It's berry season, and I've definitely got berries on the brain. Everywhere I go, I see them: currants, high bush cranberries, crowberries, bog blueberries, Alaska blueberries, lingonberries, cranberries, raspberries... I walk the dogs through my neighborhood in Eagle River, and I see the berries off the sides of the path. My walk took longer than it needed to this morning because I kept going off the path to sample the bounty. By the time I got home, I'd eaten my fill of raspberries, currants and some early ripened highbush cranberries and didn't even want breakfast!
I had a friend pick berries up Arctic Valley this past weekend and she let me know that in one hour, they picked enough crowberries to make 4 batches of jelly. That's 48 jelly jars full, folks. I'm berry, berry jealous!
I'm heading up Arctic Valley myself tonight to hike Rendevous Peak and scope out the berry crop. The berries I'm most likely to find are bog blueberries, or bilberries. Bog blueberries are closely related to both the blueberry and the huckleberry. Bog blueberries grow on small branched shrubs, with wiry angular branches, that are very rarely over a foot high. They can be distinguised easily from Alaska blueberries by the height of the bush they grow on and the location where they grow. Alaska blueberries grow on taller shrubs near water or near the treeline in partial shade, the bog blueberry on the shorter shrub above the treeline in full sun. The fruit of the bog blueberry is also different from the Alaska blueberry in that it produces single or pairs of berries on the bush instead of clusters like the Alaska blueberry. Another way to distinguish them is that while Alaska blueberry fruit meat is light green, the bog blueberry fruit meat is red or purple. The most commonly cultivated is the bog blueberry, but I've found Alaska blueberry bushes near treelines as I've hiked up to clear treeless areas where the bog blueberries are. Both types of blueberries taste the best a few days after they turn a complete dusty blue and can be removed off of the plant easily. The berries should be firm, and the skins undamaged. Wash them just before using. To freeze, lay them out on a cookie sheet or in a pie pan/cake pan in a single layer and freeze, then place in freezer containers. When they are frozen this way, they keep their shape and are less likely to get mushy and bleed. You can also use them in muffins by tossing them in the batter still frozen and they won't bleed that way or get mush when cooked.
Highbush and lowbush cranberries (lingonberries), bog cranberries and crowberries are best picked after the first frost. These berries can still be found on the plants even after the first snowfalls and into winter. Highbush cranberries should be put through a food mill before using in jams, as they have a large pit in the middle. Highbush cranberries aren't actually a cranberry at all, but are members of the honeysuckle family. That fact doesn't make them any less tasty though! Lowbush cranberries (lingonberries) are not true cranberries, and are actually related to both the blueberry and the cranberry. They taste very similar to true cranberries, however, much like the highbush cranberries. They can be found on small evergreen shrubs in the same locations as bog cranberries, bog blueberries and crowberries. Bog Cranberries, or true cranberries, can be found among the bog blueberries and the crowberries on trailing plants, sometimes the berries can be found just above moss. The vines look so fragile it's strange to see such heavy berries on them. Crowberries can be found on small "pine looking" plants above the treeline in tundra sections. Crowberries can be "force frosted" by picking them when they are the desired deep purple/black color and placed into the freezer. This has the same effect as the first frost would.
Currants are ripe when they become a beautiful red and can be removed from the plant easily. When you hold them up and look at them in the light, they are almost translucent, and the seeds can easily be seen.
Raspberries are ripe when they are the recognizable dark red color and are easily removed from the plant with the center "core" staying behind so that the berry itself is hollow after you remove it from the plant.
As I've said before, make sure you know what you are picking. There are poisonous berries in Alaska that include baneberries. Never eat any berries that are white, also. I don't claim to be the berry expert. I've done a lot of research and own a lot of books. If you don't know what you are picking, don't eat it. I certainly don't. Once you do pick berries though and have enough to make something with, there are plenty of recipes online, and the books I've mentioned in my other postings have wonderful recipes in them also.
Make sure you remain bear aware when picking berries. Just as people enjoy berries, so do the bears, and we pick berries where they live. When I was picking currants last weekend, I had my boy be my bear watch. He didn't do such a hot job, as he pulled his jacket up and over his face and head to escape the mosquitos. I had found a large pile of bear scat and remained very aware that I was not alone where I was. Just as we were leaving, a couple passed us with their dogs and told us that they'd just seen a brown bear about 100 yards down the trail. That was our signal to leave the area.
I really do enjoy learning about all the plants, animals and berries in Alaska. Call me a nerd, but it makes me feel like I'm a part of everything around me when I look around me and know the names of the things I see. It's like knowing the names of old friends.