Watermelon berries (Streptopus amplexifolius) are delicious and juicy, with a mild flavor. The stalk of the plant can also be eaten and has a flavor similar to cucumber. Although it has been a traditional food in its native range, I am not aware that it has ever been commercially harvested. It may be due to its preference for shady, wetter areas, or possibly because it is difficult to grow from seed.
This plant is known to grow across the circumpolar north. In Alaska it is more abundant south of the Alaska range, but I have observed it at Manley Hot Springs and have heard that it survives transplant into Fairbanks gardens.
There is a publication from UAF Cooperative Extension Service that describes how to identify and utilize the plant. Learn more about how to propagate watermelon berries at this site.
Wandering through sphagnum bogs during the fall in Alaska you can often find bog cranberries (Vaccinium oxycoccos). Although the berries are typically not abundant, they are a tasty treat and wonderful addition to a berry mix. The berries are not commercially utilized in the US, but are a commodity in Russia.
Learn more about bog cranberries at this site from the USFS.
Sea buckthorn is a plant that is being talked about more and more in Alaska. Native to northern latitudes of Europe and Asia, it would seem this plant would be well-suited to Alaska. Canadian researchers are already looking into developing sea buckthorn as a crop, as they have for saskatoon serviceberries and honeyberries.
Alaskans are making progress on this plant too! Papa M. is growing sea buckthorn in North Pole, AK. He has some older shrubs that are over 10 feet tall and produce gallons of gorgeous orange berries. Papa sells sexed seedlings (which is extremely important for dioecious species such as sea buckthorn) from productive lines every summer at the Tanana Valley Farmers Market or direct from his farm.
Learn more about how to grow the plants here:
Sea buckthorn Special Crops Factsheet
Sea buckthorn Production Guide
Juniper “berries” are one of the main botanicals that give gin its distinctive flavor. The berries of juniper are actually cones that have modified scales giving it a smooth, berry-like appearance. There are many types of juniper, but common juniper (Juniperus communis) is the species most often used for flavoring gin. Have you ever wondered how your favorite gin companies harvest juniper? According to this site, the best juniper is still harvested from wild trees. There is a short video in the middle of the page that shows harvesters in action.
I was intrigued after reading the annual reports from the Alaska Agricultural Experiment Stations in the early 1900s about the referenced native wild Alaska crabapple, Pyrus rivularis (Malus fusca). Although it is not a berry in the strict sense of the word, it is a fruiting plant native to Alaska, which I think warrants mention on this blog. I had not heard of this plant previously so I did some searching on the internet. The accepted name of the river crab apple (or Oregon crab apple) now appears to be Malus fusca.
According to Silva of North America, this tree grows south of the Aleutian Islands and along the coast of Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and California. The small fruits are yellow to red in color and were historically used by native Americans.
A more elegant description of the tree is in North American Sylva, where the fruit is described as “small and purple, scarcely the size of a cherry, of an agreeable flavor.”
According to Food Plants of the North American Indians, the fruits were “eaten raw or boiled, or put away in oil for winter use.”
I wonder how the plant is currently being used in Alaska after a seemingly bright future as a potentially hybrid parent line or rootstock?
Learn more about the plant in the USDA PLANTS database
This article from NPR brought up several interesting issues surrounding berry harvest, including migrant workers, domestication of wild plants, and changes in worldwide demand for healthy fruits.
It seems that wild berries in Alaska are harvested more for subsistence than commercial ventures, but that isn’t quite so in scandinavian countries. Apparently the demand for wild berry products, both fresh and processed, is fueling more harvest and the labor is being filled with many migrant workers.
What are factors that have made berry products such an important commercial industry in Scandinavia? I would think that investment in infrastructure would be a major factor, supported by nearby markets that have a high demand for healthy wild berries. Everyman’s Right likely plays a role too.
Bilberry (Vaccinium myrtillus) is one species that is highly sought after in scandinavian countries, and increasingly asian countries, with seemingly good reason. It is high in antioxidants, with an ORAC score of 706 (Brunswick Laboratories) for dried fruit. For comparison, our native blueberry (Vaccinium uliginosum) has a score of 420. A higher score denotes higher potential antioxidant activity.
This circumpolar plant has one scientific name, Lonicera caerulea, but as common names go, there are several things to call this hardy shrub that bears tasty blue fruit. According to University of Saskatchewan, the breakdown of common names is as follows:
Haskap – for L. caerulea of Japanese descent. There are several iterations of this name, including Hascap and Haskapa. One account attributes the name Haskap as being a modification of hashikahpu, the Japanese word for the fruits.
Blue honeysuckle – translation of the Russian name for L. caerulea. Russian varieties tend to flower earlier than Japanese varieties.
Honeyberry – a name coined by Jim Gilbert of One Green Earth nursery in Oregon.
This website (haskapa.com) has the most complete origin information that I have seen so far, as well as this write-up from Dr. Bob Bors at University of Saskatchewan.
Haskaps (AKA honeyberries) are hardy plants with delicious fruit – all Alaskan’s should be growing these plants in their garden!
Most haskap varieties are considered self-incompatible, meaning more than one plant is necessary to get substantial fruit set. But it is not just a simple math equation. Certain varieties are too similar genetically and will not be able to pollinate one another. And certain varieties bloom early or late, so one must consider bloom time of specific varieties.
So how many do you need? According to the University of Saskatchewan, leaders in haskap breeding for commercial and garden applications, one pollinating plant is needed for every five plants. Other sources claim planting a pollinator plant for every 2-4 plants is adequate, while others advocate planting 2 or more varieties in the same plot. As you can see, there is some disagreement in this area, but the common thread is that more than one variety is necessary to get productive fruit set! This is a true case of more is better, and isn’t it nice to be able to justify those extra berry shrubs in your cart? And of course, insects are necessary in this process to get pollen between plants.
Learn more about haskap pollination here:
University of Saskatchewan haskap page-see the table at the bottom of the page with variety compatibility information
Being able to identify common insects in your berry stand will help you understand the relationships between plants and insects to help you become a better manager. A majority of the insects encountered in wild and cultivated berry stands play a beneficial role, such as pollinators or predators of potential pests, but some may be pests that decrease yields. Below are some resources that growers can consult as a starting point to learning more about insects in Alaska.
Insects of South-central Alaska by Dominique Collet. Although the title professes a focus on south-central Alaska, most species described can be found throughout the state. Excellent photos and descriptions make this a useful guide for the amateur through professional.
Cooperative Extension Service – Integrated Pest Management program. Have you collected an insect that you suspect is a pest? You can contact your local IPM technician for assistance identifying the insect and to provide you with management information. If you live in an area without a local Cooperative Extension Office and are good with a camera you can submit photos and information through the digital portal and be connected with the nearest IPM technician. Through the Extension IPM website you can also search available publications, such as Beneficial Insects and Spiders of Alaska.
US Forest Service – Forest Health Protection Program. Their website has resources about forest pests, some of which cross-over to berry plants.
UAF Museum of the North – Entomology Collection. Learn more about the variety of insects that have been documented in Alaska. This website, and the searchable ARCTOS database, is most useful if you already know a bit about the insect in question and you are just checking to confirm its existence in Alaska. You can also look through all the insect records in ARCTOS that have pictures in the record.
Alaska Entomological Society – Are you REALLY interested in Alaska’s insects? You may want to consider joining this society to support further investigation and awareness of Alaska’s insects.
Berries Northwest – Although not Alaska specific, this site could be an excellent first step to diagnosing an insect or pest problem. You can search by crop or pest, then look through descriptions and management options.
“Vattlingon” is a very simple method for preservation of lingonberries – simply fill a jar with washed lingonberries, then poor clean water over the berries and store them for several months in the fridge or cellar. According to Hank Shaw of Honest-food.net: “The effect is to mellow the extreme tartness and tannins in fresh cranberries, leaving them pleasantly acidic and slightly sweet.” Naturally occuring benzoic acid in the lingonberries is a preservative that allows one to store in this manner without adding salt or other preservatives to the mix. How do you get clean water? Simply boil your tap water then allow it to cool before pouring over the berries.
How will you use the lingonberries after they have been stored? A traditional use is to serve a small dish (think shot-glass size) of vattlingon as dessert during the Christmas season. Whipped cream and sugar can be added if it is available, but is not always necessary because the water presercation has mellowed the acidity and added a slight sweetness. Another important use is to consume the liquid in the jar. Or you can get more creative and incorporate vattlingon into main courses, such as these recipes for spring salmon and grouse with rosemary and cranberries.