By Jenny Neyman
Thirty-four people combed the forest floor Monday afternoon, eyes peeled, attention piqued, senses alert. Their quarry was stationary and abundant but the hunt still held challenges. Not so much in the finding, but in telling one specimen from the wide variety of others.
“What’s this?” “Here’s some red ones!” “Are these any good?”
Variations of those comments formed a background of chatter for the hour-and-a-half walk on Tsalteshi Trails, ebbing and flowing like waves on a shoreline, quieting as the hunters became engrossed in their task and crescendoing when someone found something new, exciting and hopefully delicious — or at least safely edible.
“Alaska is blessed with many varieties of berries that are good to eat and very few that are bad for you,” said Janice Chumley, integrated pest management technician for the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service office in Soldotna.
Chumley served as guide for the berry walk, one of a slate of talks, workshops and other activities offered as part of Harvest Moon Local Food Festival. The 26 adults and eight kids who participated Monday did so to expand their knowledge of local edibles, or start to build it from scratch.
“I’m a Native from Arizona and I relocated here and I was very active in my community, which is the Sonoran desert, because our survival in all the hundreds of years depended on that we knew — the plants and the system and what we could eat and what we couldn’t — and so I’m going to do that here in my new home,” said Elizabeth Spinasanto.
She was looking forward to harvesting berries to use in healthy breakfasts — smoothies or with homemade yogurt, which she had learned about in a previous Harvest Moon workshop.
“I’m taking the fermentation class, as well. I have not missed any of the classes. I’m kind of excited about it,” she said.
Prior to the walk in the woods, the group met at the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank for a quick course on berry processing with Linda Tannehill, health, home and family agent with the Cooperative Extension Service. Processing doesn’t need to be time-intensive, she said. Berries are usually good to eat straight off the plant — the key word being “usually.”
“You don’t have to wash them depending on where you pick,” she said. “But if it’s a place where there is a lot of dogs or traffic, you might want to rinse them off.”
Pick as cleanly as possible to save work later, but removing detrius from most berries is generally a simple affair. Some people pour their harvest from one bowl to another on a windy day or in front of a fan to blow off any leaves, stems and other debris. Tannehill prefers more control in her cleaning method. She rubber-bands a terrycloth towel onto a cutting board, rolling the edges to form a channel down the middle of board, then holds the board at an incline and pours the berries down it and into a baking pan with raised edges. The knap of the towel grabs the litter while the berries roll down into the pan — and hopefully no farther.
“I have to have bumpers,” she said. “I’ve chased blueberries across the floor and my dogs get there first. And so I’ve learned to put bumpers on my towel here.”
Sometimes berries contain insects. They aren’t harmful, but soaking firm berries in a solution of salt water can draw out any creatures that might be lurking inside.
“If you’re grossed out by bugs then maybe you want to soak them. It’s all your own comfort level,” Chumley said.
Frozen berries keep for a few years, especially when vacuum-packed in a good-quality bag with a good seal. But freeze the berries first to avoid a squished mess, spreading them in a baking pan and putting them in the freezer for a few hours.
“Do not try to vacuum-package berries unfrozen. There’s no problem if they’re frozen. It’s a big problem if they’re not frozen,” Tannehill said.
With knowledge of how to process berries, it was time to learn to find berries. The walk resulted in many tasty finds — low-bush blueberry plants (which were, sadly, bare of fruit), dark blue crowberries growing on ground-cover stalks that look like miniature pine trees, and both low-bush and high-bush “cranberries.”
“I’ll be honest with you guys, there are no cranberries here. We call them high-bush and low-bush (cranberries),” she said.
“Lingonberries?” one of the hikers guessed.
“Lingonberries, yes ma’am,” Chumley confirmed.
One of the most exciting finds is one of the most easily recognizable.
“Look at you!” Chumley said, congratulating the triumphant yelp of success. “She says, ‘I found them,’ and look there — raspberries.”
Once berries can be picked out from the foliage, what to pick is a matter of personal preference. Some people find watermelon berries too seedy, some don’t like the pungent odor of lingonberries, others don’t like the tartness of crowberries or find blueberries a little too sweet.
“I tell you what, those taste good, but once you get a second taste, they’re sour,” averred another.
Knowing what not to pick is as important as knowing what to pick. There are a couple of varieties on the Kenai Peninsula that are good to avoid.
“This is such a lovely phrase — edible yet insipid. You can pick them, they won’t hurt you any, they don’t taste very good, though,” Chumley said.
Dogwood berries are one of those. The plant is prolific on the peninsula, especially as ground cover in sunny areas of forest. The red berries that grow in clumps the middle of the star-shaped cluster of leaves are eye-catching and often grow in patches with other ground-cover berries, like crowberries and low-bush lingonberries and blueberries.
Timberberries are another edible-but-insipid variety. The orange berries grow on a stalk that stands a couple of inches off the ground.
Casey Matney, the new agriculture/horticulture agent for the Cooperative Extension Service in Soldotna, felt the need to test the timberberry’s insipid nature.
“Yeah, it’s pretty bad,” he announced.
“Yeah, did you try one?” Chumley asked. “Did you like it?”
“Yeah, I tried one. No, I didn’t like it at all. It’s a cross between a berry and a little bit of, like, Pine Sol,” he said.
And then there’s the actually poisonous — the baneberry.
“The name really says all. Ugh, bane, the bane of my existence,” Chumley said. “It’s an incredibly attractive plant. They’re also incredibly poisonous and they grow with great profusion on the Kenai Peninsula.”
They grow in mixed forest areas, as do many sought-after berries, such as raspberries, watermelon berries, currants and lingonberries.
The berries are firm, grow in clumps and can be a vivid red or white with dark spots.
“The poisonous ones grow on a big bush and the actual stalk comes up, one single stalk with a cluster of berries on top of it. The leaves are very feathery and it’s a pretty good-sized plant, and the berries are held up on a stem,” Chumley said.
There are several good berry-identification books and pocket guides available to purchase locally or check out from area libraries, and the Cooperative Extension Service offers a wealth of resources, as well.
Chumley advised the berry hunters that they grow their knowledge over time, getting a handle on a few favorite berries first, learning where they grow and when they ripen.
“Berry plants grow everywhere, on the beach, in the woods, in alpine conditions, in wet areas — it’s just about what grows where and how to know what it is,” she said.
“Instead of trying to learn everything that’s out there the first year that you go, perhaps it’s a good idea to learn two plants a year so you are confident and comfortable in the identification of those two plants, and add to that every year.”
For more information on Harvest Moon Local Food Week activities, visit www.kenailocalfood.org.
To access Cooperative Extension Service resources, visit www.uaf.edu/ces/districts/kenai/ or stop by the office on Kalifornsky Beach Road.