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Wild Berries of Alaska

wild berries of Alaska

This has been my first summer in Alaska, and let me tell you, there is nothing like it. Having spent most of my life in Southern California, summers are typically scorchingly hot, dry, and brown. Everything is brown.

Here? Everything is green, green, green (and you’d hope so with the amount of rain we get, even in this “dry” summer). At solstice, the days were 18 hours long, so everything grows very fast. That explains why Alaska lays claim to the largest cabbage ever grown (138.25 lbs).

(I’m not lying about giant cabbages, check out the one I got at the farmers’ market!)

When I’m not working, I’m hiking. And that means access to loads of wild berries.

Berries are literally everywhere.

Being the plant nerd that I am, I bought a book of wild Alaskan plants before we came up here, so I could study the local flora. (I’ve since acquired 2 more wild plant and berry books! I swear I’m not hoarding them.) I wanted to know what I could gather (without poisoning myself), so I could source as much food as possible locally. As you might know, food has a very long trip to get here, so depending on weather, planes, barges, etc, sometimes fresh produce just isn’t all that fresh.

Wild plants give you an advantage, You harvest only what looks good, only what you need or can store for later, and you know it’s organically grown! With a short growing season, you want to stock up when things are in season, so my freezer is full of berries, and my pantry is stocked with jam to carry me through the winter.

I’ve had so many requests to hear about life in the far north, so here’s a little glimpse into the Alaskan berry world before the season is over.

Wild Berries of Alaska

Salmonberry

Salmonberries Alaksa

Salmonberries are, without a doubt, the most abundant. They grow on roadsides, hiking trails, back yards; everywhere. They’re like oversized raspberries, ranging in color from a salmon pink-ish orange to a deep raspberry maroon. Unlike raspberries, they are shiny on the outside, not powdery. Their flavor is well, kind of bland, but since they grow everywhere and easy to pick, you stop and eat them anyways (or if you’re thinking ahead, gather for making into jam).

Blueberry

low bush blueberries Alaska

Then you have blueberries. According to my berry books, there are at least half a dozen varieties of blueberries up here. I’ve found 2 types so far, the “early blueberry” and the “dwarf blueberry”. The former grows in wooded forests in waist-high (or taller) bushes, pictured in the title image of this post. They’re small and less sweet than the ones from a grocery store, but they are damn good. The latter grows on mountain tops (pictured above) and if you’re not careful, you’ll step right on them! The “bushes” are literally a few inches off the ground, like a carpet. Blueberry picking is so fun, I have to remind myself to look up and check for bears occasionally. Luckily, at least during this time of year, bears are more interested in salmon.

Crowberry

crowberries Alaska

Let’s not forget crowberries. Crowberries are another alpine berry and grow much like the dwarf blueberry, close to the ground like a mat. When I first came across these, I couldn’t remember if they were edible or not. Not wanting to re-make a scene from Into The Wild, I opted to pass on these, but after I consulted my berry book, I realized they were totally edible. Well, they aren’t exactly the tastiest of berries, being fairly dry and bitter, but when cooked into a jam, they are fantastic. According to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, crowberries are significantly higher in antioxidants than blueberries (their ORAC score, a measure of antioxidant content, is off the charts; more than double what’s considered “high antioxidant”). In fact, one study found crowberries to be the highest in antioxidants compared to 9 other wild berries. This, my friends will be the new superfood, easily replacing acai and maqui. And you can tell these are loaded with goodness, since even a few will turn your tongue dark purple.

Watermelon Berry

watermelon berries Alaska

Perhaps my favorite find so far are watermelon berries! Unlike some other berries, these are a rare find. On one hike I came across 2 plants that were covered with berries and finally got to sample this treat. They are like small grapes in that they have a skin surrounding juicy flesh with a few seeds on the inside. But these gems taste eerily similar to watermelon. I’ve only had about 10 of these, but I savored each one!

Russian Berry

Russian berry Alaska

None of my berry books talk about these, but a friend who’s lived in Alaska for much longer than me pointed some out on a hike with an excited “Look! Russian berries!”. These grow right alongside salmon berries and taste pretty similar, although they are smaller and a pale orange color when ripe. My only guess is that they are indeed a hybrid, as some people call them orange salmonberries. From the ones I’ve tried, Russian berries are sweeter and less bitter than salmonberries. They are a treat to find!

There are many more berries on my list to try, including a few varieties of cranberries. It’s a matter of being in the right place (or on the right hike) at the right time, like this mountain top, which was covered in crowberries and low bush blueberries:

Alaska low bush berries

I’ve only shared about the berries that I’ve personally come across and collected, so if you’re an Alaska berry buff and I left your favorite berry off the list, tell me about it in the comments below.

Never been here and wish you could try some of these wild berries of Alaska? Tell me about which ones most intrigue you!

Until next week,

Lily

PS – Wish you could see more photos like these? Like my page on Facebook and you’ll be the first to know when I come across another awesome wild berry!

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Category: Nutrition Basics, Uncategorized
{ 27 comments… add one }
  • Kara Sorensen August 19, 2014, 11:03 am

    Hi Lily,

    I’m so glad you posted this! I just got back from Alaska and while I was south of you, I was amazed by all the wild berries. I of course did not eat them as I didn’t know if they were safe, but I love that you have been exploring and I can live vicariously through you.

    Alaska is so profoundly beautiful and I’m already trying to figure out how to make the trip back to explore more. Seeing local Salmon spawning was amazing too.

    Thanks,

    Kara

    • Lily August 19, 2014, 4:50 pm

      I bet your trip was amazing, Kara! It’s so beautiful in this vast, wild state.

      Yeah, I studied my berry books or friends familiar with the plants give a thumbs up before I nibbled on these. Some tasty looking berries are poisonous!

  • Erika August 19, 2014, 2:08 pm

    You’re livin’ the dream, Lily! And it’s sweet. Thank you for sharing about these natural gems.

    • Lily August 19, 2014, 4:51 pm

      Being surrounded in a forest of berries certainly feels like a dream, Erika!

  • Sara August 19, 2014, 4:46 pm

    So amazing!! I would have never known these berries existed. Thanks for the post!!

    • Lily August 19, 2014, 4:52 pm

      Same here, Sara. I’ve been having fun learning about all the wild edibles. 🙂

  • Silvia August 19, 2014, 6:29 pm

    Lily,
    I so enjoyed this post. It brought back memories of when I was a little girl and spending summers at my aunt’s farm in upstate NY and we’d go berry picking. Your post brought that all back and it seemed like yesterday instead of decades.

    Did you just move to Alaska? I’m envious…in a good way. I’ll be following you more closely because I’m fascinated!

  • Lana Shlafer August 20, 2014, 9:50 am

    Of course Russian berries are my favorite (I am Russian, after all) and they are actually found in Russia! I grew up picking wild berries in Siberia and nothing tastes better than these natural deserts straight from the bush! Thanks for sharing and making me salivate and the fridge for berries, Lily! 🙂

    • Lily August 20, 2014, 12:17 pm

      Oh wow, so the name is accurate! Thanks for sharing, Lana! Russian berries are so yummy. 🙂

  • Cassie August 4, 2015, 3:43 pm

    These literally look like fruits from a fairy tale! So pretty! I wonder if I can find them in California, but probably not!

    • Lily August 4, 2015, 5:51 pm

      Probably only in the form of jam or jelly, since they don’t travel well. Wild berries are a good reason to visit Alaska in the summer. 🙂

  • Joan August 5, 2015, 6:53 pm

    How about giving us the Latin names? Some of us are even nerdier than you about plants.

    • Lily August 5, 2015, 9:04 pm

      Hi Joan,
      I suggest these two books to really nerd out:
      1) Discovering Wild Plants by Schofield (the ultimate encyclopedia of wild plants in Alaska)
      2) Alaska’s Wild Berries by Pratt (a small field guide, but more complete in terms of berries than the above book)

  • Jody March 9, 2016, 9:48 am

    Your Russian berries look very similar to a berry called Cloudberry or Baked Apple – which tend to grow in a wetter area

    • Lily March 9, 2016, 12:31 pm

      Yeah, I occasionally have come across cloudberries as well. Different from Russian berries for sure. Both are very tasty! 🙂

  • Vicki Altes May 14, 2016, 4:04 pm

    The Russian berry and Salmon berrys grow all over Oregon and Washington and all along the coast of Cali although most Salmon berries in Oregon don’t usually get the dark Rasberry color they are Salmon colored hince its name and the orange color. Also u did not mention they r hallow! There r so many berrys in Oregon I don’t know what they are called I did run across your watermelon berries , quite alot of them but did not know what they were. Next time I will know. There r blue huckleberries also red ones , yellow ones berries that look like tear drops in purple and red something called bunch berries, U do not need to go all the way to Alaska for all these soo many wild berries!

    • Lily May 27, 2016, 11:20 am

      Yeah, some of the wild Alaskan berries can be found at lower latitudes! Enjoy ’em, Vicki! 🙂

  • Anonymous November 30, 2016, 7:44 pm

    the russian berry is a clowd berry

    • Lily December 1, 2016, 11:12 am

      It looks like a cloudberry, but it is different. Cloudberry bushes grow in entirely different areas and the berries are solid, much like a blackberry.

      Russian berries/salmonberries grow on large bushes in sunny or semi-sunny areas. They are hollow, like raspberries.

    • CheyAnn March 23, 2017, 3:03 pm

      Cloudberries are a completely different plant than a salmon berry. Different family, different name. The even grow differently. Many people here in Alaska use the term “salmon berry” for both but they are indeed different.
      Alaskan native, Alaska born and raised. I know my berries…

  • Megan McAndrew May 27, 2017, 12:37 pm

    Hi,
    I found a berry growing on the ground with a very thin, dry stem. These look like smallish cranberries except they are luminous like red seedless grapes. They taste like a mild cranberry and have a rather more gelatinous/liquid juicy inside with tiny almost imperceptible seeds. Are you familiar with this berry?

    • Lily May 27, 2017, 5:52 pm

      Sounds like a bog cranberry.

  • Hannah M July 24, 2017, 11:41 pm

    We live in Alaska and have wild watermelon berries that grow on our property. We haven’t lived here long enough to enjoy all the berries but now that I know these are safe, I will be picking them!

    • Lily August 8, 2017, 11:20 am

      Highly recommend the book: Alaska’s Wild Berries to ensure you’re IDing the berries properly! If you’re near Anchorage, check Title Wave bookstore. Happy foraging. 😉

  • nathan August 11, 2017, 1:09 pm

    IF you want more watermelon berries come to valdez not a rareity can pick blue berries and salmon berries as well

  • Abby July 11, 2018, 11:52 pm

    You seem to have gotten quite a few people interested in watermelon berries – which I also love while hiking due to their hydrating effect! It might be important to mention that the watermelon berry plant looks a lot like “twisted stalk” which is poisonous. So it is very important to read those books and know your berries and plants before collecting and eating wild plants. Just some friendly advice 🙂

    • Lily July 20, 2018, 11:43 am

      Yes, ALWAYS consult a plant book or local wild plant expert (maybe both) before eating any wild plants.

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