Exploring my little piece of the planet

Shrubs

Velvet Leaved Blueberry

or Common Blueberry, Huckleberry
Vaccinium myrtilloides


According to Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack (Hurtig 1977), there are, “About five very similar, low, healthy shrubs found in Alberta [that] go by the common name of Blueberry, Huckleberry or Bilberry. In fact, they are all so much alike that it is necessary to consult a flora or botanical key to tell them apart.”

So it is very possible that my specific identification for this plant is inaccurate and I would only be too grateful to anyone who could confirm or contradict it.

This delicious berry can distinguished from the dwarf blueberry (V. caespitosum) by its slightly taller and more open form, elliptic, smooth-edged leaves and prominent star-shaped calyx. It is also somewhat easier to pick for pies or jams (or eating on the spot, which is more my habit) since the berries are a wee bit larger and more visible among the leaves.

The blossom end of each berry, the calyx, forms the shape of a perfect five-pointed star; the elders of the tribe would tell of how the Great Spirit sent “star berries” to relieve the children’s hunger during a famine. (source)

As a child, I lived for two years in Newfoundland. One of my fondest memories is going out in a “Four-by-Four” with several families to pick blueberries. We were under instructions to make sure most of the berries went into our tins but that was extremely difficult. Large and juicy, these were temptations far too difficult to resist.

These are not those. Whether it is a matter of a differing species or ecosystems, the blueberries around Swan Hills are much more minute. It is rare to find such dense and burdened shrubs as I remember from Newfoundland; berry-picking is a labour of love.

Often after an acreage of forest has been clear-cut and before the application of devastating herbicides, an abundance of shrubs will spring up, among them several Vaccinium species. With an ear always to the sounds around, one forages a patch with caution. This is also the time of year when bears diligently gorge themselves to put in the necessary stores for the long winter ahead. It is not only humans and bears who appreciate this delectable berry. It is also important to birds, rodents and many insects. Deer will browse on the leaves and twigs. The critters return the favour by dropping the miniscule seeds.

They are pollinated by bees and other insects possibly including the infamous boreal black fly. The plant is host to the larva of the spring azure butterfly. (source)

But pick you must. Beyond the ambrosial flavour, blueberries and other members of the huge Vaccinium family are stong in antioxidants, Vitamin C, manganese and fiber along with many other nutrients. It was one of the most important fruits for boreal dwelling native people, who used the plant in many ways. The berries were preserved with a wide variety of methods for winter food. Berries, stems, leaves and roots were all employed medicinally from cancer treatments to “women’s medicine”. The berry juice was and still can be used as a natural dye.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

You might also enjoy my photographic narrative  How to Pick Blueberries in Northern Woods at On and Over the Hills.

 

Other Resources:

Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland by Derek Johnson et al. Lone Pine, Alberta 1995
Wildflowers of Alberta by R.G.H. Cormack. Hurtig, Alberta 1977

USDA Forest Service Fire Effects Information System (FEIS)
Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center (University of Texas)

Native Plant Database


Lingonberry

Vaccinium vitas-idaea also called Bog-Cranberry and Lowbush Cranberry

Tiny and delightful treasures on the forest floor

Lingonberries, especially when not in bloom, can easily be confused with the Common Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi), historically known as Kinnikinnik. Around here, the lingonberries are a denser plant, while the bearberry seems to grow more openly, but I am never sure of my identification until the flowers bloom. A magnifying glass helps, as the lingonberry has bristle-like glands on the lower side of the leaf.

Lingonberry flowers stand out in the sunshine against a shaded forest ravine

Once in bloom, the flowers are, although similar, are distinguishable on close inspection. The bell of the bearberry’s flowers is ‘tucked-in’ or more urn-shaped.

Lingonberries growing among bunchberries in a little forest glade

Vaccinium have been used traditionally in North America for the cranberry sauces commonly served with turkey dinners at Christmas and Thanksgiving, although this northern species is only lately being tried as a commercial plant.

In early June the dark pink buds of Lingonberry are conspicuous above the forest floor mosses

Northern native people, however, have always known of and used lingonberries as food. In fact it was one of the most important berries for them and used almost exclusively in pemmican. The plant was also used medicinally, for jewelry, as a dye for porcupine quills and a tobacco-stretcher. (Source)

Lingonberry leaves are evergreen, helping to melt the snow above them in spring

In this Mi’kmaw legend, the cranberry (presumably lingonberry or a close relative) warded off bad magic. And who knows what cranberry sauce had to do with strawberries.


Low Bush-Cranberry

Also called Squashberry & Mooseberry (Viburnum edule). Confusingly they are also referred to in some parts as High Bush-Cranberry, which in my area is the common name for Viburnum Opulus

How about some more confusion: is this the Christmas fruit? No. Bush-Cranberries are not related to the cranberries associated with turkey dinners. Viburnum is a member of the Honeysuckle family while the berries grown for cranberry sauce (Vaccinium) are much more low-growing and have leathery leaves as do most plants in the Heath family.

However, bush-cranberries are edible although a little tart when fresh for most palates. They do make excellent jams and jellies though and are very healthy, being very high in Vitamin C. All parts of the plant have been used historically by the native people in North America  for centuries for not only food, but medicinally. (Source)

They were so prolific here on the Freeman River – mid August – I’ll have to go back next spring and take some pictures of the little white flower bunches that turn into these rich, juicy berries. I was surprised that they did not seem to have yet been significantly browsed by the forest critters.


Prickly Rose

Prickly rose, Rosa acicularis is the provincial flower of Alberta. Confusingly, it is often confused with the more or less abundant (depending on the source) common wild or wood rose (R. woodsii), which has fewer thorns.

Most of the plant is edible and the hips are extremely high in Vitamin C as well as several other vitamins, however moderation is advised as over indulgance can cause diarrhea. The hairy seeds within the hip can irritate the digestive track and cause discomfort on elimination.

Various parts of this beautiful, and beautifully scented shrub was used by native people for food, drinks, medicines, jewelry, toys, and to smoke.

A rose hip just beginning to hint at the brilliant red it soon will be.

The popular rose scent is expensive for a reason: according to my favourite plant resource, sited here, “It takes 60,000 roses to produce 28 ml of pure essential oil”. That’s a lot of flowers!

This species is nearly circumpolar. According to Monstropedia a dead person could be prevented from turning into a vampire by “placing a thorny branch of wild rose in the grave”.