One of the delights of autumn, in addition to the leaves on the deciduous trees and shrubs turning color, is the abundance of bright berries. Like their earlier counterparts, mountain wildflowers, berries on mountain trees and shrubs come in bright colors, tickling not only our eyes but the mouths of the birds, deer, elk and bear who rely upon them as winter approaches.
Here are a few berries I’m seeing now while walking or running in the forest with my dogs.
[Note: The information included here about snowberries, Mountain Ash berries, and blue elderberries is provided by Native Plants PNW and author Dana Kelly Bressette, M.S. Information about rose hips comes from my own research and is a republication of an article I wrote a year ago. Photos are mine unless otherwise noted.]
Snowberries, also known as waxberry and ghostberry, belong to the honeysuckle family.
Distribution: Common snowberry is found from southeast Alaska to southern California; all across the northern United States and the Canadian provinces.
Habitat: It is found in in dry to moist open forests, clearings, and rocky slopes. It is very adaptable to different conditions. Common Snowberry has long been grown as an ornamental shrub.
Use by People: Snowberries are high in saponins, which are poorly absorbed by the body. Although they are largely considered poisonous (given names like “corpse berry” or “snake’s berry”), some tribes ate them fresh or dried them for later consumption. The berries were used as a shampoo to clean hair. Crushed berries were also rubbed on the skin to treat burns, warts, rashes and sores; and rubbed in armpits as an antiperspirant. Various parts were infused and used as an eyewash for sore eyes. A tea made from the roots was used for stomach disorders; a tea made from the twigs was used for fevers. Branches were tied together to make brooms. Bird arrows were also made from the stems.
Use by Wildlife: Saponins are much more toxic to some animals, such as fish; hunting tribes sometimes put large quantities of snowberries in streams or lakes to stupefy or kill fish. …Common snowberry is an important browse for deer, antelope, and bighorn sheep; use by elk and moose varies. The berries are an important food for grouse, grosbeaks, robins and thrushes. Bears also eat the fruit. The shrub provides good cover and nesting sites for game birds, rabbits, and other small animals. Pocket gophers burrow underneath it. The pink flowers attract hummingbirds, but are mostly pollinated by bees. The leaves are eaten by the Sphinx Moth larvae.
Mountain Ash – sorbus scopulina; belongs to the rose family—Rosaceae.
Names: Mountain Ashes are also known as Rowans, Whitebeams, and Service trees. True ashes belong to the unrelated genus, Fraxinus. The word rowan is thought to be from a Norse word for tree, or a Germanic word meaning “getting red,” referring to its fall foliage color and berries. Rowans were important trees in celtic mythology; the wood was used for Druid’s staffs, magic wands and dowsing rods. Scopulina means “of rocky places.” This species is also known as Rocky Mountain, Cascade, or Greene’s Mountain Ash, named after botanist Edward Lee Greene.
Growth: Western Mountain Ash grows 3-15 feet (1-5m).
Habitat: It grows on rocky hillsides, open woods, and along streams; usually in small clumps.
In the landscape: Our shrubby Mountain Ashes are most spectacular growing in clumps on hillsides. It is attractive when in bloom, but fall is its best season, with its yellow to peachy fall foliage and scarlet berries.
Use by Natives: Natives rarely ate these berries, but today they are sometimes used in pies, preserves, or wine-making. The fruit is sweeter after a frost. If eaten raw, they should be bletted, a process where they are kept in a cool, dry place and allowed to begin decaying or fermenting, similar to pears.
Use by Wildlife: The fruits, eaten by grouse, grosbeaks, cedar waxwings and Douglas squirrels, are valuable to wildlife due to the fact that the fruit persists on the plant through the winter. Moose, deer and elk browse the twigs and foliage. Flowers are pollinated by insects.
The berries are gone, but the leaves in autumn…such brilliant reds!
If you missed it, here’s an earlier post I wrote about finding huckleberries (and blackberries) in the forest.
Blue elderberries Sambucus nigra L. subspecies cerulea; Caprifoliaceae – the Honeysuckle family (newer classification Adoxaceae – the Moschatel family).
Names: The name Sambucus is derived from the Greek sambuca, which was a stringed instrument supposed to have been made from elder wood. Nigra means black; caerulea means sky-blue. It is thought the name elder comes the Anglo-saxon “auld,” “aeld” or “eller,” meaning fire, because the hollow stems were used as bellows to blow air into the center of a fire.
Growth: Sometimes tree-like, Blue Elderberry grows 6-12 feet (2-4m).
Habitat: It is generally found in drier open forests, edges, and slopes; often along roadsides.
Diagnostic Characters: …Small, creamy white flowers are borne in flat-topped clusters. Berries are bluish-black, with a waxy bloom, making them appear powdery blue. Twigs are soft and pithy.
Use by People: Elder trees were important in Celtic folklore and mythology; they were considered sacred to fairies and were used for making wands. The “Elder Wand” was one of the “Deathly Hallows” in the Harry Potter book series. In Europe, elderflowers are widely used to make syrups, cordials and liqueurs. The pith was used by watchmakers for cleaning tools before intricate work. The fruit, on both continents, is often used for wine, jellies, candy, pies, and sauces. Northwest natives ate the berries fresh, dried, steamed, or boiled. Raw berries, especially if they are not fully ripe, may cause some people to experience an upset stomach. The bark and leaves were used to induce vomiting and as a laxative; externally applied, they were used for pain, bruises, swelling, and as an antiseptic. The flowers were made into a tea to treat cold and flu symptoms. The berries were used to make a black or purple dye; the stems to make an orange or yellow dye. Hollow twigs were used for flutes, whistles, pipes, blowguns and squirt guns; whistles were used to call elk. The soft wood was used as a twirling stick to make fire.
Use by Wildlife: Blue Elderberry is an extremely valuable shrub for wildlife. It provides valuable cover and nesting sites for birds and small mammals. Its fruit provides food for many species of birds including: jays, woodpeckers, pigeons, grosbeaks, robins, thrushes, bluebirds, towhees, tanagers, and many others. Squirrels and other small mammals also eat the fruit. Flowers are mostly pollinated by insects but hummingbirds will visit the flowers for nectar. Elk and deer browse the foliage.
Rose hips – fruit of rosa canina, also known as dog rose or wild rose; rose family, Rosaceae
Wild roses can be found growing many places across the West, including in the Payette National Forest. Rosa Canina L. – also known as dog rose, dog briar and common briar – is actually an invasive plant in the US, its origins being in Eurasia and having escaped after being imported for landscaping. The dog rose flowers in June and July, producing a lovely scent (think Oil of Olay, or some laundry drier sheets) and this time of year – September and October – it produces its fruit, known as rose hips. They’re grape-sized, smooth and red.
Over the years most of my dogs have foraged huckleberries in the forest, finding and picking their own. But two years ago, when my young Alaskan Malamute found some rose hips and started plucking them from the vine to eat, I wasn’t sure if they were healthy or toxic. Doing some research, I discovered that rose hips are fine for dogs and people, that in fact they may have many health benefits. Now when my dogs and I are out in the forest in autumn and come across rose hips, I encourage them to eat a few.
For verification, I checked with our local shelter veterinarian, Nancy Basinger. “My veterinary sources say the rose hips are safe and a good source of Vitamin C as well as many other undefined bioactive compounds,” she replied. “There are now rose hip products being marketed as anti-inflammatories. Only downside might be GI upset or diarrhea if the dog ate a large amount.”
Indeed, it’s believed there are similar health benefits for humans. From the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service website:
Ethnobotanical: Dog rose has multiple medical uses dating back to Hippocrates in ancient Greek times. It was used in prescriptions, but its precise use is unknown. Pliny, the Roman naturalist, attributed the plant’s name to a belief that the root could cure the bite of a mad dog. During World War II, Britain was unable to import citrus fruits so the government encouraged the gathering of dog rose hips as a source of vitamin C. Rose hip extracts are currently used in traditional European folk medicine as a diuretic, laxative, for kidney and lower urinary tract disorders, arthritis, gout, fever, colds and for vitamin C deficiency. Research has proven several compounds in extracts in the hips of dog rose have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
A friend from Sweden – Per-Ola Selander – suggested I make rose hip soup, something many Swedes enjoy as a dessert, perhaps with cream, ice cream or almond cookies, or as a drink, hot or cold. He noted that today most Swedes make it from a powder, but here’s a recipe for making your own rose hip soup (Nyponsoppa).
Of course, before eating rose hips yourself – fresh, or dried as a supplement – or giving them to your dog, do your research and talk with your own health care provider and veterinarian. It’s possible there could be side effects or adverse interactions. For more information, here are two resources, one for humans and one for canines.
Last year, after my dogs ate several rose hips, I picked some and brought them home, thinking I’d add them to their morning meal since they liked eating them in the forest. That didn’t go over so well. Both dogs chewed their breakfast rose hip a time or two, then spit it out beside their bowl. Apparently, they only like rose hips in their most-fresh form!
Featured photo: elderberries on a tree alongside my driveway.