Low-Hanging Fruit: Wild Willamette Berries…

By Randall Bonner

SalmonberryWith wildflowers in full bloom during early summer, wild berry varieties begin to bloom as well. Throughout mid- to late-summer, native salmonberries and huckleberries produce distinct flavors in comparison to domestic varieties. Invasive evergreen and Himalayan blackberries also produce a wealth of juicy berry goodness.

Salmonberries are found mainly near mountain watersheds or coastal streams, growing along the west coast from California to Alaska. They are perennial shrubs that produce a fruit structure similar to raspberries, but they have two stages of ripening. If picked early while the berries are a deep yellow, they tend to be sour. As they begin to turn flame-red and orange, they sweeten. Other animals tend to pick over this variety quickly, so it’s wise to find a good patch and watch as the fruit begins to ripen, harvesting when the berries are available. Traditionally, these berries were eaten raw along with salmon or their roe and they are also used in making jam or wine.

Red huckleberries also grow in habitats along the coast range but tend to take root in rotten evergreen stumps and logs. Their deciduous shrubs produce a fruit structure similar to blueberries, but they tend to be significantly smaller. These berries were traditionally used as fish bait due to their resemblance to a salmon egg. While salmonberries produce a high moisture content that prevents them from drying well, the red huckleberry can be dried and later used in sauces or eaten raw. It also produces quinic acid in the plant’s bark that was used as a remedy to treat colds. This variety is difficult to transplant, and although domestication has been attempted, it requires a particular pH content in the soil that is difficult to recreate. The wild nature of this berry makes it highly sought after for jelly.

Although there are some species of blackberry that are native to Oregon, the Himalayan is the most common variety and can be found growing all around Corvallis from Bald Hill to your backyard. While it grows nearly everywhere, it’s good to be aware of the areas where you’re picking to avoid pesticides and herbicides. Many of the roadsides grow lots of blackberries, but are commonly sprayed to keep this invasive species under control. For good measure, take along something to hold your harvest in a backpack that won’t turn the berries into juice before you get home and pick them in a high elevation where there are trails without vehicle access. Although these species get a bad rap, the dark blue color is an indicator of a berry with the highest antioxidant qualities and their high tannin content improves digestion. They are quite versatile: eaten raw, juiced, cooked into sauces, frozen and used in smoothies, pies, crisps, pancakes, ice cream, brewing tea, mead or beer, liquor infusions and canning jam.

There is a wealth of information online regarding recipes for each of these berries, but preserving them will allow you to enjoy their flavor out of season. Freezing them allows for a greater diversity of uses, but canning or drying doesn’t require the same space for storage. While all berries are great with sugar, they produce their own natural sugars and can also be useful in savory sauces, chutney, brine or glaze. If you lack the patience or ambition for these techniques, enjoy the simplicity of their natural state as raw fruit, as this is the best way to absorb the plethora of nutrients these berries provide.

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