We are in the thick of winter. It has been cold and rainy for so many weeks that it seems this season might never end. My mind longingly travels to summer when wild blackberries drip from the vine and strawberries are hunted like treasures under lush leaves. Luckily we have harvested and preserved some of summer’s bounty. It is the fruits of our labor that make this season bearable. Frozen huckleberries, blueberries, raspberries and blackberries are added to our breakfasts and desserts. Salal and thimbleberry fruit leather is a delicious snack. Dried leaves from huckleberries and hawthorn are regular additions to our teas. Elderberry cordial and rosehip syrup help us ward off sickness. Even though it is cold and dark now, we remember the rich experiences of our harvest as we sprinkle berries in our meals.
I think about my ancestors before this time when you can buy any fresh fruit or vegetable you want at the grocery store in winter, and how much energy they put into preserving food. They gathered, dried, canned and then later froze foods to survive. While we can now buy fresh berries throughout the year, there are compelling reasons to harvest and preserve our own wild berries. First, many store bought fruits are transported from far-away countries, which means that they are picked before they are ripe. This makes them inferior to wild or locally picked berries in both flavor and nutritional content. Non-organic strawberries are on the “dirty dozen” list for being very high in pesticides, which are linked with many health risks including cancer. If you grow or wild harvest berries from a clean area, pesticides and other harmful substances are not part of the package. Another compelling reason to wild harvest or grow your own berries is that it costs less. Organic produce is becoming very expensive, while many wild berries are readily available in the Northwest and can even be easily grown in a small yard. In addition, wild berries are consistently much higher in antioxidants and other nutrients than commercially grown berries.
Native elders have often told me that food is medicine. In addition to the cultural and spiritual teachings that wild foods carry, they are some of the most nutrient dense foods available. Berries are loaded with minerals and vitamins. Some berry seeds like salal contain a significant amount of protein and omega fatty acids. In addition, berries are a great source of these compounds:
- Antioxidants – Cells are the tiniest structures in our bodies- the building blocks of life. Molecules called oxidants and free radicals constantly attack them. These can tear cell membranes and damage cell components, leading to poor health or “aging” of cells. Some oxidative damage is a normal part of being alive. Yet, pollution including cigarette smoke and unhealthy food including refined food and fried food exposes us to excessive amounts. This is a contributing factor to developing type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart disease and other chronic diseases. Antioxidants in berries stabilize free radicals, limiting the damage they can do to our bodies. They are said to slow down aging, reduce inflammation and increase immune health. Berries are among the most potent antioxidant foods!
- Flavenoids – These plant pigments give berries their color. They protect the body in many ways including acting as antioxidants, protecting and strengthening blood vessel walls and healing tissue. Scientific research has shown that flavenoids help protect the body from cardiovascular disease, varicose veins, Alzheimer’s disease, cataracts, glaucoma and the side effects of diabetes including diabetic retinopathy, kidney damage and vascular degeneration.
- Vitamin C – This helps our body absorb Iron, heal cuts, and keep teeth and gums healthy. Our bodies do not make Vitamin C, so we need to eat foods that contain it.
- Fiber – Fiber helps to prevent constipation and normalizes gut health. It also lowers cholesterol and reduces the risk of heart disease and some cancers. Most adults only eat half the amount of fiber recommended by the USDA for optimum health.
Huckleberries and Blueberries
While we have many delicious native berries in the Northwest, I consider the huckleberry to be the Queen. There are many species which range from the coast to the high mountains. Huckleberries come in many sizes. Dwarf wartelberry is a mere six inches tall and is covered in tiny red berries that would satisfy a mouse, while the bigger mountain blueberries and huckleberries are large enough for a bear to gorge on and actually get full. Berry colors range from orangish-red to purple to deep blue-black. The difference between huckleberries and blueberries is that huckleberries have a stronger flavor. They are the same genus botanically and have many of the same nutrient and medicinal values.
Huckleberries are one of the most important cultural foods to Native People of the Pacific Northwest and also one of the healthiest. Blueberries and huckleberries do not raise blood sugar and are an important food for pre-diabetics and diabetics. They are high in antioxidants, which help protect the body from the effects of high blood sugar including diabetic retinopathies, kidney damage and poor tissue healing. Recent research studies suggest that blueberries (and huckleberries) also lower cholesterol, slow age-related dementia and reduce tumor formation. They are also excellent for heart health and can ease varicose veins and hemorrhoids.
Huckleberries and blueberries contain arbutin, a plant compound that helps to fight the bacteria that usually causes urinary tract and bladder infections. The berry juice or the leaf tea is used as a preventative and a treatment.
Surprisingly, blueberry and huckleberry leaves are as high in antioxidants as the berries and they can help to lower blood sugar levels. When I worked at the Northwest Indian Treatment Center we saw many people with diabetes lower their blood sugar levels by simply drinking 2-3 cups of a berry leaf tea with huckleberry leaf and rosehips. The leaves can be harvested in spring through summer when they are fully developed and still a vibrant green color. Prune a few branches off each bush, and then hang them in a warm dry place out of the sunlight. When the leaves are fully dry strip them from the branches into a basket, then store them in paper bags or glass jars. Steep 1 heaping tablespoon in a cup of boiled water and drink 2-3 cups a day. The leaves will last about a year.
While most types of huckleberries cannot be cultivated, the evergreen huckleberry is an exception. These handsome bushy shrubs grow to 8 feet tall and have leathery leaves with toothed edges. They prefer partial sun but will also grow in full sun. Delicious small berries are dark blue to black and are ripe in August through November when most other berries have died back. They are sweetest after the first frost. Many nurseries carry evergreen huckleberry and they are common landscaping plants in public spaces. Blueberry bushes are also easy to grow. A variety that is close to huckleberry in antioxidant content and flavor is the Rubel.
If you did not gather your own huckleberries or blueberries, you can buy them frozen in most stores throughout the year. They are relatively inexpensive to buy in bulk at food coops. If possible, buy wild harvested or organic berries. You can add them to hot cereal, sprinkle them on cold cereal, or mix them into dressings, sauces and desserts. Cooking them actually increases their antioxidant content! The recommended daily amount for health benefits is 1/2 cup a day.
Winter will eventually come to a close and I can only hope that this will happen before my berry stores run dry. We savor our berry crisps and smoothies as we recall the days our fingers and mouths turned blue from sweet sun-warmed berries. These are the experiences that make us truly rich.
Additional Posts on Berries for Winter Health
Elderberry is great for building winter immunity
Hawthorn leaf, flower and berry is a wonderful tonic for general health
Salal leaf is a nice remedy for sore throats
General post on Northwest wild berries
- Derig, E. and Fuller, M. (2001). Wild Berries of the West. Missoula: Mountain Press.
- Diamond, S. (2004). Natures Best Heart Medicine. Burnaby BC: Alive Books
- Krohn, E. (2007). Wild Rose and Western Red Cedar. Washington, Arundel Books.
- Moore, M. (1993). Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Santa Fe: Red Crane Books.
- Robinson, J. (2013). Eating on the Wild Side. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
- Turner, N. (1995). Food Plants of Coastal Northwest Peoples. Vancouver: UBC Press