This book has a berry guide and recipes that are very helpful.

If you are new to Alaska, be sure and ask around where you can find some good spots to pick. Make sure that you are not on private land before picking. Be aware that berries are an important food source for many animals and you may encounter them. Pick berries with a friend, and I would not go alone.

Berry pickers need to do their homework before going out to forage and pick up a good reference book and never eat any berry that you are not sure of. Small children will frequently pick and eat berries so monitor them carefully when out in Alaska woodlands. It is so relaxing to pick berries and wonderful to have them stored up for winter. The time is now to pick and you won’t want to miss your chance. Stop by the fair and see the berries display in the crops department in the big barn. There were a lot of entries this past Wednesday and you will see all the different types of berries grown in Alaska.

This will be the last “In the Garden” and last Gardens of the Week for this growing season. Enjoy this great weather and see you out at the fair.

Chris Wood is a certified master gardener from Eagle River and president of the Greater Eagle River Garden Club. Email her at [email protected]

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