Sunday, September 1, 2019

The Blueberry Bounty of Burns Bog

Velvetleaf Blueberry
I dropped my wife off at the Vancouver Airport so she could fly to the United Arab Emirates to study their coastal wetlands. When saying our goodbyes, she pronounced with a grin, that I would have to fend for myself for the week. Challenge accepted, I wasted no time and headed to Burns Bog to see if the berries were ripe. Burns Bog is said to be the largest raised peat bog in western North America and host to the southernmost distribution (at least on the west coast) of some interesting Boreal Forest Biome edibles like Cloudberry (also known as Bakeapple, Rubus chamaemorus), Lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), and Velvetleaf Blueberry (Vaccinium myrtilloides).

Most of the pines were killed by the fire
I decided to visit a portion of the bog that had burned in early July of 2016 and I was delighted to find an abundance of tasty berries. The Salal (Gaultheria shallon) was thick along the margins under the needleless canopy of blackened shore pines. While they were fruiting abundantly and were sweet as can be, I only picked opportunistically as I pushed through the brush, hoping to find more unusual fare further in. The pines gradually became stunted and spaced further afield and two species of blueberries became dominant. Initially, few that I saw had fruit—one was even in flower—but as I pushed on, I came across expanses of Velvetleaf Blueberry and Bog Blueberry (Vaccinium uliginosum) like I have never seen before. Thickets stretched on as far as I could see. In places the fruit were more abundant than the leaves, and they weighed the short bushes down! Perhaps the burn released them from competition and freed up nutrients in an otherwise nutrient stressed environment. In the last 50 years there have been at least nine wild fires in the bog (and I don’t think they were ignited by punning pranksters). Likely, the Sto:lo and other Coast Salish peoples intentionally burned the bog to improve berry picking.

The species
Velvetleaf Blueberry (Vaccinium myrtilloides) is a conspicuously hairy deciduous shrub that grows 4 to 36 inches tall. The round twigs are covered in fine soft hairs and are green when young but may mature with brown, red, or purple tones. Leaves are also hairy especially on the undersides, margins, and veins; they are elliptical in shape with margins that lack serrations and a more gradually tapering tip than base; leaves are usually 1-1.5 inches long 2.5-3 times as long as their width.
Flowers are unique in that they are our only native species to grow in clusters (like the cultivated varieties of V. coryumbosum and V. angustifolium from stock native to the Midwest and Northeast). Corollas (fused petals) are urn shaped, white or pink, and slightly longer than wide. The calyxes (fused sepals) under the flowers are green with conspicuously triangular lobes that often spread outward from the flower. The only other native blueberry with a triangularly lobed calyx is Bog Blueberry.
Fruit also arise in clusters and generally longer than they are wide. They ripen from green to blue transitioning quickly through reddish tones. Ripe berries have thick epicuticular wax or “bloom” as it is called by horticulturalists, giving them a whitish appearance. Note the triangular lobes of the calyx are still present on the tip of the berry giving it a regal crown. I measured the size of 15 berries as I picked them, and they ranged from 1/4-1/2" wide and slightly longer than wide.

Velvetleaf Blueberry with abundant fruit

Bog Bilberries (Vaccinium uliginosum) form low mat forming shrubs that rarely exceed 24 inches in height. Young twigs are yellowish, tan, or reddish brown, covered with very fine hairs (that you need a hand lens to see) and are rounded in cross-section. The stems age to grayish brown by the third year and the bark become shredded with age. Leaves are alternate, deciduous, less than 1” long and egg shaped; compared with our other bilberries, they have a relatively squat look. Leaf margins are smooth, the tips rounded. The lower surfaces is strongly net veined and the upper leaf surface is blue-green or grayish green. The leaves are either minutely hairy, or hairless, but they always have a rough textured appearance. 1-4 individually stalked flowers emerge from the lower leaf axils of the new growth and bloom from late May to July, depending on the elevation and latitude. Corollas (fused petals) are usually bright pink but can be blotched or streaked with white, pinkish white or rarely pure white. Flowers are usually globe shaped but occasionally slightly taller than wide, the opening is surrounded by 4 outward curled lobes.  Calyces (fused sepals) have 4 or 5 prominent lobes that clasp the base of the flower. Fruit are bright blue and covered with bloom. Berries range in size from 1/4-5/8" wide and can be slightly taller than wide, spherical, or wider than long. Like Velvetleaf Blueberry, the calyx lobes on the top of the fruit have triangular lobes, only Bog Blueberry’s lobes are usually folded inward. Occasionally, the style is persistent in fruit.
A heavy crop of Bog Blueberries

Habitat and Distribution and Range
Velvetleaf Blueberry
Velvetleaf Blueberry rarely inhabits bogs, muskeg, mountain meadows, and open barrens in our area and unlikely to be seen outside of a few locations in British Columbia (such as Burns Bog), Washington (where it is a sensitive species), and northwest Montana. It is primarily a species of canopy openings in pine-barrens, spruce forests, and sphagnum bogs in the Canadian Taiga, sub boreal forests and pine barrens in the northeastern part of North America. 

Bog Blueberry

As both the common scientific names suggest, Bog Bilberries delight to grow in wet habitats, particularly peat bogs, spruce swamps and muskegs. The species epithet uliginosum means “wet” or “swampy.” They also grow on firmer ground in the alpine and arctic tundra where they are commonly confused with Cascade Blueberry (Vaccinium deliciosum), at least in Washington. Bog Blueberries are a circumboreal species that extends down the coast with increasingly sporadic distribution, becoming uncommon in Washington, but increase again in bogs and wet mountain meadows in Oregon and California.

Harvest and Preparation
Velvetleaf Blueberry
Growing in clusters, Velvetleaf Blueberries pick quickly by hand or rake. Although Bog Blueberries arise individually on each stalk, they can still be very abundant. Be prepared to kneel to the small stature of both species. I prefer to pick them into flat bottomed containers that can be set on the ground since I find it hard to stoop when I have a container tied to my waist.

Bog Blueberry
Like all blueberries, both species are delicious raw but they both are among the mildest flavored blueberries I have eaten with little in the way of tartness but still enough sweetness to keep you reaching for more. Both have thick pulp more similar in texture to a Salal berry than to a huckleberry. Bog Blueberries have amazing texture. In addition to the creamy pulp, the skins will pop in your mouth as you bight down on them. Velvetleaf Blueberry is the sweeter of the two. Near me, both species ripen in late August and can be picked through early September. By mid September they may start getting mushy. Like many late season fruits, these species are prone to crop failures on account of our typical dry summers. This year we had about three good rains in July and three more in August, which may be another reason that the berries at Burns Bog are in such good order.

Both species are enjoyed fresh and cooked by most Indigenous groups that inhabit the plants range.

Because Veletleaf Blueberry has such a limited range along the coast, they were only regularly eaten by the Stó: (Galloway 1982) and other peoples whose traditional territory includes the productive bogs along the Lower Fraser River. Members of other groups with special permission or marriage ties to the Stó: from groups such as the Nooksack (Galloway 2012), Nlaka'pamux (Turner et. al 1990), Squamish (Turner 1976), and Ditidaht (Turner et. al 1982) all travelled to the lower Fraser River valley to harvest the fruit. In recent times, the Hesquiaht on the West Coast of Vancouver Island purchased Velvetleaf Blueberries from the Stó: to make pies (Turner and Efrat 1982).

Galloway, Brent 1982. Upper Stó:lō Ethnobotany. Coqualeetza Education Training Centre, Sardis BC.

Galloway, Brent 2012. Nooksack Classified Word List.

Turner, Nancy J. and Barbara S. Efrat 1982. Ethnobotany of the Hesquiat Indians of Vancouver Island. Cultural Recovery Papers No. 2, British Columbia Provincial Museum, Victoria BC.

Turner, Nancy J. and Randy Bouchard 1976. Squamish Ethnobotany.

Turner, Nancy J. Laurence C. Thompson, M. Terry Thompson, and Annie Z. York 1990.  Thompson Ethnobotany, Knowledge and Usage of Plants by the Thompson Indians of British Columbia. Memoir No. 3, Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria BC.

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