Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis)
Thimbleberry (Rubus parviflorus)
Other Names: muck-a-muck (Rubus spectabilis)
Rose Family: (Rosaeceae)
Habitat and Range: Thickets of salmonberries and thimbleberries are common in moist woods and lower mountainous regions, and along roadsides. Salmonberry, Rubus spectabilis), ranges from the Alaska Peninsula, south-central, and southeastern Alaska to California. Thimbleberry, (Rubus parviflorus), reaches from the Alaska Panhandle to California.
Physical Description: Salmonberry: Rubus spectabilis; a: shrub to 7 feet high. Often forms dense thickets; b: flowers rich magenta color with 5 petals; c: fruits are raspberry–like, red or orange at maturity; d: spines on stem are weak; e: leaflets have coarse teeth and arranged in groups of 3.
Physical Description: Thimbleberry: Rubus parviflorus: f: shrub 2 to 8 feet high. Often forms dense thickets; g: Leaves are maplelike with 3 to 5 lobes and tissue–soft texture; h: white flowers with 5 petals, can be up to 2 inches across; i: Stems are smooth, free of prickles; j: Fruits are red, soft, thimble–shaped.
Salmonberry and Thimbleberry: Multiple–Purpose Shrubs: Salmonberries and thimbleberries are raspberry cousins that range from Alaska to California. Botanically they are members of the Rubus genus, a grouping that includes many white–flowered plants. As the name spectabilis indicates, salmonberry has showy flowers; blossoms are dark pink or magenta. The fruits look much like plump raspberries, but may be either red or orange at maturity. Some folks insist the lighter colored fruits are better; others insists there is no taste difference. I find some berries definitely sweeter than others, but can’t uncover an obvious color link or reason for occasional fruits tasting sour.
Thimbleberry’s specific name parviflorus translates as small–flowered. The blossoms, however, may reach two inches across, making them among the largest–flowered in this genus. The alternate translation, few in number, is a bit more accurate, as the herb has only three to five flowers per cluster. Fruits are thimble–shaped. The flavor varies with soil and moisture conditions.
Harvest Calendar: Spring: tender shoots. Late spring to summer: flowers and leaves. Summer: fruits. The fruits ripen early in lower coastal areas, later in midsummer higher in the mountains. Fall to spring: bark.
Food Use: Lillian Elvsaas of Seldovia, Alaska, says she peels tender salmonberry shoots and nibbles them as a trail snack. The spring growth is sweet in taste; shoots can be sauteed, stir–fried, or used as veggie sticks for dips. Thimbleberry shoots can be used in a similar manner.
Salmonberry and thimbleberry flowers can be added to salads. Fresh or thoroughly dried leaves are good ingredients in herbal teas. Fruits can be used for snacks or cereal topping; add to milkshakes, fruit pies, parfaits, and other desserts.
MEDICINAL USE: The bark and leaves of both salmonberries and thimbleberries have astringent properties. Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants of California recommends steeping one ounce dried thimbleberry root and bark in two cups water and taking a full wineglass dose frequently for diarrhea or dysentery. Since thimbleberry’s range extends into Mexico, the remedy might be useful on your next southern vacation.
CAUTION: When collecting salmonberry and thimbleberry leaves, be certain to use them immediately for tea, or dry them well. When merely wilted, the leaves are mildly toxic.
Cosmetic Use: Salmonberry and thimbleberry bark and leaves can be used in facial steams for oily skin. Add to herbal baths and hair rinses.
Historical Use: Explorers sipped salmonberry root and bark decoctions to cure intestinal ailments caused by overconsumption of salmon. Pounded bark was applied to aching teeth to relieve pain.
Salmonberry plants were a symbol of prestige among Indian tribes. Food Plants of British Columbia Indians reports that private individuals or families owned rights to harvest salmonberry patches. Boxes and boxes of the berries would be gathered by the females of the household for winter use and salmonberry celebrations. After the second picking, feasts were held, and picking privileges would then be granted to the community at large.
There are many theories concerning the origin of salmonberry’s common name. Some say it originates from the Chinook legend that instructed Coyote to place these berries in the mouth of each salmon he caught in order to insure continued good fishing. Others say the fruit’s moniker is due to its color resemblance to salmon eggs. Certainly the salmon–hued drupelets with the salmon egg texture that often grow on the banks of salmon streams are well suited to their name, but like most common names, uncommon confusion can result. Alaskan Eskimos give the name salmonberry to the very different Rubus chamaemorus (called cloudberry in this text).
Thimbleberry was an important food source for many coastal Pacific Northwest Indians. Berries were dried into cakes, which were chipped and added to soups. Leaves served as protective covering for food dishes and as liners for cooking pits.
Other: Salmonberries, like raspberries, are a biennial. Only the second–year canes bear fruit and flowers. Salmonberries grow as far south as California; they are sometimes planted as an ornamental and edible.
Thimbleberries serve two additional functions. The shrubs, due to insect attack, often develop gall–like protuberances; these swollen stems are picked in winter and highly valued for their aesthetic touch in dried flower arrangements.