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Berry Watch 2013 // Part 2: Salal Berries and Red Huckleberries

Hello, everyone – I’m back from Salt Spring Island! I had a wonderful, renewing trip, and I’m excited to get back to the Stanley Park Project.

More and more of the berries in the forest are starting to ripen – it’s so exciting! I’ve been anticipating the arrival of the berries for months. I began reading about coastal berry shrubs in the late winter, spent months identifying their leaf and flower patterns, and photographed their progress throughout the late spring. Now that the sun is working its transformative magic, I can exchange cool observation of the ripening berries for the intimacy of touch and taste.

Salal was one of the first berry shrubs that called out to me at Stanley Park in mid-to-late spring. I immediately noticed its bold, playful personality, its leathery leaves buoyed by the energy of new spring growth. What really caught my eye were the whitish-pink flowers dangling from little stems, as though the salal shrubs were decorating itself with paper lanterns for a party. Even the name of the plant itself - salal - has a lilting, festive ring to it.

A springtime salal shrub with bells on! This photo was taken in late May.

A springtime salal shrub with bells on! This photo was taken in late May.

Throughout the last few months, I’ve been taking snapshots of the changing salal flower stems. Each flower eventually morphs into a green “berry” (Plants of Coastal British Columbia tells me that this “berry” is actually a “fleshy sepal” – a “sepal” normally being that green part that covers the petals of the flower before they open up). As I was walking through the forest last weekend, I noticed that some of the salal “berries” are starting to ripen into a bluish-purple colour, so I munched on a few. They have a deep, musky, tangy flavour that resembles a concord grape – I quite liked them. They are also a little hairy, but don’t let that deter you!

Here is a salal flower stem in late May:

 

salal_may.jpg

...in mid-June: 

salal_june.jpg

...in late June:

salal_late_june.jpg

...and in mid-July: 

salal_july.jpg

I’ve also been noticing red huckleberries speckling the forest since early June, and there’s certainly still some around to enjoy. These berries really snuck up on me – I was walking past a red huckleberry shrub one day, wondering when it would flower, and was surprised to see tiny ripe red berries already adorning the underside of its foliage! The little oval leaves were shielding these berries as best they could, as though the plant was bashful about its sudden maturity.

Can you see the little red berries hiding under the leaves of this huckleberry shrub?

Can you see the little red berries hiding under the leaves of this huckleberry shrub?

A bit of careful observation throughout June shed more light on the development of these red fruits: they start very subtly from tiny, whitish-green flowers that hide beneath the undersides of the leaves:

Can you see the little green "flower" on the right side of the plant. So incognito!

Can you see the little green "flower" on the right side of the plant. So incognito!

Red huckleberries are very small (1 cm or less in diameter), but pack a delicious, tangy punch. Though this shrub is more delicate and effacing than the outgoing, festive salal, it is worth getting to know – in my opinion, the berries that it quietly creates are of equal intensity to those of showy salal. You’ll find a lot of red huckleberry shrubs rooted in crumbling, rotted stumps throughout the forest.

 

Three Discoveries from a Guided Nature Walk

On Sunday May 19, I attended my first guided nature walk through Stanley Park. I learned a number of interesting facts about plants and trees, and wanted to share the best of the best with you:

Discovery #1: There is vegetative life that emerges from death.

We walked past some decaying tree stumps topped with small hemlock trees that had sprouted and taken root upon the rotting wood. There were also some red huckleberry shrubs growing on the stumps. Apparently, both hemlock and red huckleberry like to grow on decomposing wood.

The very alive roots of a hemlock tree cascade over the sides of a decaying tree stump (with bonus horse!).  

The very alive roots of a hemlock tree cascade over the sides of a decaying tree stump (with bonus horse!).  

Here are a couple examples of red huckleberry shrubs growing from tree stumps. They are the bright green plants with the small oval-shaped leaves. Unfortunately, they aren't growing berries yet!

Here are a couple examples of red huckleberry shrubs growing from tree stumps. They are the bright green plants with the small oval-shaped leaves. Unfortunately, they aren't growing berries yet!

Discovery #2: Salmonberries are a delicious celebration of diversity.

The berries (which are ripening right now!) mature into one of two colours: red or yellow. Each colour has a slightly different flavor. According to our nature guide, the difference in colour is the result of a one-gene genetic difference, with the yellow berries being the result of a recessive allele.

 

Two examples of ripening salmonberries - yellow on the left; red on the right.

Two examples of ripening salmonberries - yellow on the left; red on the right.

Discovery #3: There is more to a flower than meets the eye.

Our exploration of the ground-level flowering plants in the forest was quite illuminating. We learned about the bunchberry, or dwarf dogwood, which is a little leafy plant that grows the same type of 4-petaled white flower that would grow on a dogwood tree. But wait – the white part is not a flower! The white “petals” are actually bracts, or modified leaves, that circle around a cluster of tiny flower buds in the middle. I did some reading at home on the bunchberry and found out that when the bunchberry is ready to release its pollen, a little trigger attached to each flower bud causes the flowers to open very suddenly and "catapult" pollen into the air. It's funny to hear such violent language ("explosive," "trigger," etc.) in the descriptions of such an innocuous-looking plant:

 

A bunchberry, or dwarf dogwood ( Cornus canadensis ). Note that the white "petals" are actually bracts, or modified leaves - the flower buds are in the middle, waiting to explode their pollen into the air.

A bunchberry, or dwarf dogwood (Cornus canadensis). Note that the white "petals" are actually bracts, or modified leaves - the flower buds are in the middle, waiting to explode their pollen into the air.

I was happy to finally learn the name of a ground-plant I’d been seeing everywhere: the fringecup, which has a nicely-shaped leaf and a stalk of small pink and white flowers with spiny edges. The flowers are arranged vertically on the stalk, with the newer white flowers blooming toward the top and the older pink flowers located near the bottom. Our guide said that this may have to do with the vision of bees – bees can’t see red very well, so the plant is telling the bees to pollinate the newer white flowers, and leave the pink flowers alone.

 

The stem of a fringecup ( Tellima grandiflora ). Note the larger pink flowers and the newer white flowers toward the top of the stem.

The stem of a fringecup (Tellima grandiflora). Note the larger pink flowers and the newer white flowers toward the top of the stem.

It was also great to have miner’s-lettuce pointed out, as I’d been eyeing this edible species in a foraging book. Miner’s-lettuce is quite a common plant that grows on the sides of paths in the park. Our guide asked us to look carefully at the flowers that grew from the plant, and notice the stripes down the middle of each petal. Apparently the purpose of the stripes is to draw insects’ attention toward the centre of the flower.

The striped flower of the miner's-lettuce plant ( Claytonia perfoliata ). 

The striped flower of the miner's-lettuce plant (Claytonia perfoliata). 

A miner's-lettuce plant on the side of a nature trail.

A miner's-lettuce plant on the side of a nature trail.

A special thanks to our nature guide, Terry, for sharing his wisdom about the forest – I hope that I’ve done his teachings justice in this post. If you’d like to participate in a guided walk at Stanley Park, check the Events section of the Stanley Park Ecology Society website. The walks are reasonably priced – $5 for members or $10 for non-members – and you’ll learn a lot!