Oregon has the best berries in the world. Everyone knows our about blueberry farms, marionberry syrup, sweet local strawberries and the ubiquitous Himalayan blackberry. But dive into the forest and you can find native berries that have been part of Oregon’s bounty for much, much longer.
One of our family’s favorite hiking spots is the St. Helens Tree Farm property. I’ve posted about the Salmonberry Reservoir lake and possible future trail system, but for this berry-picking trip my sister’s family and I went to the other entrance on the north side of Pittsburg Road.
Depending on when spring comes, berry-picking season starts to pick up somewhere around July and August. The lawns might be going brown in the heat down low, but the logging roads in the hills are gorgeously attired in green:
At around 500-1000 feet elevation, these St. Helens Tree Farm hills are just high enough to get some interesting hill-friendly wildlife, including the rarely seen Mountain Quail.
On our berry-picking hike, thimbleberries were the first to appear. These tall thin plants grow in dappled sunlight on the forest edge. The seed-filled berries have a wonderful “fall apart in your mouth” texture – the same falling apart that makes them tough to take home! Native Americans ate them both fresh and dried as well as cooked, and ate the young sprouts as a vegetable sauteed in oil. Its leaves were made into a tea to treat anemia. Many a hiker has found other uses for the broad, soft leaves when spending too long in the forest without proper supplies.
Mixed along the sunny sides of the trail we began to find blackberries and raspberries. Unlike the dense introduced Himalayan and Armenian blackberries so common in the city, the native Trailing Blackberry is humble plant that grows along the ground. Our native raspberry is the Whitebark Raspberry (aka Blackcap Raspberry), a black raspberry distinguished from blackberries by its duller, more cap-like appearance and softer texture.
One of the main goals of the hike was to find huckleberries, and we did it! These prosper in more shade than other berries. My sister and her kids picked as many Red Huckleberries as they could in order to make wonderful huckleberry muffins. I find Red Huckleberries to have a sharpness to them (sort of similar to cranberry, though not nearly that tart) that I don’t enjoy as much as Blue Huckleberries, but the blues tend to be present at higher elevations. So I snack on the reds when I can.
Since we’re close to Salmonberry Reservoir, it makes sense that we’d find some salmonberries in the area. These orange berries only live in the dampest areas, hugging the creek. They’re more tart than a blackberry but my daughter absolutely loves them and can’t pass a bush without stuffing her mouth. Native Americans made a poutice from the leaves and bark of this plant (as well as thimbleberry) to help heal burns.
Now that I mention it, the stream at St. Helens Tree Farm is beautiful. Milton Creek up here is smaller and wilder than down in the city, rushing through forest and passing over some small rapids. Hike far enough up and you can see large beaver ponds.
The last berry we saw on this particular day was Oregon Grape. There are two species, the Cascade (also known as “Low”) Oregon-Grape, which is only about 2 feet high, and the Tall Oregon-Grape, which can reach 8 feet high. I don’t tend to eat them but they’re supposedly great as a jelly. Native Americans mixed them with salal or other sweeter berries in order to improve the flavor.
A common berry in this forest that we didn’t happen to notice on this hike is Salal. Unlike the sun-loving berries I mentioned earlier, Salal thrives as forest undergrowth in the shade of the conifers. I started trying Salal berries last year and I really like them! They need to be plucked with care to get the whole berry, but have a unique light and sweet taste. Native Americans in our area used to pick these berries in large quantities, cooking them into a paste which they then poured into a form to produce dried slabs up to two feet long and an inch thick. These high-calorie Salal slabs would be stored until winter, at which point they would be mixed with other berries or oil, cooked again, and eaten.
There are also many Currants in the area. I’ve only picked them a couple times just to try them out, but they’re all edible. The taste can vary, with some bland and others rather tart. Native Americans ate them fresh, cooked, or dried, often mixing them with other berries to improve flavor. Our native species include the Swamp Currant and Stink Currant, both of which are found in damp soil near streams, as well as the Red-flowering Currant which grows in sunny spots like clearcuts.
Our last berry is one of the Northwest’s most famous and, for me, the hardest to find: the Woodland Strawberry. These little plants can cover the ground along roads or in forest openings, though I rarely see them in Columbia County and more commonly find them in the Cascades. Their little fruits are a treasure, strongly and more spectacularly flavored than commerical strawberries, and are sometimes used in delicacies. Besides eating them both fresh and dried, Native Americans powdered the leaves for use as a disinfectant.
It must be said that you should NEVER eat a berry unless you are sure you have positively identified the species and know that it is safe. We have several toxic berries in our area, including bittersweet nightshade, red baneberry, uncooked red elderberry, English holly, Tartarian honeysuckle, and common snowberry. My post is meant to be an introduction to the diversity available here but it is not a guide – do NOT just go out and start picking berries yourself unless you are with someone experienced who can tell you which is which.
That we have forests so close by which produce such an amazing variety of berries is truly a treasure. The more such forests our kids can reach, and the more berries they get the chance to enjoy, the better.
St. Helens Tree Farm at a glance
What: hiking, birding, berry-picking
Where: From Highway 30 on the north end of St. Helens, head west on Pittsburg Road for 7.5 miles until reaching a gate on the right at 45.9027, -122.9314. Park safely off the road without blocking the gate and fill out a free day-use form.
Hiking: There are several miles of old logging roads.
Notable Wildlife: woodland birds, salamanders
Property status: City of St. Helens
Website: St. Helens Recreation Area