By Clark Fair
Harvesting wild berries in Alaska may require you to scramble through bracken, swat away clouds of pesky biting insects, kneel in wet places and look nervously over your shoulder for other critters that enjoy the fruits.
But the folks who annually endure these inconveniences will tell you: The finished product is worth the effort.
Avid pickers haul their harvests home, where, after the cleaning process is complete, they freeze them, can them, crush them, strain them, juice them, dry them, bake them and even ferment them.
Possibilities are limited only by the imaginations of the cooks.
Processing berries into various products comes only after the hard work of finding and picking them. Some people who seldom hike any other time of the year will trundle into the mountains or stumble through thickets into peripheries of swamps just to harvest the wild fruit.
They will march in with berry scoops, sealable containers, plastic pitchers, bowls or buckets, and emerge, berry-burdened but victorious, their brows glistening from their efforts, their fingertips stained red or purple with juice.
And if they are veterans of the berry wars, gliding out from some secret fruity oasis, they will cast glances warily about them, hoping to keep hidden what has, thus far, remained concealed from prying eyes. Perhaps only fishermen and mushroom hunters guard their secret locales so closely.
Where pickers go to pick depends on their targets. Alaska has many tasty varieties of berries — and some not-so-tasty, or even deadly, ones. They grow in a variety of environments, too. Knowing where to go is a major first step toward being successful.
Wild raspberries, for instance, grow to juicy goodness along the margins of woods and fields. They form thorny blankets of brush that can scratch the hands, but are prized for their sweetness and their many uses.
Another favorite, blueberries, come in three main varieties — bog blueberry (considered the tastiest), early blueberry (also known as blue huckleberry) and Alaska blueberry. All of these prefer plenty of moisture, and the early and Alaska varieties prefer coastal areas.
The bog blueberry, as its name implies, prospers in swampy spots and can also be found in abundance in woodlands and mountain tundra. These berries are kissing cousins to the dwarf blueberries, which tend to grow just barely off the ground.
Another popular berry, for its flavor and multiplicity of uses, is the lingonberry or low-bush cranberry. Growing low to the ground, ripe lingonberries are maroon-skinned and firm and can be easily harvested with berry scoops.
Janice Chumley, of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service office on Kalifornsky Beach Road, said lingonberries may be especially abundant this year.
“I’ve been out in the woods looking and I don’t think it’s a good year for raspberries, but I think it’s going to be a great year for lingonberries,” she said.
Chumley, whose office offers information about berries and their uses, said that being able to correctly identify berries is crucial.
“Don’t eat anything you don’t know what it is,” she said.
Here are some of the central peninsula’s other common berries:
- Highbush cranberry — abundant sour fruit found in woods and meadows; makes excellent jellies and juices when the seeds are removed.
- Red currant — juicy and flavorful, found in moist woods, especially along stream channels; also great for jellies and juices when the seeds are removed.
- Crowberry/Mossberry — considered too seedy by some; found in areas inhabited by lingonberries and also in high tundra; good for jellies, juices and pies.
- Nagoonberry — looks similar to a raspberry; grows low to the ground often in boggy areas; sweet but seldom found in adequate abundance for harvesting.
- Cloudberry — like the Nagoonberry, grows low to the ground in swampy places; also sweet and delicious but rarely appearing in large numbers.
- Salmonberry — its large size and sweet flavor make it a favorite among coastal residents; grows on tall prickly shrubs and may appear red, yellow or orange; used in pies, jellies and jams.
- Watermelon berry — one of the earliest berries to ripen; grows in moist woody areas, particularly along streams; berries are juicy but somewhat bland and very seedy; can be used in jellies or as filler in recipes featuring other berries.
- Rose hip — not technically a berry but harvested like one; high in Vitamin C and rich in flavor, this is the fruit of the wild prickly rose and has numerous uses (including jams and teas), although removing the seeds is recommended because the hairs surrounding them are known to irritate the intestines.
- Northern commandra — this round orange berry grows on a small stately plant in wooded areas and is considered inedible.
- Bunchberry — also known as ground dogwood, it grows in the company of lingonberries and its edibility has been questioned.
- Baneberry — extremely poisonous; the red or all-white berries of this tall shrub grow out from a single stalk near the top.
- Elderberry — another tall stately plant growing in the woods; red berries contains seeds that are toxic; most cooks remove the seeds; used in juices and wines.