They abound in yards, along trails, in the alpine tundra. They appear bold and plump, bright and dense, firm and tender. They taste impeccable by the handful, on oatmeal, in smoothies.
Yep, its berry picking time in Alaska and this year’s pickings look plentiful and ripe. Gathering berries gets us outside and moving, while also yielding a cache of goodies to eat, freeze, can and dry for months to come.
“All of Alaska’s berries, like blueberries, cranberries, and currents, provide vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants that can help prevent chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer,” said Diane Peck, the Public Health Nutritionist for the state’s Obesity Prevention and Control Program.
“Cup for cup, cloudberries, or low-bush salmonberries, provide three times the amount of vitamin C in orange juice.”
Leslie Shallcross, an associate professor in the Anchorage office of the UAF Cooperative Extension Service, agreed. “Alaska wild berries are true nutrition power houses with even higher levels of antioxidants than their Lower 48 counterparts and the most abundant fruit type growing in Alaska,” she added. “Regular consumption of berries has been linked to many health benefits such as improved memory, lower blood sugar levels and decreased pain.”
All of which is to say, there are many good reasons to fill a pail with berries. Many Alaskans hold dear the secret to their favorite berry patch, of course, but it only takes a bit of looking to find one.
“Some of the parks in Anchorage will have blueberries, lingonberries, watermelon berries, currants, rose hips, high bush cranberry,” said Shallcross. “For family outings, Girdwood, Arctic Valley, Hatcher's Pass, Hope are favorites in South Central. …Some only grown in the damper, milder temperatures of Southeast Alaska.”
Berries don’t grow abundantly in the same places every year, so it pays to go on hikes ahead of time to look for flowers and immature berries. The exact ripening period varies in different regions and years, but most berries are ready to pick in mid to late July through August, with some ripening as late as September.
Some popular types of berries ripen in this order, from early to late summer -- wild strawberry, currants, wild raspberry, cloudberry, nagoonberry, salmonberry, blueberry, highbush cranberry, rosehip, crowberry, service berry.
“Altogether, there are around 40 different edible berries, although not all of these are tasty,” said Shallcross.
A few are poisonous or unpalatable, so it’s important to know how to identify them. Baneberry is particularly poisonous and just a few berries can lead to death. Adults should make sure children know how to identify safe berries before picking them, and beware of wildlife, plant live (like Devil’s club) and other hazards associated with the wilderness.
Parents should make sure their children know how to identify safe berries before picking them, and beware of wildlife, plant life (like Devil’s club) and other hazards associated with the wilderness. As always when headed outdoors, take water and prepare for the weather.
Armed with some knowledge and an appetite, everyone can fill up on one of the healthiest food on the planet by plucking them from the berry playground within your reach.