Thursday, September 1, 2016

The elusive and excellent Dwarf Bilberry

Dwarf Bilberry
The Pacific Northwest has a whopping 14 species of Vaccinium, the genus containing huckleberries, blueberries, bilberries and cranberries. With such dazzling diversity, it has taken considerable study and many a happy mission for me to track them down, but this year I’ve finally seen them all and tasted all but one.

I spent the last week in August with my brother in Juneau and took full advantage of the foray to forage on the Last Frontier. Our journeys took us climbing to the top of Mt. Juneau, braving the bowels of the Mendenhall Glacier, trudging across the muskegs of Douglas Island, and scampering along Gold Creek. Basically as far as bus fare and our feet could take us.

We found six of Alaska's seven Vaccinium species in one bog!

This northerly corner of our bioregion graced me with discoveries of a precious and palatable sort. I had my first taste of Lingonberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), caught the last of the ripe Nagoonberries (Rubus arcticus), a fruit that is thought by many Europeans to be the superlative fruit, and most exciting to me, I had my first good taste of Dwarf Bilberry (V. caespitosum).
Dwarf Bilberry (Vaccinium caespitosum) is a lowmat forming shrub that is usually less than 1.5’ (50cm) tall with upright to prostrate stems. Young twigs are generally round in cross section and covered with a dense layer of microscopic fuzz. The bark ranges from green, brownish green or yellowish green to peach, pink, or red on young twigs, but browns and become flaky with age. Leaves are dark green on the upper surface and lighter on the underside with prominent reticulate venation. At about 1” (1-3cm) long, the leaves have an elliptical to obovate shape and margins that are finely and sharply serrated, with hairs at the tip of each serration. The small flowers are borne singly near the branches and are longer than wide, range in color from white to pink, and each one often has an exerted pistil. Berries grow on short curved stalks and mature from green to yellow to orangish red to purple before finally ripening to dark blue with a whitish blue bloom. The tip of each berry has a skirt-like circular scar where the corolla attached to the calyx. The berries range in size from 5/16-7/16” (8-11mm).

A line-up of ripening Dwarf Bilberries

Dwarf Bilberries have an extensive yet patchy range throughout western North America from Anchorage to San Francisco along the Pacific Coast and inland to the Rockies in British Columbia, Montana and Idaho, and the Sierra Nevada in California. They inhabit bogs, muskeg, and arctic/alpine meadows with other ericaceous shrubs such as Lingonberry (V. vitis-idaea), Bog Bilberry (V. uliginosum), Cascade Bilberry (V. deliciosum), and various heather species. Near my house in Northwest Washington, they can be found in the rugged Twin Sister’s Range and the remote Pasayten wilderness. I can honestly say that I’ve never found a Dwarf Bilberry in a boring place. It is almost as if a couple miles of bush-whacking is required to earn the right to find them.

Capable of fruiting prodigiously, Dwarf Bilberries can be collected quickly by hand or rake by anyone willing to stoop for these hobbit sized bushes. They have juicy dark flesh, thin skin, and a sweet and sour flavor that is almost as good as its close cousin the Cascade Bilberry (V. deliciosum). When picking bilberries, I prefer to kneel on the ground and pick into wide mouth containers placed below the bush. I empty this vessel frequently into a lidded bucket to minimize losses should I slip or accidentally bump it over. Bilberry picking is messy business and I usually return with purple hands, knees, and tongue--Bilberry badges of courage.

Christian and I were ill-prepared for our Bilberry bonanza; with nowhere to store the bountiful harvest we were forced to eat them all.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2016


Blackcap Raspberries (Rubus leucodermis) are as beautiful as they are delicious. Yesterday while picking, these ripening fruit inspired a photo shoot. Look for Blackcaps in clear-cuts and sunny forest edges. They normally ripen throughout July, but it has been an early year, so get them before the dry up!

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Monday, July 4, 2016

Another tasty thistle

While the native Edible Thistle (Cirsium edule) may be my favorite (see previous post), the introduced Bull Thistle (Cirsium vulgare) is pretty darn good too.

Bull Thistle is a well armored tap rooted biennial with a crowded rosette of basal leaves. Leaves are deeply lobed with long sharp spines at the tip of each lobe, and several smaller spines along the margins. Many of the lower lobes are further divided into 2-3 points that twist sideways so that one angles downward, one outward, and one upward. Even when the leaves are lying flat on the ground, those upward reaching spines are the bane of barefoot walkers. Upper leaf surfaces are dark green with a whitish green central vein, and the undersides are light green. Plants are covered throughout with long stiff hairs. Flowering shoots begin to emerge mid-spring of the plant’s second year and reach full height 6 weeks later. Shoots usually arise singly from the tap root but if the plants are mowed multiple stems will develop. Stems are hairy and covered with spiny, leaf-like vertical ridges that make them difficult to grab bare-handed. Branches are usually limited to the upper half and arise from the leaf axils. Flower heads are found singly at the branch tips. The heads are large, hairy, and exceedingly spiny with a squat pear shape. Hundreds of purple flowers bloom from the tip of each head.

Perfect stage for collecting
Bull Thistle in flower

Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense)
Don’t confuse this plant with Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense), which has leaves that are not as deeply lobed, stems that are smooth (lacking vertical and spiny stem-wings), and smaller, more clustered flower heads.
Bull Thistles are common in old fields and disturbed roadsides from sea level to the sub alpine.

Hiding behind all that armor is a tasty vegetable. The shoots of Bull Thistle are best harvested mid-spring before they have reached full height or show any sign of the flower heads. Wear gloves or be prepared for a painful experience! I slice the stalk near the base with a pocket knife and then peel them from the base to the tip, revealing the tender and tasty stem. They are firm, filling, and delicious with only a mild bitterness.

Bombus vosnesenskii pollinating Bull Thistle

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