Monday, September 13, 2010

Wasatch Berries, Trails and Food Storage

So it’s the end of the summer already. How did that happen? While I was blogging about the Grand Canyon and the Paunsaugant and the Markagunt and Idaho and Montana and Maine and old girlfriends and strange neurological conditions and South American megalopolises, the summer here in the Wasatch just zipped by. I haven’t done a real Wasatch post (excepting the Gumweed/Darkling Beetle/Wolf Mouse post) since June!

I’m actually OK with that, because I’ve done a half-decent job covering a lot of the Wasatch stuff the past 2 summers. In 2008 I covered most of the major trees of the Wasatch, and in 2009 I hit the wildflowers in a big way. This summer- well this year, really- has been a bit different, as readers who know me in real life know, and so I’ve “coasted” a bit on the Wasatch in recent months.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been out and about in the Wasatch. Over the past couple of weeks and weekends since I returned from Brazil I’ve been camping and biking with family and friends. Here’s a quick clip from Sunday along the Wasatch Crest, which follows the ridge dividing the Big Cottonwood and Park City- side drainages.

Tangent: I’ve also explored a couple of “new” trails in the Wasatch recently. New to me, anyway. One very nice stretch is the connector between Guardsman and Scott’s Passes.

Another is the modest network of trails above Summit Park. Most of the easily-bike-able trails are pretty tame, though they pass through nice long stretches of Douglas Fir forest. This would be a great place to ride/hike in the heat of summer. The “recommended for hiking” trails are lot sketchier on a bike, with many mandatory hike-a-bikes, but they get to some really cool, remote-feeling places. Here’s a stretch along the ridge separating Summit Park from Toll Canyon, a ridge I’ve driven below hundreds of times without ever knowing what was on top.

When I hike or bike a new trail in the Wasatch, as often as not I mentally kick myself. “What?” I’ll think, “This cool place has been here all this time and I never got around to checking it out all these years? What’s wrong with me?” Next summer I’m checking out more new places in the Wasatch…

Being back home in the Wasatch has reminded me of something that I meant to blog about- but missed- the last 2 years: berries. All these flowers I bog about all the time- what happens to them anyway? Well, assuming they get fertilized, they turn into a fruit of some sort. Many of those “fruits” are achenes or follicles and not all that eye-catching, but several common Wasatch shrubs produce brightly-colored “berries” and right now is a great time to check them out.

Side Note: There are still flowers blooming, mainly Negative Daisies, Showy Goldeneye, Rabbitbrush, Snakeweed (lower down), Sunflowers (lower down), and patches of Common Yarrow. But none of these flowers will produce anything remotely berry-like. Anything that was going to spend the summer growing berries necessarily bloomed back in May or June.


For about the last 3 weeks, if you’ve been hiking or riding down lower in the foothills, you may have noticed “blueberries” ripening on the floor of the Oak-Maple woods. This is Oregon-grape, which I blogged about last Fall. The Holly-like leaves are evergreen, so these patches up green will linger long after the oaks and maples are bare.

Oregon Grape compare The berries- which are not grapes- are edible, but are extremely tart and have big seeds inside. They’re sometimes made into jam, or even wine.

Another “blueberry” all over the place up around 7,000 feet and up right now is Serviceberry, which I blogged about last summer. Finesse Trail outside of Pinebrook, which was carpeted with delicate white blossoms back in June, is now covered with ripe serviceberries. IMG_6912 These berries are also edible. Like Oregon-grape, they’re full of seeds, but the flavor is way less tart. The key to snacking on them is to pop a couple into your mouth, gently mush them up with your teeth and tongue, and spit out the seeds. Some tasters describe serviceberries as tasting faintly of apple, cherry or almond, and in tasting the ripest I sometimes think I pick up a hint of apple, but that may be self-suggestion… Incidentally this year I finally figured out how to pick sweet serviceberries: they’re the ones that look just about to go bad- deep purple and starting to wrinkle. Any younger/fresher and they’re too tart.

serviceberry compare Over the next couple of weeks up around the high rangelands bordering the brush around Park City and Kimball Junction, the trails will start to be dotted with little purple poops. I’m not sure which animal(s)’ scat it is, but it’s all over the place, and critters chow on the berries. Speaking of which, a serviceberry is not actually a “berry”, but a pome, like an Apple or Pear, to which Serviceberry is closely-related. A pome is not a “true” fruit, but rather an accessory fruit, which I explained when we looked at Strawberries. (Though a pome is a very different type of accessory fruit than a strawberry.)

In shadier areas around the same altitude, you’ll see downward bunches of slightly larger, almost cherry-like berries. These are Chokecherries, which I also blogged about last summer. The fruits are “true” fruits, but they’re not berries. Like real cherries, they’re drupes, with a hard stone or pit inside that has grown out of the ovary wall of the flower. People make pies and jellies out of chokecherries.

chokecherry compare They’re also edible raw, with a bit of a caveat: the seeds can contain high concentrations of the poison hydrogen cyanide. You’re supposed to avoid eating the seeds, and optimally, any cherries that taste too bitter. In past years most all chokecherries I’ve tried randomly taste “too bitter”, but this year I’ve found plenty that taste nice and sweet, with only a hint of tartness. I suspect that an early frost sweetened up both the chokecherries and the serviceberries.

Serviceberry and Chokecherry both belong to the Rose family, and another family member in the same locale that’s fruiting now is of course, Wild Rose, which I first blogged about 2 summers ago. The fruit of Wild Rose is the rosehip, which is actually another pome fruit. Eaten raw they’re supposed to taste like extra-tart crabapples, and are also alleged to sweeten up a bit following the first frost, like other wild fruits. Rosehips are used in jams, pies and herbal teas, and are packed with vitamin C. Supposedly in Hungary they make a brandy out of them.

Wild Rose compare Kitchen-Craftiness & Food Storage

Tangent: The only jam I ever remember my mother making was Rosehip jam, which she tackled after coming across a bunch of ripe hips during a late summer weekend on Cape Cod. I must have been maybe 6 or 7, so my memory of the event was a bit foggy. What I do remember was 1) picking them seemed to take a long time 2) making the jam seemed like a huge, complicated, labor-intensive production, and 3) the jam tasted awful, but that may have been because of my age.

Nested Tangent: That’s probably because, growing up, my family wasn’t very, er “kitchen-crafty”, I guess. When I moved out to Utah, suddenly I started meeting all these people who were making jams and jellies and bottling and canning and making sausage out of things they had killed and what-not. Seriously, it’s like everybody here grew up on The Waltons or something. We never did any of that. We ate tuna casserole, frozen veggies, and once a month we went to Friendly’s. Sometimes Mom would make chocolate pudding. I imagine part of the kitchen-craftiness out here is the more recent connection people have to agriculture in this part of the country, but I think the big driver is the whole Mormon-food-storage thing. Which I should say doesn’t sound like a bad idea. About once a year or so I think, “Hey, we should store a year’s supply of food…” But I’m not about to start canning and bottling and all that, and when I envision myself in the supermarket checkout line with 300 boxes of instant oatmeal and 500 cans of kippered herring, I always start to feel embarrassed and put it off another year…

IMG_7251 But rosehips have frustrated my snacking attempts to-date. Supposedly you just slice them in half and remove the hairy-coated seeds. But with this many seeds, what does that leave you? The skin and a bit of rind (pic right), both fairly tasteless…

Side Note: Speaking of the Rose family, plant-aware and/or long-time readers may wonder what’s up right now with our other 2 common Wasatch shrees in the family- Curlleaf Mountain Mahogany (CMM) and Ninebark.

CMM produces achenes, so no jams or jellies to be made there. Earlier in the summer the long, feathery plumes of the achenes give the trees a sort of light and hazy look as I’ve posted previously. Now only a fraction of the feathery plumes remain on the trees; it’s as if CMM trees come back “into focus” as the summer wanes. Stop by one though and you’ll notice the ground below littered with small “feathers”. And looking closely at the trees branches you’ll see countless empty “sockets” where the wind has picked up and swept away the achenes.

CMM captions Ninebark fruits as a cluster of follicles, which is a type of dry fruit containing multiple seeds which splits open to release them. Larkspur, Milkweed and Magnolias are some other plants with follicle-fruits (all of which have evolved them independently.)

9bark follicles caption Before leaving the Rose family, there’s one more berry blooming right now that’s actually kind of tasty. I first blogged about Thimbleberries 2 years ago, but didn’t manage to come across (and eat) ripe ones until about a week ago. They look like little raspberries, and like them their fruits are actually aggregations of multiple separate fruits, each one of which is a little drupe, or “drupelet”*. (So a raspberry/ thimbleberry/ blackberry is sort of a cluster of micro-cherries…)

Thimbleberry compare I’ve been tasting them regularly over the past week and a half or so. Most are still a bit tart, but every third or so one I pick is nice and sweet, like an extra-fine little raspberry.

*No that’s not a made-up Watcher-Word. It’s a real botany word.

Extra Detail: An easy place to find and pick Thimbleberries right now is in upper Mill Creek Canyon. Take the Big Water trail up from the lower trailhead. Immediately after the 1st switchback, there’s a big patch on the uphill side of the trail. Several more patches occur over the next ¼ mile. Probably 500 hikers/bikers pass by here every Saturday, but no on else ever seem to stop and pick them…

So what else is fruiting? For nearly a month now the Wax Currants have been ripening. I blogged about them first last summer down in the Henry Mountains, but this summer have been noticing it more and more around Jeremy Ranch and Pinebrook.

wax currant compare It seems to do well near rocky, open outcrops and minor summits. The fruits- which are real berries- are edible, but pretty tasteless. Indians used to mix them with dried meat to make pemmican.

More common though- all over the place right now- are these clusters of red berries. They’re Elderberries, which I blogged about last summer during the Steiner100. IMG_6916 We have 2 kinds of Elderberries here in Utah, Red (pic left) and Blue. Blue elderberries are edible, used in jams, candies, sauces and even wines. But all the berries I’ve seen around her are red (or orange-turning-red) and they are definitely not something you should go around snacking on, as they contain cyanide. Some sources I’ve read say never to eat red elderberries, period. Others say they’re OK to eat after boiling (which is also recommended for blue elderberries.) But all the really good elderberry stuff seems to come from the blues (or blacks.) If you do manage to ingest elderberries without poisoning yourself, they’re rich in vitamins A and C.

Red Elderberry compare Elderberries BTW aren’t true berries, but drupes. Elderberry used to be considered a member of the Honeysuckle family, Caprifoliaceae, but is now broken out into a separate family Adoxaceae, all of whose members have 4-petaled flowers and drupe fruits.

And speaking of the Honeysuckle family, there’s another super-common berry right now in the Wasatch up around 8,000 feet. It’s lower down, on a small shrub, so easy to overlook, but once you start looking down, it’s everywhere. And this berry’s easy to pick out, because it’s bright white.

Next Up: Stuff you fall on.


KanyonKris said...

Doesn't that Guardsman connector end with a sketchy downhill to Scotts Pass?

Summit Park, eh? Cool, more trails.

All this berry talk is making me hungry. I love Thimbleberries - that patch in Millcreek is in danger.

Anonymous said...

So, to entertain myself as I eat lunch at my desk, I decided to start checking out everyone on Fatty's blogroll.

My next task was going to be googling to identify a picture of a cool plant I saw on a hike yesterday. You saved me the trouble. Apparently the radish-looking stuff I took a photo of were rosehips...thanks!

Phil O. said...

Have you forgotten the jars and jars of yummy applesauce in the basement closet?

Or the gingerbread house every Christmas?!?

Watcher said...

KKris- they put nice switchbacks in. It's totally rideable both ways the whole way now.

Anon- glad I could help!

Phil- Yes, I completely forgot for ~30+ years until just now. So many nights Mom and Dad would be like, "How about dessert?" and we'd get all excited and then Dad would suddenly produce one of those creepy jars from the basement and we'd be like totally crestfallen... I did like the g-bread houses (but wouldn't want to subsist on them post-apocalypse.)

Ski Bike Junkie said...

I've got a jar of salsa for you--I'll bring it next time we're out on a ride. We bottle salsa and peaches every year. Totally worth the effort.

Watcher said...

SBJ- I'm looking forward to it and am sure it will be delicious; you guys are way Utah-Kitchen-Crafty!

KristenT said...

Aren't rose hips supposed to be high in vitamin C?

I've never canned anything. I don't think I'd be good at it, and I'd always be creeped out about if there's botulism or salmonella in the jars.

I have, however, dried my share of fruits. Apricots, apples, Italian prunes, blackberries, fruit leather... yummy.

Watcher said...

KristenT- Yes they are loaded with vitamin C, so when the apocalypse comes and we can't get OJ at the supermarket, we can forage for hips.

(Of course I will be holed up at SBJ's house, subsisting on sales and peaches.)

Lucy said...

I agree, Utah is very kitchen crafty, but you've got something there with the closer to agriculture past. My home state of North Dakota is also pretty kitchen crafty, but not quite as much so as Utah. Definitely a food storage magnifier going on, IMO.

I'll give you some of my Yum Plum jam. It is super tasty and does not have botulism. And after the earthquake hits, you can share our supply of jam and beer. We have lots of both.