With nearly fifty species of wild berries that grow throughout Alaska, it is no surprise that Alaska’s indigenous peoples have long been aware of the value of this powerful resource. For centuries, harvesting berries has been a part of Alaskan culture, and while you may only venture out to collect a few handfuls of berries during your visit to the Kenai Peninsula, you are in for a treat.
(Photo inset is of a handcrafted basket made by an Alaska Native. You can tell it is authentic by the "silver hands" tag that is attached. Baskets are still used today to collect berries across the state, although this type of container is a storage container. Berry baskets are shaped differently. If you are looking to purchase some memorable treasures of your trip to Alaska, well crafted baskets like these are an excellent choice - just be sure to make sure it carries the silver hand tag!)
There are many berries that are nutritious additions to any menu, and some species that should be avoided as they are not simply just considered inedible, they are actually quite poisonous. Many local gift shops and galleries carry full color field books that should be referenced if you are uncertain.
Berries are also an important food resource for the bears that call the Kenai Peninsula home. Beware! Not only should you leave a bear undisturbed if you find one in a berry patch, it is also considered poor etiquette to intrude on other humans who have arrived to the area before you.
Among the edible berries that grow on the Kenai Peninsula, following are the most common and safest bets. It is never advisable to harvest any berries in close proximity to the road right of way. Soot, exhaust and other pollutants are likely to settle on the plants and berries. The short walk into the woods is worth the effort.
Blueberry — One of the most popular of berries, the foliage on these plants offers a visual treat throughout the seasons. Pink blossoms in spring, followed by dark bluish purple berries on foliage that turns a crimson shade in late fall. Varieties include a dwarf alpine plant and huckleberries. Bushes favor woodland clearings, logged and burned tracts. They peak in late August and early September. Generally the higher elevations produce sweeter berries.
Salmonberry — These are a close cousin the recognizable raspberry, with fruit that matures into shades of yellow and red. The berries first to ripen early in August, they grow on open slopes and roadsides. Thickets of these often provide tangled obstacles for adventurous trekkers, with prickly twigs that grow to 7 feet.
Trailing Raspberry — This creeping or trailing plant is found on the forest floor and produce just one fruit per inch-high plant. The leaves have five parts and the red fruit have few lobes. They are tasty but hard to pick.
Nagoonberry — Also called dewberry and wineberry, this dainty member of the rose family favors forest clearings with acidic soil. Leaves have three parts. Its single fruit differs from the trailing raspberry in having many lobes and a deep garnet color. These plants flower in June with a bright fushia colored bloom, and are all around the cabins at Aspen Hollow.
Cloudberry — These plants only get several inches tall and grow singly in bogs. They produce single tasty berries resembling peach-colored raspberries. This berry is also called Baked Apple Berry by some.
Watermelon Berry — Also called twisted stalk, this annual forest herb produces oblong berries hung on single stalks beneath the narrow leaves. When ripe, they are orange-red to deep purple. Although these are seldom found in any quantity, many hikers will down a handful of these while walking to satisfy thirst. In the springtime, the tender shoots can be eaten raw in salads.
Northern Red Currant — These wild relatives of the gooseberry bush can be found from low meadows to timber line, and favor streams and thickets. The round berries grow in drooping clusters under the foliage, and are sought after for jam and jelly.
Crowberry — Common in bogs and alpine meadows, the little round black berries grow on trailing evergreen shrubs. The taste is mediocre. This berry is also called Black Berry or Mossberry. You will see these in the woods around Aspen Hollow. The foliage on the plants is similar looking to a sprig of rosemary. The cover the mossy tussocks in between the spruce trees.
High bush cranberry — They make the forest bushes smell like old shoes and the seedy, round, red fruit puckers your lips. But if picked after the first frost and sweetened, they are tasty and rich in vitamin C. There are a member of the honeysuckle family. The coarsely toothed leaves are shaped similar to maple leaves.
Low bush cranberry — Also called lingonberry, this common little plant of forests and tundra has handsome glossy leaves. The tart fruit is popular for cooking. These acidic fruit often persist through the winter, and are a favorite to spruce grouse. These are prevalent around the cabins at Aspen Hollow. The delicate pink flowers that bloom in early June look like tiny bells.
True cranberry — So tiny they often are overlooked, they grow in bogs on thread-like stems and are barely 1/3 of an inch across. They are sweetest after the first frost.
Some of the other berries around Aspen Hollow Lodging that bloom in early summer include the dwarf dogwood. The forest floor appears to be a carpet of white in places where these plants grow.