Native berries hold value as alternative crops
Updated: Thursday, April 25, 2013 11:42 AM
By STEVE BROWN
SHELTON, Wash. -- Native Americans look at the forest as a refrigerator and a medicine chest.
Jim Freed, a special forest products expert with Washington State University Extension, spoke March 18 about alternative berry crops that can diversify the landscape and lead to income opportunities.
From bearberries to thimbleberries, native varieties often thrive in riparian zones, bogs and other moist settings, and most germinate under cool conditions. Some may have the reputation of being poisonous, he said, but they can be consumed in moderation or with drying or cooking.
Freed learned about berries from Native Americans who have been growing the crops.
Growing most varieties is fairly simple, he said. Many thrive in marginal soil and can double as ground cover or hedgerows.
Native Americans often controlled weeds, trees and overgrown plants with fire, "the best herbicide there is," Freed said, though modern neighbors might question the practice.
Perhaps the best-known native berry is the bearberry, also known as kinnikinick. Native people and early explorers and settlers in the Northwest mixed the berry with nuts and animal fat to make pemmican, "the original high-protein bar." Freed suggested the berry be used as a flavoring in fresh salad or to spice up an apple pie.
Other modern uses of heritage berries include nutrition, medicine and cooking.
Black huckleberries, like many berries, are high in vitamin C. They are sweeter than the red varieties, but "they are not great until they're frosted." Also, as with other fruit, berries are sweeter when they get more exposure to sunlight and good airflow.
Many berries will store well when dried, but when Indian plums and golden currants are ripe, "You have to be pretty darn quick to be ahead of the birds," he said.
Blackberries, blueberries and strawberries are commonly grown crops whose benefits have been rediscovered fairly recently. In vacciniums like blueberries, cranberries and huckleberries, the antioxidants in the skin help macular blood vessels relax and improve diabetics' circulation. The berries also are a natural mild antibiotic and diuretic.
Freed said some berries may interact with medications to control cholesterol and blood pressure, and he suggested a pharmacist be consulted.
Chokecherries, valued for their medicinal properties, should be cooked to improve their taste, Freed said, and he warned that raw or undried seeds contain amygdalin, which breaks down into cyanide, which replaces oxygen in the brain.
Elderberries, which also should be cooked to vaporize their alkaloids, are used to make liquor and as coloring for blueberry juice, which is clear. "Americans won't drink blueberry juice unless it's blue," he said.
Oregon grapes, hawthorns, currants and Pacific crabapples are popular for their high pectin levels. The crabapple tree tolerates standing water, which makes it a suitable rootstock for a domestic apple once it's established.
The workshop at the Mason County Public Works Building was the first session on berries that Freed has offered. He said he plans to develop more sessions on growing and marketing native berries.