Monday, September 01, 2008

Northern Wild Berries and other Edibles

The boreal forest behind our house in northern Saskatchewan is home to a great crop of wild berries this year. I really should quit my job to become a berry picker for the next few weeks. Or maybe we can buy some berries from the Besnard Lake correctional institution again this year, where the inmates pick berries and sell them. No, they don't set up a fruit stand or anything, but I think we had connections with someone who worked there.

"The Bush" behind our house is made up of trees, shrubs, small plants, and lichens growing over and between large slabs of granite. These plants like acid soil, living in peaty organic material that builds up under the thick spongy layer of moss that grows atop the rock slabs.
June 5 photo - blossoms of American cranberry, aka Viburnum trilobum

Berries in our area:  Edible and not-so-edible

Lingonberry, locally known as "Cranberries"
Lingonberries, otherwise known as dry-ground cranberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea). These plants and berries are really tiny, much smaller than the commercial cranberries seen growing on the Oceanspray cranberry farms. They are good in baking and make a great cranberry sauce to go with poultry.
Lingonberries: They have dry white flesh with dark seeds around the center. They are tart and crisp, but not especially juicy. If you live here and are lucky, you may find bags of these for sale at Robertson's store. Online information about these berries can be found here.
Lingonberry, cut open
Bunchberry, a variety of dogwood
Bunchberries (Cornus canadensis), the tiniest plant of the dogwood family. These berries are apparently edible according to this source from the University of Alberta. I found that a bit suprising, because most dogwood berries are identified as poisonous. They taste bad and probably don't make a good jam.

Common Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) is a little less numerous than the lingonberries. In my opinion, these are not edible. However, they have been eaten and there are claims for medicinal use.

Wikipedia includes this in its description: "Bearberry is relatively safe, although large doses may cause nausea, green urine, bluish-grey skin, vomiting, fever, chills, severe back pain, ringing in the ears (some people can withstand up to 20g and others show signs of poisoning after just 1g); take no more than 7-10 days at a time." I guess this berry falls somewhere between "deadly poisonous" and "foods to eat if starvation is your other option".

Bearberries, cut open
Though the plants look similar, the bearberries are easily distinguished from the cranberries by the smooth bottom of the berry, with only the solitary central dimple and little point that can easily be rubbed off. Cranberries have a ring at the bottom, with a little "crown" similar to that of blueberries.

Bearberries cut open. They are dry and pulpy.

Wild blueberries

Blueberries. These are smaller and sweeter than the commercial berries from the larger type of blueberry plants. None of these plants are taller than 12 inches (30 cm). They are extremely nutritious and are amazing cooked in pancakes. Of course, I eat those pancakes with maple syrup from our eastern Canadian maple trees!

Pincherry (Prunus pensylvanica) trees are a common wild tree here. Our yard is full of them. The fruits are quite tart and the central pit is large relative to the size of the fruit. The wild pincherries are vital for pollination of my Carmine jewel tart cherries.

Northern Comandra (red berries)
Northern Comandra,  aka "Northern Bastard Toadflax", Geocaulum lividum:  Found growing around many rocky areas around La Ronge.  Its foliage is bronze in fall, which is distinct from the other berry plants. The berries are orange-red and soft and juicy. They have a non-bitter flavour, though references call its edibility "questionable".  It apparently is parasitic on the roots of other plants, and it appears this one might be parasitic on the adjacent blueberry.  Parts of the plant had been used in traditional medicines. 

Northern Comandra cut open berry
Cut-open berry. They were the juiciest of the berries I cut open.

Red Baneberry
 Red Baneberry (Actaea rubra) is a perennial plant that grows very attractive berries in clusters held on upright stems.  I saw this one on July 27, 2012 near Nistowiak Falls.  All parts of this plant are poisonous, so please don't eat the berries!  The branch with its underside visible to the right of the berry is the foliage of this plant.    

Other common berries in northern Saskatchewan:
  • See my post on some other berries.
  • Saskatoon berries
  • Wild black currants
  • Wild raspberries
  • "Cranberry" (Viburnum) -- blooms pictured near the top of this post
Garbagicus neglecticum var. beverageilis, yet another non-edible of the north. Distribution: worldwide. Considered a non-attractive invasive species. Often associated with lazy Homo sapiens who have no respect for the earth or other people's property.

Yesterday, I baked muffins with my own poppy seed, including frozen wild blueberries instead of the raspberries listed in this recipe from epicurious. They were delicate and delicious.

Poppy seed heads
Resident-lawnmower-man and I picked nearly one litre of poppy seeds from my flower bed. He's a good farmboy that can't see anything go to waste, so we'll either be seeding half the town in poppies or eating delicious poppyseed baking for months.


Wild roses are sporting bright red rosehips now. These are packed with vitamin C, though I haven't made any plans on making them into any foodstuffs at the moment.
Rosehips on Wild Rose Bushes

I also made a delicious swiss chard and parmesan pie last night. I found the recipe online here. I'd never grown swiss chard before, so the dish and the plant were both new for me. This quiche-like tart was quite similar to a spinach pie, with a more mild flavour. Kids and adults alike would love this dish. Resident-lawnmower-man was rather skeptical until he tasted the final product. He now admits that swiss chard is not only made for rabbits.

Precise edibiles-detecting tool:
"Why can't I go berry picking?".


Nicole said...

Very interesting post, as of course all those berries are not native here in the Caribbean. We could grow some, if you had a cool, shaded spot or lived in the mountains. The blueberries look delish.

Lisa at Greenbow said...

I just love this post. I have seen some of these berries or at least the plants they grow on. I love to see the small plants and how vigorous they are while knowing they are so small because of the severe weather. I think this makes them more precious. That edible seeking tool is precious too.

Gardenista said...

I notice the swiss chard recipe link is broken. I also found the same recipe here:

Hopefully that link works for a while. said...

Did you ever find out what the mystery berries are? We have some growing in North Pole and wanted to see if they were safe to eat.

Gardenista said...

I haven't been able to find out what that berry is! There are a few boreal forest websites, but I can't find anything on those either. Sorry.

Elle said...

I have been searching site after site to try and identify a berry producing plant that is popping up at random in my backyard. It is growing in the walkways and in - what will soon be- my flower beds. I would like to know what it is before I just rip it out and cast it away. If anyone would like to try and help me, I can send a picture, I would really appreciate it. I can be contacted at

Johann Malan said...

Lisa, I think your mystery berry may be a northern comandra (Geocaulon lividum/Comandra livida). Regards!

Gardenista said...

Excellent! I had searched and never found the name of that one berry. It is interesting that the northern comandra is often parasitic. I wonder if the one in my picture is living off the roots of that blueberry?

Anonymous said...

the rose hips should be picked red and can be dried by slicing them thinly and letting them dry in the sun. They are excellent added to any tea and one little rose hip has 10 times the amount of vitamin C as an orange. You can also mix them into jams for a new delicate taste. ie. rosehip/mint

Barbie Chiu said...

The strongest and fearless person is the one who knows his/her mistakes and still seek for guidance and forgiveness. Have a pleasant day and keep on smiling. Visit my site for more information.

jacob † nancy said...

There are these weird berries in Northern Saskathewan Denare Beach that look like black currants but they grow straight up in a firework cluster and have a 2 foot high large leafy plant growing... but the berries sprout up on a stem of their own from the bottom of the plant about a foot high.. can't find it anywhere on the internet :/ Any ideas??? I found some other berries that weren't anywhere close to anything on the internet but I think I have found those ones here on your site... the red / orange juicy spongy berries that are questionable whether or not you can eat them. I forget the name already but I think the word bastard was in it :0)