Crowberry (Empetrum nigrum)
Other Names: blackberry, mossberry, black crowberry.
Crowberry Family: (Empetraceae).
Habitat and Range: Crowberries thrive in bogs, heaths, tundra, and high mountains. Crowberry, Empetrum nigrum, ranges from northern Alaska and the Yukon to California. Subspecies nigrum has male and female flowers on separate plants, whereas subspecies hermaphroditum has bisexual flowers.
Physical Description: Crowberry: Empetrum nigrum: a: crowberry generally grows about 6 inches high. The trailing stems, however, often extend 24 inches in length; b: fruits are blue-black with several seeds; c: evergreen leaves are narrow and needlelike, edges roll back and meet; d: woody creeping stems; e: flowers are tiny, inconspicuous. Plants are bisexual or unisexual depending on subspecies. Crowberries sometimes grow in dense patches.
Crowberry: Fruit improves with cooking. Though one of the most popular berries in the Arctic, crowberries are all too often overlooked by other northwesterners. Though uninteresting in taste when raw, cooked crowberries yield delightful desserts, cordials, juices, and jellies.
Harvest Calendar: Late summer to early fall: mature crowberries. Crowberries are best after the first frosts as the cold sweetens the fruits. If gathering them beforehand, place them in a freezer, this has the same effect as frosty nights.
Food Use: Since crowberries are better cooked than raw, berry picking is easy–free of the danger of incessant nibbling, your supply of fruit grows steadily. Once you blend the fruits into kitchen creations, however, your crowberries are apt to disappear rapidly. There are endless ways to use these versatile fruits.
Stew crowberries with honey and lemon juice as a topping for ice cream. Use them in cakes, muffins, fruit leather rollies, and syrups. Add pectin and process into savory jams and jellies. Blend crowberries with blueberries for pie–making, they are a good extender when blueberries are in short supply. For a nutritious, delicious breakfast beverage, crowberry juice or crowberry syrup diluted with water, is recommended.
Tingaulik is a favorite dish of the Inupiat; it’s a blend of trout or tomcod livers and crowberries. Around the Kobuk River, crowberries are served with seal oil. In St. Mary, they are topped with milk and sugar.
For winter use, crowberries are traditionally mixed with seal oil and stored in a cool place. They also can be frozen, canned or dried. Dry crowberries are an excellent addition to dry meat or pemmican. Since crowberries overwinter well, foragers can collect the fruits in spring, along with bog cranberries and lingonberries.
MEDICINAL USE: Infusions of crowberry twigs and stems have been administered for colds, kidney troubles, and tuberculosis. Dena’ina Athabascans drink the tea for diarrhea. Kobuk River Eskimos use the crowberry juice in sore eyes to relieve snowblindness. Decoctions of the roots and bark have also been used for sore eyes and cataracts.
Other: The botanical name, Empetrum, is derived from the Greek EN (upon) and PETROS (rock). Nigrum means black. This black–fruited plant is often found in rocky soil. At Katmai National Park on the Alaska Peninsula, plump crowberries are abundant just outside the ash–strewn valley floor. Since these fruits persist on the evergreen stems into the winter, they are an important survival food. Birds, bears, and pikas also find crowberries as important food source. Crowberries make an attractive ground cover in the home rock garden. Plant in well–drained soil. They also do well in terrariums.