Sunday, September 16, 2012

"Wild Blueberries," the Mountain Provides!

Yesterday, Katrina and I joined our local chapter of the Washington Native Plant Society for a hike around Table Mountain near Mount Baker. Our route took us through many subalpine meadows where we were able to enjoy the late season wildflowers and periodically pluck the fat fruits of Black Huckleberry (Vaccinium membranaceum) and Cascade Blueberry (Vaccinium deliciosum). Together, these are two of our region’s most delicious Blueberry/Huckleberries, and I overheard a few arguments about which our members most favored.

A laden Cascade Blueberry bush
Black Huckleberry
There are other reasons to quibble over Blueberries and Huckleberries. They are part of the same genus and their names are sometimes used interchangeably causing much confusion over the difference between the two. For example, Cascade Blueberry is sometimes called Cascade Huckleberry and Velvetleaf Blueberry is sometimes called Velvetleaf Huckleberry. However, A simple pattern elucidates the difference. Typically all 7 of our native Vaccinium species with blue fruit are called Blueberries, and our 4 species that don’t have blue fruit are called Huckleberries. Thus, we have red fruited Red Huckleberry (Vaccinium parvifolium) and black fruited Black Huckleberry. Evergreen Huckleberry (Vaccinium ovatum) sometimes challenges this rule with a rogue (and tasty) blue fruit variety, but the black fruited variety is more common. The red fruited Grouse Whortleberry (Vaccinium scoparium) of the eastern Cascades has a nice unique name, but some people call it (appropriately) Littleleaf Huckleberry.

Allan "examining" Cascade Blueberries
Black Huckleberries (left) and Cascade Blueberries (right)
After our circumambulatory sampling of Table Mountain’s fruit, Katrina and I set out to collect enough berries to bring back to our own feasting place. We had found the fruit production of Cascade Blueberries to vary considerably between different locations. The berries near Artist's Point were sparse, but farther down the trail, at the junction of the Ptarmigan Ridge Trail and the Galena Chain Lakes Trail, the bushes were laden with large fruit (briefly focusing our botanizing to a sensory analyses of just one species). Fruit production was sparse through the Chain Lakes, over the pass, and much of the way down to the Bagley Lakes, but near the Visitor Center the bushes were thick with small fruit. We didn’t want to bother with tiny fruit and were too tired to hike back out towards Ptarmigan Ridge, so we decided to explore the more accessible Ski Area for good fruit. It didn’t take us long to find a shady patch of meadow that was thickly laden with large berries of both Black Huckleberry and Cascade Blueberry. In a little more than an hour, Katrina and I picked 3 quarts of berries and never moved more than 40 feet from where we started.

Approaching perfection
Both berries are sweet and delicious with a nice subtle tartness. Cascade Blueberries have a thick texture that is similar to Bog Blueberry (Vaccinium uliginosum), or Salal (Gaultheria shallon) whereas Black Huckleberries have a much juicier texture. I think Cascade Blueberries are a little sweeter and milder flavored compared to the more explosive flavored Black Huckleberries. For me, the perfect handful is 10 Cascade Blueberries and 3 Black Huckleberries.

To the forager, every ecosystem can provide some form of delicious food. Supalpine meadows that are too rocky and steep for the plow, and have too short a growing season for “civilized” fare, are some of the most precious to those with a more adventurous palette. It is here that the forager finds mountain morsels with flavor—like the growing season—that is concentrated. So too is the picking experience... concentrated life!

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