May is halfway over, but the time for berry picking is just getting started — which is why the University of Alaska Southeast Ketchikan chose berries as the topic of the latest “AskUAS” lecture.
“To Eat or Not to Eat, That is the Question: Wild Berries Edition” was held as a virtual event on the UAS Ketchikan Campus Library Facebook page on the evening of May 7.
The lecture was presented by Barbara Morgan, an instructor of general studies at UAS Ketchikan. While the video was pre-recorded, it was uploaded as a Facebook Live post, allowing Morgan to be available in real-time to take questions from an audience of over 30 listeners in the attached comments section.
During the lecture, Morgan gave descriptions and information regarding nearly 30 berries.
Half of the berries Morgan spoke of during the event were written about in the May 8-9 edition of the Daily News.
The second half of the presentation included a combination of popular and unfamiliar berries, as well as a handful of poisonous plants.
“You mostly see these kind of high up on the beach, actually, just above the intertidal area,” Morgan said about the plant during the presentation.
Morgan said that the beach strawberry plant produces small berries that do not always turn bright red in color.
She described the berry as “flavor-packed” and sweet.
Morgan advised that if a gatherer was to find a patch of beach strawberry, they would be well-advised to take care of the plant.
While crowberry is known to grow in tundra conditions in Interior Alaska, it can be found in muskeg in Southeast.
Crowberry, which is also a plant that flowers, bears a resemblance to an evergreen tree due to the plant’s needles, Morgan explained.
Crowberries are black, shiny and “prolific” in Ketchikan.
“They visually don’t look any different between when they’re ripe and ready to pick and when they’re overripe and dried and up and not very good anymore,” Morgan explained.
Morgan said that when picked “past their prime,” crowberries don’t taste very well.
When ripe, the berries are crunchy or firm, with a thin skin and little seeds inside the berry.
The red elderberry grows with white flowers that both smell like vanilla and produce a lot of pollen, Morgan said.
When pollinated, the plant produces clusters of red berries.
While these berries are favored by bears, humans have to be careful of them.
“The seeds have cyanide in them,” Morgan explained.
The cyanide in the seeds is produced from cyanogenic glycoside compounds, according to a Washington State University botanical database.
Morgan and other sources agree that if the berry is to be consumed, it should be cooked and strained.
“I just kind of leave them alone, because I don't’ really want to deal with something that has cyanide in them,” Morgan said.
“Salal are one of the healthiest berries you can eat,” Morgan said, referencing the high levels of antioxidants and phytonutrients — believed to be even higher than the levels found in blueberries — present in the berry.
Salal is an evergreen plant with pink blossoms. When the plant is pollinated, it produces dark blue berries that have a sweet and earthy flavor.
Morgan said that the berries are “delicious” and can be used to make pies, jam or dried fruit leather.
“The bog cranberries grow in the muskegs,” Morgan said.
The plant lays on the ground on a “thread-like stem” around four to eight inches in length.
Morgan said that although the berries can be eaten without cooking them, they can be tart and are good for baking.
Alaska (Blue) Huckleberry
These huckleberries are shiny and can be almost black in color when ripe.
Morgan said that although the berry is “pretty darn acidic,” they are still good for cooking.
Morgan explained that bog blueberries grow in muskeg, and have blunt leaves with oval-shaped leaves.
“It has a really mild flavor,” Morgan said of the berry, referring to it as “not very acidic” and sweet.
“There’s more blueberries than people always recognize in this area, so that’s kind of fun,” Morgan said when speaking of the dwarf blueberry.
Also known as bilberry, the plant grows with a dark pink flower and slightly serrated leaves.
The berry has “a lot of good blueberry flavor,” and is “a nice balance of sweet and tart,” according to Morgan.
“Stink” or blue currant
“They’re called ‘stink currant’ because all parts of the whole plant, and the berry to some extent, have kind of a real musky sort of smell to them,” Morgan explained.
The plant has pink flowers growing on skeins, Morgan said. The flowers will eventually turn into blue currants.
The currants appear white because they are covered in wild yeast, but the skin underneath the yeast is a dark purple.
Morgan wrapped the hour-long presentation by describing four toxic plants.
Morgan said that while the inner bark of this plant is medicinal, the berry that grows on the plant is toxic.
“Bears eat it,” Morgan said. “But just because a bear eats it doesn’t mean humans can.”
Devil's club has big leaves and “papery thin” bark with a lot of thorns. The flowers on top of the plant grow into “eye-catching” poisonous berries.
The twinberry is not “super common” in the area, Morgan said.
The flowers of this plant can be colored yellow or orange. The berries will be dark purple or black.
Morgan said that this berry comes with mixed reports – some argue that only the twinberry seeds are poisonous while the juice is safe to consume, while others persist that the entire berry is toxic.
“I’m putting it into the section of things that you shouldn’t eat,” Morgan said.
“This is one of the ones that’s really toxic,” Morgan explained. “You should not mess with baneberry.”
Baneberry is sometimes confused with huckleberry because both berries can be red, although the plants are structurally different.
Morgan said that baneberry is a plant, not a “small shrub,” with white flowers that develop into either white or red berries.
Both the red and white berries have a dark spot on the berry.
“Baneberries are shiny, they’re either red or white, they have the dark spot on the end and they have their own little stem that joins them to the main stem,” Morgan explained.
Queen’s Cup Lily
This plant has one white flower and two or three long leaves.
The single flower ripens into a “crayon blue” berry that is also called a “blue bead berry.”
Morgan said that the color is “unnatural,” and that based on the color, she didn’t know why a gatherer would want to eat it.
“These are deadly, too,” Morgan said, adding that the Queen’s Cup Lily can be found on the edges of paths in the area.