FAIRBANKS — It’s berry season in Alaska! As the days get cooler and the nights get longer, people are picking and preserving berries for the winter. Berries are delicious and nutritious. They contain valuable antioxidants and vitamins. And berry picking is also a good excuse to get outside, go for a hike and enjoy the weather before winter settles in.
Educator Emily Koehler-Platten said that’s why berries are the theme for this month’s programs at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.
“September is a time when Alaskans are getting ready for winter,” she said. “An important part of the process is gathering food; although today we have grocery stores and restaurants, for many people gathering food from the land is still important.”
In Interior Alaska, common berries include blueberries, cranberries, wild strawberries, cloudberries, raspberries and crowberries. You can also sometimes find nagoonberries, as well as red currants and rosehips.
One berry in the Interior to watch out for is the baneberry. They look similar to highbush cranberries but are poisonous. Herbarium Curator Steffi Ickert-Bond said you should never eat berries if you don’t know what they are.
“Within Alaska some of the most poisonous plants have red berries,” she said. “Baneberries are extremely poisonous. Consuming just one berry could be fatal for a child. As a general rule, all white berries should be avoided. Baneberry can have white or red berries. Look for a black spot on the red berries to determine if they are baneberries.”
Another poisonous plant with red berries is the yew plant. Though not native to Alaska, it can be cultivated here. It’s a conifer with needle-like leaves. It is not a true berry, but has a red layer around the seed. While that red bit is edible, the seed is toxic. It is always wise to check a field guide or as a knowledgeable person before consuming any berry in Alaska.
If you travel around Alaska, you can find even more berry species, such as salmonberries, red huckleberries, service berries, watermelon berries, thimbleberries, northern black currants and bunch berries.
Berries are Alaska’s most abundant wild fruit, but you might be surprised at which ones are true berries. While blueberries and cranberries make the cut, strawberries, blackberries and raspberries do not. Botanically speaking, a berry has three distinct fleshy layers and must develop from one flower that has one ovary.
But people have called certain fruits berries long before scientists came up with a precise definition. Curator Ickert-Bond puts them into different groups. One type is the true berry, a simple, fleshy fruit derived from one ovary, like a blueberry. Another is an aggregate fruit derived from more than one ovary, think blackberries and raspberries with their many tiny orbs clustered around a hollow pith.
“Another fleshy berry is found in strawberry plants,” she said. “Botanically speaking they are aggregate accessory fruits, which refers to the fact that the edible portion of the fruit is actually derived from an enlarged receptacle and not the ovary tissue.”
The main reason people pick berries is as a food source. People eat them right off the bush, use them to make jam or jelly, or dry them for fruit leather. Another major use is medicinal. Cranberry juice is good for bladder infections. The leaves from the plant can be used to make a tea that is good for breathing problems. You can also use blueberries, cranberries and crowberries to make dyes.
Koehler-Platten said you can investigate the human use of berries throughout the museum. “In the Gallery of Alaska, there is a wooden berry picker on display in the Western Arctic Coast section and a metal one exhibited in the Interior section.
“There is a Tlingit berry basket made of spruce root and several birch bark baskets that could have been used to pick berries. There’s also a bear spear that was used for protection while picking berries. And of course there are brown and black bear specimens. Bears eat lots of berries!”
If you look closely, you might see berries depicted in artworks on display. In the Café Gallery, a show called “Northern Forest” by artist Gail Priday includes berries in both paintings and woodcuts.
And, of course, there are numerous berry specimens preserved in the herbarium. Curator Ickert-Bond said that while some specimens retain the actual colors from the wild, others fade upon drying. “It is important to get familiar with the overall appearance of the specimens to avoid choosing a potentially poisonous berry.”
Visitors can also see berries during the museum’s Family Day from noon to 4 p.m. Sept. 22. Members of the herbarium will talk about berry identification. In addition, the local Winterberry Project will have information about their citizen science project, which investigates the effects of shifting seasons on berries, animals and people.
Koehler-Platten said berries are critical to the state and its ecosystem. “Although the species may differ depending on region, wherever you go in Alaska, there are berries. Almost everyone I know has a berry picking story. It seems like berries are a tradition that binds Alaskans together.”
Theresa Bakker is the manager of marketing and communications at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. Contact her by phone at 474-6941 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You Go
Explore berries at the UA Museum of the North’s hands-on programs in September. Early Explorers, for children 5 and younger, meets 10 a.m. to noon each Friday in the Creativity Lab. At Junior Curators on Sept. 29, kids 6 and older are invited to discover berries through hands-on investigations and crafts.
At Family Day: Berries from noon to 4 p.m. Sept. 22, the community is invited to explore berries, meet berry experts and make a recipe book. There is no admission fee for children 14 and younger at Family Days thanks to support from TOTE Maritime. For more information about the museum’s programs and events, visit www.uaf.edu/museum or call 474-7505.
To Try At Home
• Find berries. Go for a walk to see berries in your neighborhood. Find them on low plants, bushes, and trees. Borrow a guidebook from the library or look up your discoveries on the internet. Don’t eat any berries until an expert has helped you identify them.
• Create a habitat. Color or paint a habitat for a berry loving animal. Choose your animal and think about what it needs in the habitat. Be sure to include a lot of berries!