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Wet* Hot Wild Berry Summer in the PNW:

*(sweaty, even while standing still because… heat domes & such)

It’s a berry Pacific Northwest kind of life in summer time here. The sun finally came out and surprisingly this year, it receded a few times for some early summer showers. Many thanks from the wildflowers and fruits, and even the conifers.

Wild blueberry trail pancakes
Trail breakfast with wild blueberries- pure luxury!

When the sun is warm enough in spring to encourage sustained blooms and successful pollination (it takes the two to tango a tart berry after all), then we are blessed with a plentiful crop of various summer berries all over the wild and less-so areas of the PNW. Many people have their favorite wild berry too. I find it a little hard to choose with so many options. Why settle?

First, Let’s Lingo:

Many of these “berries”, and the ones we so often think of when we think “berry”, are not technically berries, because botany doesn’t care that common terminology has morphed into erroneous associations. A berry is defined as “a fleshy fruit developing from a single pistil with several or many seeds”. Blueberries and tomatoes are berries of the botanical definition. More colloquially, people call any fleshy fruit that lacks a pit or core (like apples & pears) a ‘berry’. No need to be strict sticklers, but it's a good grocery store pick-up line.

types of berries and related fruits
Berries and related fruits from The Visual Dictionary of Plants

The things we call blackberry, raspberry and salmonberry are in fact “aggregate fruits”, basically a collection/aggregation of tiny fruits that all came from a separate ovary on a clustered flower. Blueberries = berries. Strawberries? Something else entirely, they are actually the swollen juicy receptacle that was the base of the flower’s stem with a bunch of tiny flowers that mature into the tiny seeds we see on the outside of a strawberry. Strawreceptacle? Plants just do whatever the heck works for them. We try to organize that chaos. And eat it. A blackberry/raspberry fruit pulls away from the green nub of a receptacle while the strawberry went ahead and made that nub into the fruity part. Hope that helps ya sort them out.

When talking about the round berries which are true berries (blueberries, huckleberries, etc), the term “bloom” comes up, referring to a powdery coating of super tiny scales of wax that some species have coating their berries which can be rubbed off. Some have a thick coating too (think of certain apple that you could literally polish on your shirt sleave ‘as seen on tv’ if you aren’t familiar with these berries). This berry ‘bloom’ is not to be confused with the flower blooms aka- inflorescence. I know… botany terms are a bit wild. Don’t even get into and algal bloom…

TLDR Berry Flavor Table:
flavors of PNW wild berries

Bring on the BERRIES:

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis)

A show-er more than flavor- salmonberries have stellar pink star-shaped flowers and early on in spring, but the deep salmon-colored fruits are not the most popular.

Some love these interesting “berries” (aggregates), one of our more unique ones indeed. I find their flavor musty and very tart, with prime ripeness hard to hit. Too soon (too yellowey) and they are too tart.

I have spat out more than I’ve fully eaten even when seeming ripe, but that’s my taste buds. Again- some love them, so have a try. They are often one of the first to bloom and set fruit, usually in lower elevations and particularly along wet-soil areas. Their flowers are a prize as a unique bright pink color rather than most which are white.

*Extra points for showiness instead of flavor.

A fun ID trick you’ll see is pointing out the butterfly shape the lower lateral leaflets of a salmon berry’s leaf when you remove the terminal one. They have an asymmetry (the lateral leaflets) with matching semi-lobe on the bottom side of these leaflets that give the look of the top and bottom wings of a butterfly. This is what makes the salmon berry “spectabilis”, along with that bright pink flower I guess. But still, making a leaf into a butterfly to entertain the kiddos is pretty spectacular.

Trailing blackberry (Rubus ursinus) (plus the overly obstinate invasive highly noxious Himalayan & cut-leaf species which you should eat just to remove seeds from the wild)

trailing blackberries (Rubus ursinus)
early, mid and ripe trailing blackberries (Rubus ursinus)

Ankle-biting delight, these native small-fruit blackberries can make a dense groundcover and I think they are much tastier than the big honking super invasive evil-thicket-of-angry-thorny oppression highly invasive species- R. armeniacus (Himalayan/Armenian blackberry), and it’s slightly less invasive sibling, but worse in thorns- cutleaf blackberry, R. laciniatus.

cut-leaf and Himalayan/Armenian blackberries, Rubus laciniatus & Rubus armeniacus
cut-leaf and Himalayan/Armenian blackberries mixed together in forest disturbance near popular camping area near Seattle, WA

invasive blackberries ripening, Rubus armeniacus
invasive blackberries ripening

Trailing blackberries are uniquely evergreen compared to most brambles and other berry shrubs. This blackberry is much gentler when it comes to thorns, sometimes described as bristly, but they will still lightly scratch the crud out of your ankles and arms and fingers if you are walking and working among them, so don’t just go grabbing at them for the berries.

Did you know logan berries originated from a cross between R. ursinus and the European red raspberry (R. idaeus)?

Rubus ursinus flowers
male Rubus ursinus flowers

The trailing blackberries are also mostly dioecious (male plants are separate from female fruit-baring plants) and have a wide range of ways to make reproduction happen, from vegetative clones (like most brambles) that root where the vine touches the ground, to all manner of fruits made either with or without actual cross pollination with a male & female plant. There are often more male plants in certain areas as they grow faster (cheaper) than the females, which can still be valuable for wildlife but not for fruit-eating birds that love the female plants. Or people, wanting to sample those extra sweet slightly tart little black-ish “berries” (or aggregates).

Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus)

The largest-leafed of these berries, and my vote for tastiest, the thimbleberry is a sprawling medium shrub with very soft velvety leaves you want to pet and short cup-shaped fruits (or like a stubby thimble). Their flowers are fairly showy white and about the size of silver dollar with ruffly petals. The flowers blend well into the swollen fruits.

Rubus parviflorus
thimbleberries forming, Rubus parviflorus

The thimbleberry fruits are very soft and will fall off easily in your hand when ripe (be ready to catch, no berry left behind, except for wildlife I guess). This also means they don’t travel well, so you won’t find this delectable ‘berries’ in stores unless in jam-form. I want! But a few could make it down off a trail with you for eating later. They can be found throughout the western US as well as the Great Lakes states into Canada. Hope to luck upon an open spot with moist soil to establish an extensive patch of these, as they can create thickets. Only one or two ripen at a time per plant, so you will have to walk and harvest. But they don’t have any real thorns like the raspberry and blackberry ‘berries’.

Black raspberry (Rubus leucodermis)

Now this one I have yet to actually find in fruit in the wild. I see it all the time just growing vegetatively, no blooms or fruit. What’s your deal black raspberry? Why do you elude my curious tastebuds?

This black raspberry is in the western US, as the species they have in the eastern US is R. occidentalis, which makes zero sense because occidentalis literally means “western”…. Oy! A key to tell R. leucodermis from other common raspberries is that the leaves are clearly stalked (held out from the main stem by a small petiolule). Are you going to look for these to be sure which raspberry you much in the wild? Probably not, raspberries are all edible and safe to ID them just as edible fruit. But "botanists got to botanize".

They also have silvery undersides of their leaves and matching white dusty-coated stems that can a light rubbing will reveal the green underneath. Hence their name “leuco” white “dermis” skin. That coating also tends to look a bit blueish, which I use often to find them. And their stems have a distinct arching structure, growing first upright or angled and then drooping down again creating canes between 6 and 15 feet long. Their thorns are more attuned to a nice rosebush rather than vicious blackberry, only slightly curved.

Wild strawberry (common- Fragaria virginiana, & woodland- F. vesca)

Tiny but mighty- in the low to mid-alpine area with open habitats, you could find either of these species with their baby-strawberries in summer after the carpet of white flowers each spring. They have the tell-tale rose-type flower with white petals and trio of serrated leaves just your garden variety of big-fruited strawberries, some of which can be a bit aggressive spreading all over. Oh no! [feign to faint] What a terrible ordeal to have, too many strawberry plants, hopefully making enough strawberries that the humans get a few a head of the squirrels. And snails. And deer. Possibly wild-grown neighbor kids. That’s what we call green-thumb problems.

Word on the farmer-street is: the woodland berries are less sweet and “duller” in flavor and I can attest the common F. virginianas have a lovely bright tart “strawberry!” flavor and are quite irresistible once you come across a large patch on a hike and have a sample. I find myself staring too close at the side of the trail looking for more prime plump berries than watching my step.

Fragaria vesca (left) Fragaria virginiana (right) berries

Caution- low growing berries = pee-risk. If the trial is frequented by dogs… maybe look further off the trail. Or take them back for a rinse before eating.

Wild / Cascade blueberry (Vaccinium deliciosum)

There are many types of edible blueberries in our PNW area (lucky, right?!). And their ranges tend to overlap a lot in Washington too, so WA-tonians could have a smorgasbord of wild blueberries on an expedition. The commonly found V. ovatum blueberry bushes have oval leaves with bright green undersides. Additionally, V. deliciosum has nearly round flowers vs. the dwarf blueberry’s elongated lantern-shaped flowers and green leaves (both sides). The dwarf species (V. caespitosum) are supposed to be the yummiest (also my height, so I already love them).

But no one would kick a well named V. deliciosum berry out of their bowl and they can make large dense patches in alpine forest openings and V. ovatum is what I roll with on the alpine trails around here with no complaints on flavor. They do vary quite a bit from bush to bush, so you can try to find favorite areas. Soil, sun & moisture must play flavor-factor.

Vaccinium ovatum, wild blueberries
collecting wild blueberries on the trail for breakfast

Black huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum)

They get their name from a very dark purple berry color, nearly black but sometimes a bit reddish and shiny without a ‘bloom’. Their leaves are more pointed and very finely toothed and paler on the underside, but of similar size to the other Vacciniums and dark shiny berries similar to its kin, the evergreen huckleberry but tend to be tastier (see- “musky” note below) except single on stems (aka peduncle) rather than a cluster.

black huckleberries
Vaccinium membranaceum, black huckleberries

Evergreen huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum)

Thick (evergreen) small and finely-tooth pointed leaves are easy to tell apart from other Vacciniums but very similar to mountain boxwood (Pachistima myrsinites) except evergeen huckleberry leaves are alternate on the stem, not oppositely arranged like the boxwood. Also- no berries on boxwood. Their pinkish to white flowers have a more shape than blueberry’s and in clusters and tend to be slightly bigger (by about 2mm) than blueberry’s as well. These plants are found at lower elevations rather than the black huckleberry of higher elevations.

Evergreen huckleberries are dark blue, nearly black, and have a sweet and slightly musky flavor but still pretty tasty. They would be the last berries you’ll get in the wild, ripening from early fall and can be found into winter on shrubs that any wild beasties haven’t nibbled clean. In fact, like many fruits, they are sweeter after an initial frost.

Mmmm, can you imagine an ice-wine made from huckleberries? A dark thick sweet syrupy winter sipping wine. Please someone make that! Yes (I checked) there are huckleberry wines, but did they make them icewine style after a frost?? I will just have to sample.

Berry wine tasting night, anyone? Honey and mead was fun. Wines, pies, berry-glazed savory entrée, brie with berries apps, yes YES!

Red huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) Winter ornation in summer

Green younger stems with deep grooved form and zig-zaging between leaves help distinguish them from other Vacciniums, and smaller thin leaves without any teeth, (brown older bark at base) and often planar flat growth pattern and side branches come off main stems at 45* or more. They have a delicate lacey look overall and the berries are quite distinct- small bright soft red berries (not a deep blood red) with the little lip-like ring and small mouth dot inside on their bottom.

Salal (Gaultheria shallon)

Many forests of the PNW have dense extensive patches of salal as their shrub understory which means loads of salals plentiful dark matte-purplish-black berries. They dangle off a linear stem/peduncle and ripen from the base to the end as the urn-shaped pink & white flowers turn to green then blushed pink and then plum and finally deep purple berries. They have the shape of a sphere that was pinched between two fingers (flat top and bottom) with cut dimples on the bottom when fully ripe and plump, like the bottom of some apples, or a decorative ottoman. They are also distinct by having short hairs along the flower stems and flowers themselves. Their leaves are evergreen, thick with pointed tips and find toothing, and about two inches long (longer than most of these berry plants). Salal plants are only found only in Pacific coastal states and British Columbia but was introduced in Great Britain.

Salal berry. Gaultheria shallon
Salal berry loaded with seeds

Their flavor is decent but not amazing with a slight musky tastes and mealy texture. These can be handy mixed with some of the tarter berries of other plants for a nice native fruit medley, as often the Indigenous tribes would do.

Oregon grape (Mahonia nervosa & M. aquifolium)

Not related to grapes, but these do grow purplish round fruits that droop on loose clusters. Only these are on pokey pinnately-lobed leaves of low shrubs. The fruits are tasty but with seeds on par with the seeded grapes- kind of annoying for those (me) who have issues with food texture. They are more often used mashed and strained to remove the seeds and good for cooking as their tartness is nicely strong. I like making syrups and the like from them.

Oregon grape fruits.  Mahonia aquifolium
Oregon grapes (Mahonia aquifolium)
mahonia berries. Oregon grape fruits
Mahonia fruits

All species make edible berries and generally vary by their growing height and number of leaves. Their fruits are both grape-like and actual berries (with several seeds). One may call these Mahonia berries then. The Mahonia nervosa plants are only found in the Pacific coastal states and British Columbia while M. aquifolium are throughout cooler/milder areas of North America as well as introduced all over the Europe.

Saskatoon/Service (Amelanchier alnifolia)

Our tree-born fruit are the service or saskatoon berries. The leaves of these small trees/big shrubs are distinct with forward facing teeth on only about 2/3rds of the leaf so that they look a lot like a fine-toothed spork. Their flowers are abundant displays of white rose-like flowers but with more narrow petals looking more frilly than an apple or strawberry flower. The berries are a dark bluish after a lovely blush or soft pink, with a dusty ‘bloom’ and dry ring of old flower parts at their ends while pointing distinctly upward in small clusters.

The flavor of these berries is… meh. I always think of them as “serviceable” and like to think that’s where they got their colonial common name (it is not and there are several theories).

Fun botany fact- saskatoon berries are also not berries, but a small pome because they have separated ovary chambers with seeds inside, like an apple or pear. They are like if an apple tree was trying to become a blueberry bush and got caught in a bland-flavored middle-ground (not the actual evolution, just a way to think of them) of a small shruby tree with odd blue semi-sweet musky fruit. Some people do love them though, so definitely have a sample. I personally made a lovely simple syrup with a handful of saskatoon berries/pomes to get the nutrition benefits and a fun way to berry-up a drink even into winter (if kept frozen). They were an important food berry to many indigenous tribes in the western US, so I certain keep a high respect and general love of these plants (they are just a lovely plant all year), even if the berries/pomes don’t appeal to me for eating. Maybe there are populations that taste better. I would love some regional taste tests!

service berry syrup.  Amelancier alnifolia berry use

Fool’s Huckleberry (Rhododendron /Menziesia ferruginea) – clustered leaves with more pointed end than blueberries, clustered flowers creamy yellow-salmonish and coming from branch nodes. Can also tell apart from blueberries by the skunky aroma the leaves have when crushed. Stinky fools… Don’t be fooled. These don’t make any berries, but a dried capsule fruit instead. Admire them just for being pretty.

fool's huckleberry.  Rhododendron ferruginea. Menziesia ferruginea flowers.
Menziesia ferruginea, by Calflora

Also don’t be fooled by these berry-ish fruits that are not so edible.

queen's cup fruit. Clintonia uniflora
queen's cup single blue berry (leaves are to top right)

Queen’s Cup (Clintonia uniflora) -

Single large round blue fruit erect on a stalk from 2 lily-like large opposite leaves. Fruit are eaten by grouse by may be toxic to humans.

devil's club fruit. Oplopanax horridus fruit.

Devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus)-

Don’t eat anything that comes from a plant called “devil”. As a rule. Very spikey brown stems, loves wet soils, huge also very spikey leaves and a red rounded spike of berries at the apex, which are not edible. Not a friendly plant, but super cool to LOOK at.

Actaea rubra.  Red baneberry fruits

Red baneberry (Actaea rubra) –

Also don’t eat anything with “bane” in the name. Bane is bad. Death. These finely cut leaves are somewhat like celery (which is always a caution as the carrot/celery family has a lot of very poisonous plants in it, plus several very edible, so you better KNOW what you collect). They are cut into multiple leaflets with irregular toothing on the edges and fine points a the ends, with a trio on the very tip, and their bright red berries are in a loose spike and are indeed poisonous. Bane!

bunchberry. spreading dogwood fruits.  Cornus canadensis fruit.

Bunchberry/spreading dogwood (Cornus canadensis) – most adorable dogwood, a groundcover of generally evergreen leaves (the parallel veins like dogwood trees/shrubs) and a tight bright red cluster of berries which are actually edible and swee, but very “pulpy”, so not usually a sought forage. I say- flavor a drink with them.

cascara fruit.  Rhamnus purshiana fruit.

Cascara (Rhamnus purshiana)-

understory tree with rippled parallel veins at 45* angle from mid-vein, and make a small cluster of large bluish fruits, which are technically edible but underwhelming. No bother unless you’re desperate. Because of the famous use of this tree’s bark for large intestine, um… functions… I just don’t feel like trying these and would assume you wouldn’t want to eat a lot. Just in case.

Red elderberry fruits, by Alaska Region U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Red elderberry (Sumac racemus)- red large wide spikes/racemes (where the name comes from) of bright deep red berries among long toothed pinnately-lobed leaves on these slender tall shrubs are actually quite edible but need to be COOKED. They will cause nausea if eaten raw and that’s rarely useful, especially on a hike. Leaves are poisonous, fyi. The blue elderberries, more common on the east side of the Cascade mountains and like the open drier habitats (reds like some open forest understory with a bit of shade & moisture) are highly edible and yumsy! And quite medicinal. Find these!

star-flowered false solomon's seal fruit. Smilacina stellata fruit.

Star-flowered false Solomon’s seal (Smilacina stellata)- light green fruits with three red stripes from stem to tip, in small loose cluster on small drooping/erect zig-zagging stem of large alternating parallel veined leaves. Very cool and technically edible, but not “palatable”.

Smilacina racemose. False solomon seal fruit.

False Solomon Seal (Smilacina racemose)- large terminal cluster of coppery speckled berries (very cool looking), often reddish and dotted with darker purple. Like the related star-flowered species, berries are technically edible, but not “palatable”.

False lily-of-the-valley (Maianthemum dilatatum)- small spike cluster of speckled round fruits, light green with brown-red mottling, like the Solomon’s seals (everybody is false in here huh?), fruits are technically edible, but not “palatable”.

Berry bushes

aren’t just amazing for their delicious (mostly) fruits (true berry or not), and how much they support wildlife. Seriously, have you SEEN bear scat during prime berry season? I mean… wow. Even the coyotes partake of these tasty treats. You can actually hear the bears eating away before you see them, which I appreciated on this trail where 2 black bears were entirely occupied with skilled browsing in a dense field of black huckleberry.

blackbear eating huckleberries
Blackbear eating black huckleberries in late summer, in SW Olympic National Park

Beyond the berry value, the deciduous ones of these shrubs (which are most) turn a fabulous orange, red or copper hue in early fall, highlighting the alpine slopes with literally staggering lovely color, as in- I tend to trip on the trails when coming into these open berry fields. Add golden yellow larches to that, and you will need to pause to reclaim your breath. Especially if you recall the sweet tart flavors of summer, still lingering on your tongue’s memory buds.

Don’t be shy. Find a few berries you can easily ID (most are) and go picking.

 blueberries & huckleberries, turning their fall colors
hillside of deciduous shrubs, including blue & huckleberries, turning their fall colors by alpine lake


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