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When I first moved to Alaska, I was introduced to foraging. Instead of being limited by the typical things such as blueberries and mushrooms, my friend also showed me uncommon wild foods. One of those out of the ordinary edibles was the crowberry.
Gathering Alaska: The crowberry 082317 AE 1 For the Capital City Weekly When I first moved to Alaska, I was introduced to foraging. Instead of being limited by the typical things such as blueberries and mushrooms, my friend also showed me uncommon wild foods. One of those out of the ordinary edibles was the crowberry.

Crowberries sit atop its evergreen stem. Photo by Corinne Conlon.


A patch of crowberry plants. Photo by Corinne Conlon.


Crowberry. Photo by Corinne Conlon.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Story last updated at 8/22/2017 - 3:59 pm

Gathering Alaska: The crowberry

When I first moved to Alaska, I was introduced to foraging. Instead of being limited by the typical things such as blueberries and mushrooms, my friend also showed me uncommon wild foods. One of those out of the ordinary edibles was the crowberry.

Crowberries sit in moist soils, perched near bog blueberries, bunchberries, and around the edge of stumps near lingonberries. Although it’s safe to say that there are both good and bad years for berries, I never notice a decline in crowberries. There always seems to be an abundance.

The reason for its profusion might be its flavor. Often, the first reaction to the taste is a mere tolerance for its insipid quality. There doesn’t seem too much to like; neither the texture nor taste are appealing. However, picking them after the frost or putting them in the freezer can bring out a different side, something that is remarkably pleasant. Even better, cooking them creates an almost grape-like flavor that can be used as a juice, jelly, or jam.

Due to their lack of taste, crowberries can also be added to blueberries or other berries when making jam. The blueberry flavor dominates the taste and it’s hard to tell which jam or jelly is straight blueberry and which ones have been mixed.

The translation of the Genus of this fruit, Empetrum, “growing on rocks” provides a good indicator of where to find them. Although I tend to associate crowberries on the slopes of Eaglecrest, they are found in lower elevations surrounding hummocks on the edge of wet or boggy areas. They are an evergreen plant with short needles that is related to the heather family. It lies low to the ground, anywhere between four to six inches off the ground with tiny needles that alternate with each other along the growing stem.

It is thought that the plant produces a chemical to inhibit growth by other plants. Even though the evergreen leaves only shed every two to four years, they continue to emit this chemical as they decompose. I’m not sure to what extent this chemical blocks other plants in Southeast because in most areas, the crowberry intermingles with other plants. Occasionally, though, you’ll find giant swaths.

The berries are blackish with a blue or purplish sheen and are easier to pick than blueberries. To clean, lay them on a terry cloth towel and roll them off. The leaves and lichens will stick to the cloth, leaving you with clean berries.

I take these berries and add water, just enough to cover the berries. Then, I either strain them into juice or mash them up to form a jam. Although, it decreases when cooked, according to the Cooperative Extension Service, the oxygen radical absorption capacity test (ORAC) for crowberries is higher than blueberries. A score above 40 is considered very high and raw, crowberries score at a 94. Instead of looking towards exotic berries to get our antioxidants, we might just want to look in our backyard for this berry that is often overlooked.