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November 9, 2023

Plant of the Month: Salmonberry

Plant of the Month: Salmonberry
salmonberry in bloom

Salmonberry and Interconnectedness

During this difficult time of social isolation and societal upheaval, many people are finding refuge in nature—perhaps through gardening, walking outside, or simply sitting and witnessing the beauty of the season. Wild Foods and Medicines Program intern Randy Pratt, volunteer Ariel Page, and I have been tending edible and medicinal plants along the nature trail for several hours each week, and we are especially grateful for the teachings of salmonberry. The bright pink flowers signaled the arrival of spring and we watched hummingbirds and bees drink the nectar. We tended thickets of salmonberry along the stream by thinning the canes, weeding out blackberries and buttercups, and mulching. The patches have thrived and are producing more fruit than we have seen in years. 

Ripe salmonberries mark the beginning of berry season, and we are currently savoring their big, juicy fruits along with birds and other animals. Salmonberries remind us of reciprocity—we can care for those around us, and we can receive the gifts that life bring with an open heart. Salmonberry is one of the plants in the Tend, Gather, and Grow curriculum and the lesson explores seasonal attunement, interconnectedness (connections between humans and non-humans), and ways that we can build healing relationships through giving and receiving. See here for the full lesson.

Getting to Know Salmonberry

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) forms dense thickets in wet forested areas, especially along streams and rivers. Plants grow as high as nine feet tall with brown stems covered in thorns and leaves resembling the raspberry plant. Deep pink flowers have five petals and many stamens. Leaves are sharply toothed, pointed at the tip, and grow in threes. Salmonberries are the first berry to ripen—usually in April through June. They can be orange to ruby-colored and are the same shape as raspberries and blackberries. Salmonberry is in the rose family. 

Salmonberry provides important food for many species. Hummingbirds, butterflies, and insects, including bees, drink the flower nectar. Insects carry pollen from bush to bush and assist in pollinating flowers and creating more berries. Salmonberries are eaten by many types of birds, squirrels, chipmunks, and larger mammals like coyotes, bear, deer, and elk. Salmonberry patches provide shelter for birds and small mammals.

Many Native communities in the Pacific Northwest associate salmonberry with Swainson’s thrush, which is also called salmonberry bird. Salmonberry flowers are often in bloom when this bird returns from its winter grounds. You might hear it singing its song from salmonberry bushes.

Some Salish Elders teach that salmonberry is an environmental indicator for salmon runs. Salmonberries often grow along waterways including rivers and streams. If there is enough rain and the waters are healthy and flowing well, salmonberry flowers will be abundant, and salmon will be able to easily spawn up rivers and streams to renew their species. 

Delicate salmonberry fruits

Salmonberry as Food

The tender spring shoots of salmonberry are also called bear candy because bears relish this spring treat. Sprouts are only available for a few weeks unless you travel to colder regions or higher elevations. As soon as it gets warm, new shoots grow rapidly. During this time, they are tender and juicy, and can easily be pinched off either from where they emerge on previous years stems or from the ground. The outer skin is easy to peel, leaving a crunchy vegetable that is tart and sweet. Sprouts become more bitter toward the tip of the shoot. As they mature, they become hard and fibrous. If you can’t easily pinch them off with your fingers, don’t bother. Remember to leave plenty of sprouts for salmonberry bushes to grow strong and for other animals to eat their spring greens! 

Salmonberry flowers are edible and have a sweet taste due to the nectar and pollen. They can be used to garnish salads and desserts. The berries can vary in color from yellow to orange to red to a deep purple on the same bush. The taste does vary according to where they grow: perform taste-tests to find the most delicious bushes. Some Coast Salish families have maintained salmonberry patches like raspberry patches for generations. 

Salmonberry as Medicine

Salmonberry sprouts and leaves are astringent and tighten inflamed tissue including wounds, burns, swollen gums, stomach problems, and gut inflammation. You can make a mineral-rich and astringent tea from the leaves of salmonberry and other rose family plants including strawberry, blackberry, and thimbleberry. Completely dry the leaves before making tea. Use 1 tablespoon per cup and steep 10–15 minutes. 

Peeled Salmonberry Sprout

Learning from Salmonberry – Interconnectedness

Salmonberry is part of an interconnected web of relationships. Its pink flowers are the first splash of color after winter and call hummingbird home to drink the sweet nectar. And with the hummingbird, the Swainson’s thrush arrives—her song singing the berries into ripeness and helping to call the salmon back to their ancestral waters. Emerging shoots announce a change of season to our bodies. Eating them prepares us for the activity of late spring and summer. When salmonberries are pruned by deer, elk, or humans, it helps the plants produce more fruit, which in turn helps all the species that depend on salmonberry. We hope you connect with salmonberry this summer! Here some questions you might ask yourself:

  • What is my interconnected web of relationships?
  • During this time of social isolation and societal upheaval, how can I still nurture my heart’s need for connection?
  • What opportunities does this time offer me to connect and deepen my relationships with non-human relatives?
  • What commitments can I make to strengthening relationships and supporting resilient communities?
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