By: Bob Brett
Date: July 27, 2001
If you’ve been out in the woods lately, your hands and mouth are probably already stained from berry picking. The wild strawberries and raspberries, if you can find them far enough away from BC Rail’s spray zone, pack a powerful wallop of taste and are a welcome respite from the blandness of the plumped-up, Pamela Anderson-esque, commercial berries from California. Bigger is not always better.
Of all the wild fruit, berries which are blue (and sometimes black or red) are my favourite. Note I didn’t write “blueberry” since what I call a blueberry might be what you call a huckleberry or bilberry. But no matter what you call them, these berries are all members of the same genus, Vaccinium.
We have four main (that is, big enough to get a quick mouthful) Vaccinium species in Whistler Valley. All appear on medium-sized shrubs, usually on drier, forested sites. Red huckleberries (V. parvifolium) are easy to spot – they’re red after all – and often grow on the stumps of old trees. The other three main species have berries with differing shades of blue and black.
For my money – which I’m not offering since the berries are free – the best is black huckleberry (V. membranaceum). Its berries are shiny black, and the juiciest and sweetest of the bunch. The leaves are distinctively sharp-pointed and covered in fine teeth.
The other two species look so similar that some botanists (who obviously don’t have taste buds) lump them together. Both have rounder, less-toothed, and usually smaller leaves than black huckleberry. If your berry has a slightly musky, not terribly pleasant flavour, you’ve probably found Alaskan blueberry (V. alaskaense). The berries are usually dark blue, though not as dark or shiny as black huckleberry. If your berry is tasty (sometimes tart) and has a whitish coating, you’re probably munching on oval-leaved blueberry (V. ovalifolium).
Berries ripen first in the valley bottom, but the smart picker moves upslope later in the season. For example, black huckleberries near treeline ripen as late as August or September.
Even higher on the mountain, check low on the ground for dwarfed but delicious varieties of Vaccinium. Our main alpine species, dwarf blueberry (V. caespitosum), is often only 20 centimetres tall. Another dwarf alpine species (less common in our area) is blue-leaved blueberry. Now the botanist who named this species Vaccinium deliciosum obviously had taste buds. These alpine berries may be small, but they are sweeeet!
Remember that proper research is the price you have to pay for good berry picking. It’s essential to check many bushes since taste varies greatly. It’s tough work but few are likely to complain, even the youngest in your party. We recently tested this theory out on an 18-month old boy who happily cruised a patch of shrubs dripping with berries. The verdict? Way more fun (and way messier) than eating out of a bowl.
One final culinary tip. You probably already know bears love Vaccinium berries – you need only check near a ripe berry patch for proof. If it looks like blueberry compôte – whole berries and all – but is lying on the ground, assume it was left by a bear rather than Chef Bernard. If it’s still warm, consider moving to another berry patch. After all, there’s lots to share.