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March 4, 2021

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With wild plants, cultivate a berry bias

Knowing what to pick and what not to pick can keep you safe

The Columbian
Published:
5 Photos
A Clark County berry picker plucks blackberries from a favorite secret spot off Northwest Rieger Memorial Highway.
A Clark County berry picker plucks blackberries from a favorite secret spot off Northwest Rieger Memorial Highway. Photo Gallery

If you plan to pick more than three gallons of any berry in any national forest, you’ll need a permit.

o Cost: $40 for a 14-day permit; $75 for a season permit

o Limit: Without a permit, up to three gallons per person. With a 14-day permit, gather up to 40 gallons and up to 80 gallons with a seasonal permit.

o Season: Permits go on sale Aug. 9 at forest ranger stations.

o Information: 360-891-5000.

Finally, summer has made an entrance. Bring on the walks, hikes and camping treks. And, while you’re out and about, bring on the wild berries.

But before plucking a berry and popping it — or any wild plant — in your mouth, it’s a good idea to know what to pick and what to avoid.

“You don’t want to be grazing aimlessly out there on things you don’t know anything about,” said John Kallas of Portland, author of “Edible Wild Plants.”

If you plan to pick more than three gallons of any berry in any national forest, you'll need a permit.

o Cost: $40 for a 14-day permit; $75 for a season permit

o Limit: Without a permit, up to three gallons per person. With a 14-day permit, gather up to 40 gallons and up to 80 gallons with a seasonal permit.

o Season: Permits go on sale Aug. 9 at forest ranger stations.

o Information: 360-891-5000.

And if you plan to pick more than three gallons of any wild berries on U.S. Forest land, get a permit. Permits, $40 for a 14-day permit and $75 for a season permit, go on sale Aug. 9 at ranger stations.

We talked with experts about what to pick, what to avoid, and how to keep safe during a berry foraging expedition — whether on a city trail or on a back-country hike.

The Don’ts:

Don’t pick and eat anything you don’t know, said Carolyn Gordon, master gardener coordinator for Washington State University Clark County Extension. Some plants and berries can be toxic or even deadly to people.

Don’t take cues from birds or mammals when it comes to berry edibility.

“Whether an animal is eating it or not is irrelevant to us,” Kallas said. “They have a different physiology than us. They may be able to eat something we can’t.”

Skip the roadside blackberry patches, deluged with roadway runoff and vehicle exhaust, Kallas said. Also, Himalayan blackberries are a noxious weed, which means Clark County and Vancouver vegetation crews are constantly at odds with the prickly vine. Clark County and Vancouver city crews spray roadsides and parks with herbicides — Milestone and Garlon 3A, both by Dow, although officials say the bushes aren’t sprayed until fall. Private landowners may also spray.

Berries to avoid:

• Snowberry: Common berry in area woods, it produces clusters of white berries. “They’re beautiful berries and they are poisonous,” Kallas said.

• Baneberry: Kallas calls this plant, with small red berry clusters, the third-most-poisonous plant in North America.

Now, to the good stuff:

• Blackberry: A gardener’s worst enemy, the invasive Himalayan blackberry, also happens to bear some tasty summertime fruit. Watch for thorns when picking. And, as we pointed out above, avoid roadside bushes.

In the woods, you might find native blackberry, but there’s another hazard to watch for:

“It happens to be a tasty berry that the bears like,” Gordon said.

• Huckleberry: Some 15 varieties of huckleberries grow in the area, Kallas said, adding that some are sweeter than others. But all become sweet once cooked.

• Salal berry: These berries often grow along trails in the woods. They’re not as juicy as huckleberries and can be identified by their star-shaped scar. The bush’s stems, zigzagged and red, are sticky to the touch, said Kallas.

This is a pop-in-the-mouth berry and, usually, works well for cooking. But there are exceptions.

“Salal is one of those rare plants that has a genetic stray,” Kallas said. “So maybe one out of 50 plants will produce berries that, when you cook them, will produce a terrible fruit product. There’s no way to know until you cook it.”

• Salmonberry: “The problem is you can never get enough (salmonberries) to do anything with them except to eat them out of hand,” Gordon said.

• Saskatoon berry: Also known as a juneberry, saskatoon has a flavor similar to a blueberry. The fruit range from mildly sweet to almost candy-like, Kallas said.

These berries can also be picked and eaten after they dry like raisins on bushes.

• Thimbleberry: Deep red to maroon in color, they’re related to the raspberry.

“When the berries ripen and they fall off (the plant), it actually looks like a thimble and you could put your thumb inside of it,” Kallas said.

He describes the berry as tart, similar to a raspberry. But expect a bit of a crunch from hundreds of tiny seeds.

With berries in hand, all that’s left to do is eat. Or cook and then eat.

Northwest Culinary Institute’s Onion-Huckleberry Tart

Serves: 6; Preparation time: 30 minutes; Total time: 40 minutes (plus 30 minutes to an hour to thaw puff pastry)

J.D. Thomas, manager of culinary education at Northwest Culinary Institute in Vancouver, said this huckleberry tart pairs well with cheese, sliced fruit and pinot noir. The trick to the dish is to weigh down the pastry to keep it from rising too much as it bakes.

1 puff pastry sheet

1 1/2 pounds Vidalia or yellow onions, julienned

1 tablespoon sugar

1 1/2 cups creme fraiche

1/3 cup goat cheese

8 ounces huckleberries

2 ounces butter

Preheat oven to 375 F. Thaw puff pastry at room temperature for 30 minutes to an hour or until soft.

Carefully roll the puff pastry flat and place in a half-sheet pan with a liner. Lay a baking rack on top of the pastry (to weigh it down a bit) and bake until it’s about 2/3 cooked, about 8 minutes. The pastry should be just starting to brown. Remove from the oven, remove the baking rack and set aside to cool.

Slice onions into julienne strips. Over medium heat, melt the butter in a large saute pan, then add the onions and sugar. Caramelize to a golden brown. Set aside.

Combine the creme fraiche and goat cheese in a mixing bowl. Blend the berries in gently to avoid breaking them.

Evenly spread the huckleberry mixture over the cooled puff pastry. Top with the caramelized onions. Bake at 375 F for 10 minutes. Cool and serve.

Nutritional information: 413 calories (77 percent from fat), 35 grams fat (22 grams sat. fat), 16 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 126 mg sodium, 111 mg cholesterol, 1.4 grams fiber.

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