Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Search for Wild Berries: A Classic Alaskan Activity

Any food expert can tell you the health benefits of berries.  But in case you need a refresher, consider the low calories, high fiber content, they're a great source for vitamins and minerals, and in some cases berries provide antioxidants to help your body fight inflammation and free radicals.  Some experts recommend that you eat two to three types of berries each day for maximum health benefits.  Lucky for you, you're planning a trip to an Alaska bed and breakfast this August or September, when the berry season is at its height!

The great news is that wild berries grow abundantly in Alaska!  With over 50 species of wild berries, you can find them on almost any walk, hike, or even drive around the state when they're in season.  Each day of your stay, it might be possible to find your ideal daily berry-booty, and then some!

Where do you find berries?  Look for areas where the ground has been cleared for building, or where a fire has occurred recently, as berries are the first step in reforestation after a traumatic land-clearing event.  Look at edges of the road, bogs, and south-facing, sunny slopes.  Each berry has its own habitat, so if you look for specific types, of course you'll want to check in the appropriate place.  As a very loose guide, here are some of the more popular berries in the state, and where you can find them.
  • Blueberry:  Grow on bushes in woodland and traumatic clearings, and are even sweeter in the higher elevations.
  • Salmonberry:  Similar to the raspberry with colors ranging from red through yellow and grow on open slopes and roadsides.  Beware the prickers!
  • Nagoonberry:  (Also called dewberry and wineberry)  Grow in damp woodland and traumatic clearings - especially areas with recent fires.
  • Cloudberry:  Look for these peach-colored, lobed berries in boggy areas.
  • Northern Red Currant:  Look for these bushes near streams and thickets from low meadows to the woodline.
  • Crowberry:  Grow on evergreen shrubs (that look similar to rosemary) in bogs, alpine meadows, and even in the woods.
  • Cranberry:  Both high bush and low bush varieties of this tart berry grow around wooded areas.
  • Currants - Look for both red and black varieties in moist woodlands and clearings.
  • Raspberry - Grow in clearings, dry meadows, and on the edges of wooded areas.
  • Serviceberries - These 6-16' tall shrubs grow in dry exposed areas from sea level up to sub-alpine areas in thickets and borders of woods.
  • Wild strawberries - Look for in clearings and meadows.
Of course, with the good, comes the bad.  Wild berries are a staple diet supplement to the many bears and other wildlife that live here, so be very aware of your surroundings.. and don't be afraid to make some noise during your search to hopefully scare the wildlife away!  There are a few strains of berries that are very poisonous to humans and animals alike, and should be avoided at all costs:
  • Baneberry grows in woods and on hillsides, berries are red or white, opaque, with shiny surface and black dot.
  • Devil's Club - bright red berries.
  • Wild Calla - The plant's flower looks similar to the calla lilly.
  • ANY white berry in Alaska is poisonous!
Sure, most of us know the strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries.  But what of the rest?  How do you tell a crowberry from a nagoonberry from a baneberry?  If you lack the confidence to identify some of the less-known varieties, you have a couple choices.  Most booksellers in the state have some type of berry identification guide available to the public.  Also, some guide services offer part-day hiking trips that go through prime berry-picking locations.  Your innkeeper can point you to businesses and individuals offering guide services in the area.

Member inns of the Bed and Breakfast Association of Alaska welcome you during berry season!  What better way to enjoy Alaska than to take a walk around the area after a great breakfast, gather up some berries of the season, and return to your inn accommodations to enjoy the fruits of your labor!



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... So you've brought berries back with you.  Now what?

Berries are best when eaten the same day they are picked.  You can rinse the berries clean and eat right away, plain, or with some whipped cream or ice cream!  However, if you're feeling creative, you can ask your innkeeper for access to the kitchen - or build yourself a fire either outside or in the fireplace - and try a couple of these easy recipes:

Berry Smoothies/Shakes:  If your innkeeper has a blender, purchase some ice cream and milk, frozen yogurt, or Greek yogurt and blend in the berries.  This is, of course, the most classic use for berries in the United States!
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Berry S'mores
There's nothing like tart/sweet berries with chocolate and sugar - why not add them to a camper's favorite?

Ingredients:
Graham Crackers
Large Marshmallows, toasted over fire or in the broiler
Chocolate Bars
Fresh Berries
  • Build your s'more with a few berries between your marshmallows and chocolate bar!
Recipe inspiration from a Real Simple recipe.


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