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Plant ID: Himalayan Blackberry vs. Salmonberry Shrubs

Last Saturday, I did some invasive species removal with the Stanley Park Eco-Stewards. We removed Himalayan blackberry from some sites that had previously been cleared of invasive species and replanted with salmonberry shrubs. Because Himalayan blackberry is such a persistent plant – it, along with English ivy, is one of the most aggressive invasive species in Stanley Park – there were several spots in which it had grown back.

One of the most helpful things I learned during this eco-stewardship session was how to tell the difference between a Himalayan blackberry shrub and a salmonberry shrub – we wouldn’t want to be digging up the native salmonberry vegetation, after all! I’ll share with you some of the plant identification tips I learned.

Have a look at the picture below. It contains a Himalayan blackberry branch and a salmonberry branch converging with each other. Can you tell which is which?

Can you guess which branch belongs to a salmonberry shrub and which belongs to a Himalayan blackberry shrub?

If you guessed blackberry on the left and salmonberry on the right, you are correct! If not, don’t worry – let’s walk through it together.

First, let’s look at the colour and texture of the branches. The blackberry branch is green and thorny. The salmonberry branch is brown and smooth (Wild Berries of British Columbia tells me that younger salmonberry branches are prickly, and then they shed their prickles as they get older... I'll have to start paying more attention to these things!).

BRANCHES: notice the prickly green blackberry branch on the left versus the smoother brown salmonberry branch on the right.

Secondly, notice the leaf pattern of each. Himalayan blackberry leaves tend to consist of 5 leaflets, each of which round and then end in a point. Salmonberry leaves have three leaflets that are more angular in shape:

LEAVES: A Himalayan blackberry leaf (left) vs. a salmonberry leaf (right).

A good trick that Ivy, our Stewardship Coordinator, taught us: if you fold down the top leaflet of a salmonberry leaf, you get a butterfly!

A salmonberry-leaf butterfly!

A salmonberry-leaf butterfly!

Try the same trick with a blackberry leaf, and here’s what you get:

Not quite a butterfly.

Not quite a butterfly.

It’s useful to note that there are exceptions to these identification rules. I’ve certainly seen some salmonberry branches (I think they are, at least!) that are green…

Green salmonberry branches

Green salmonberry branches

… some Himalayan blackberry canes that are reddish…

Red Himalayan blackberry branch

Red Himalayan blackberry branch

… and some Himalayan blackberry leaves that have three leaflets (though note that the overall leaflet shape is much rounder than that of a salmonberry leaflet):

 

A Himalayan blackberry leaf with three leaflets

A Himalayan blackberry leaf with three leaflets

But hopefully sticking with the aforementioned guidelines will help you to identify these shrubs. Happy plant ID-ing! For those readers with a little more nature expertise, please let me know in the comments if I've made any mistakes.

Berry Watch 2013 // Part 1: Salmonberries

Update, August 2013: The "Berry Watch 2013" saga continues! If you're interested in the ripening fruits at Stanley Park and in and around Vancouver, have a look at the other fine "Berry Watch" blog posts! Or continue reading about salmonberries below - they are finished for the season, but it's always good to know about them.

I’ve been slowly and steadily increasing my knowledge of the native berry shrubs that grow in coastal BC. Berries were one of the first things on my radar during the early inklings of this learning project; I felt it would be empowering (and impressive to friends!) to know which fruits I could safely pop off the bush and into my mouth during a summer hike. In April, I signed out a book from the library called Wild Berries of British Columbia by Fiona Hamersley Chambers (one of the wonderful guides from Lone Pine publishers) and was surprised to learn about the vast amount of edible berries that grow in the region. As I was getting more absorbed in this book, the salmonberry shoots in Stanley Park were concurrently beginning to grow taller and come alive with pink flowers, a bright anticipation of the berries that would soon replace them.

A salmonberry flower blooming near the seawall in early April. 

A salmonberry flower blooming near the seawall in early April. 

It seems crazy to me now, but I hadn’t heard of – or noticed – salmonberries until this year. They are very common in Stanley Park, but certainly not as prolific to Vancouver as the Himalayan blackberry, which I’ve spotted in parks and green spaces, as well as in vacant and industrial lots. More on blackberries later, I promise!

Salmonberry shrubs begin early in the spring as skinny canes, and sprout clumps of refreshingly green, corrugated leaves in groups of 3 pointy leaflets. Their papery pink flowers begin to bloom in March, and are one of the first bursts of bright colour to speckle the brown and green springtime forest. Those of you that live on the BC coast will know that the grey, wet spring season can last forever – so as I gazed at the salmonberries this past spring, I appreciated the sense of optimism that these pinks provided, a promise that there would be more vivid colours to come as the weather grew warmer.

Some salmonberry canes hanging out in the forest in April. You'll see that some green berries are beginning to form with a muppet-like fringe around their "necks".

Some salmonberry canes hanging out in the forest in April. You'll see that some green berries are beginning to form with a muppet-like fringe around their "necks".

I watched with anticipation through March, April, and May as the flowers became small green fruits and ripened into brilliant red and orange berries. Salmonberries look very much like raspberries, and belong to the same Rubus genus of berry as raspberries, blackberries, and thimbleberries. However, salmonberries are unique from their Rubus peers in that they grow in two colours (red and orange, the result of a one-gene allele difference). In addition, they are the earliest berries to ripen on the coast. It is only early June, and for the last couple of weeks I’ve certainly been popping a few ripe ones in my mouth as I stroll the trails.

A ripening red salmonberry hiding under its green canopy.

A ripening red salmonberry hiding under its green canopy.

Some yellow salmonberries moving toward ripeness.

Some yellow salmonberries moving toward ripeness.

Are salmonberries the most delicious berries in the world? Probably not, but it depends on your taste buds. The ones I’ve had seem to range from mildly tart to mildly sweet and a little bland, but those berries may have benefitted from a little more ripening on the branch prior to plucking. What I’ve really enjoyed about salmonberries is their precociousness – they provide a bit of colour, flavor, and relief during the long wait for the emergence of other summer wildfruits. And, like a good precocious pupil of the forest who has finished her work early, the salmonberry helps to teach beginners like me about the rhythms of flowering and fruiting, and to guide my eye to the development patterns of the berry shrubs that will bear fruit later in the summer.

     

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!