By Janelle Eklund
When I lived in Kotzebue in 1980 I worked at a salmon counting camp on the Noatak River for Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game. In the fall the berries on the tundra around camp were so profuse. In the off hours I would pick a variety and mingle them together into jellies. I don't know why the crowberry stands out in my mind on those chilly fall days as I leaped inside the intoxicating bubble of brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows of the tundra carpet. Here I became lost in its dreamy state. The perfume-like taste of the crowberry married with the pungent aroma of decaying labrador tea - and other tundra foliage sticks in my mind to this day.
Crowberry, or as others prefer to call it blackberry, not only grows on the tundra but you can find it trailing around on spruce forest floors. The reason I choose to call it crowberry is because I grew up in Washington State where blackberries resembled raspberries - only they were black, their vines grew high, and were laced with sharp thorns. So it's hard for me to envision this little round berry hugging the ground as a blackberry.
The evergreen leaves of the crowberry pretty much resemble the needle-like leaves of the spruce tree. The fruit is very juicy and also slightly seedy. I like its perfumey flavor and, since I don't eat much jelly, making it into juice would suit me fine. Of course, you can mix other berries with it to give it another flavor.
Like low bush cranberries, if you wait until after the first frost these berries will reward you with a sweeter flavor. The crowberry publication of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension says that crowberries have lots of antioxidants, even scoring higher than Alaska blueberries. In the test that is done to score the levels of antioxidants it scored 94, and a score over 40 is considered very high. But once made into juice by heat extraction, jelly, or wine the antioxidants are reduced. They are also a great source of fiber.
The leaves and stems of this plant can be made into a tea which is good for any kind of tummy problems.
"Medicinal Flora of the Alaska Natives" book by Ann Baribaldi says that a cooled tea of the roots, as well as the stems, can be used as an eye wash in treating eye problems. "An Outer Inlet person stated that her grandmother's eyesight was saved with this medicine. For two to three weeks her eyes were washed with a tea made from the stem bark. Each time after the washing, the growth was gently dabbed at with a soft spruce pitch. Finally the growth became loose and was removed from her eye. It was said that she saw well until she died" (Kari 1995)." The book also states that in the Kotzebue Sound area "Crowberry juice was squeezed into the eye to remove cataracts. Other Native peoples used the stem for the same purpose. It was not stated how the stem was prepared. (Graham 1985; Mauneluk cultural Heritage Program in Fortuine 1988)." Native peoples have also used the juice of this berry to treat snow blindness.
As you enjoy the fall colors while picking cranberries, give a little extra time to fill a bucket of crowberries and enjoy their sweet flavor. They are often very thick on their little branches and you can practically scrape a handful at once.
This fall may your hands be stained with the fruits of Mother Nature!
From my light to yours-
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.