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Wednesday, July 9, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wild, wonderful Northwest berries

Seattle Times staff reporter

We still talk about it — the hike that turned into a feast.

Stumbling onto a delicious surprise, three friends and I found ourselves amid a banquet of wild berries more abundant and varied than any of us had ever seen in one place — in this case, a forest trail just outside Mount Rainier National Park on a summer day.

Surrounded by sweet blue huckleberries, tart-sweet red huckleberries, salmon berries and, in a sunny clearing, tiny wild strawberries and prized native blackberries, we did the only sensible thing: We grazed through the greenery, devouring wild fruit.

Finding so rich a trove of wild berry varieties growing so near each other was a stroke of rare good luck. Yet anyone who ventures to the forests, mountain meadows, roadsides or even the beaches of Western Washington in summer can find some of these delectable delights.

The trick lies in knowing where to look and what you're looking for — the latter being vital, since it's potentially dangerous to eat any berry you can't identify with certainty. If you're inexperienced, go with an expert or carry an authoritative plant-identification guide.

A few edible wild berries — beach strawberries and red huckleberries, for instance — have already ripened or are ripening now, but most come in mid- to-late summer. The exact timing is never certain, and depends on weather, elevation and other conditions.

Today, we offer a preview of coming wild-berry attractions. Your job: Get your picking pail ready.

"There are many more (edible) berries out there than most people realize. There's tremendous diversity," says Arthur Lee Jacobson, a local authority, author and consultant on plants, including berries, both domestic and wild.

Jacobson recalls one particularly memorable hike he took: "Without leaving the trail, I ate 17 kinds of berries."

Common edible varieties in Western Washington, besides those mentioned on the cover, include salal berry, Oregon grape, thimbleberry and bog cranberry.

Technically, some of these are not true berries. A salal "berry," for instance, actually is a sepal, or the fleshy leaf that grows at the base of a flower. At the same time, the Oregon "grape" really is a berry. To most people, however, all of these fruits have the look and taste of berries.

The most familiar of all local wild berries probably is the Himalayan blackberry. Though not native to Washington, having been introduced from Asia, these brambles sprawl across empty lots, fields and other open spaces, making the berries easily accessible and popular with pickers.

While the large, sweet, Himalayan berries taste wonderful and are great in pies and cobblers, some people get a bigger thrill from finding the small native blackberry, also known as the Pacific blackberry or trailing blackberry, which grows low to the ground on trailing vines, often in logged-off areas. Try a just-picked, fully ripe native blackberry, still warm from the sun, and you'll not soon forget its intense fragrance and flavor.

All native wild berries, in fact, possess a kind of primal appeal. Rooted in the region, they have thrived for eons in our moist, mild climate and varied terrain, and were an important food for Native Americans long before white settlers arrived.

Some Indian elders today remember berry-picking expeditions of an earlier era. Vi Hilbert, 84, a member of the Upper Skagit tribe and a retired University of Washington professor of Native American culture, has recalled crossing the Skagit River by canoe with her family as a child to reach the mountains, where they picked wild huckleberries every summer.

Great expectations

If you go out seeking wild berries, there are no guarantees; you may be rewarded with buckets full, or just a few nibbles.

But those nibbles can be oh-so-good. Consider wild strawberries, tiny morsels maybe half the size of your little fingernail. Though they crop up in scattered woodland clearings and on the dunes at some Puget Sound and Pacific beaches, you're doing well if you can collect even a palm-full. Still, they're a treat.

Despite the challenge, the Ark restaurant on Washington's Long Beach Peninsula manages early each summer to offer some of these gems on its menu, paying local residents to gather them on the dunes.

Owners Jimella Lucas and Nanci Main treat the little red berries like jewels. Lucas recently made a wild strawberry/hazelnut relish to accompany fresh ling cod. Main uses them in a sauce to top rich Swedish cream.

The peninsula's wild strawberries are about finished for this season, but these berries will continue to ripen in other areas, such as the forests and mountains (the beach and woodland varieties are very slightly different).

Wild red huckleberries — about the size and color of salmon eggs — also show up in Ark dishes, such as a huckleberry/ginger sauce Lucas serves with salmon or cod. Their lovely color and tart-sweet flavor make them good in jelly, too. The berries are common in Western Washington woods, though usually in amounts more suited to nibbling than cooking.

More plentiful are salmonberries, salal berries, huckleberries and Oregon grape. The salmonberry — red, yellow or salmon in color — tastes rather bland, though kids often like it. Oregon grape, which grows in beautiful blue clusters on plants with glossy, holly-like leaves, is too tart to eat out of hand but makes outstanding jelly.

Purple-black salal berries, abundant in our coniferous forests and coastal regions, were a staple of the Indians, who mashed and dried them into cakes. In his book "Wild Berries of the Pacific Northwest," J.E. Underhill says these berries make "exceptionally good jelly," and some people enjoy them fresh.

For the sheer joy of picking, however, it's hard to beat huckleberries/blueberries (experts debate the proper name) when they're abundant, or even when they're not. They grow in beautiful places, from deep woods to high mountain meadows, depending on the variety, and their flavors match the loveliness of their surroundings. If fortune is with you, you'll find enough for pies or muffins, or perhaps just enough to sprinkle on your cereal.

"We've done everything with them from making huckleberry ice cream to syrup for desserts to (a sauce) for quail," says Kerry Sear, owner-chef of Seattle's Cascadia Restaurant, who buys precious quantities of wild berries from foragers each summer.

While many people go in search of wild berries, more often they're a side benefit of an outing to the seashore, woods or mountains. And maybe that's the best way to find them — as a wonderful surprise.

In any case, you can't always be sure you'll find many, or any, when you're deliberately looking, even if you think you're on the right track. That amazing wild garden of berries we happened upon near Mount Rainier National Park? We've searched those woods since, but have never found it again.

The berries on this page are among the more common, edible, wild varieties found in Western Washington. The descriptions are not meant to be a complete, scientific guide for identifying these berries.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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