Salmonberries

Norm Gibbons

SB_Favi Salmonberry by Norm Gibbons

 Consider the name. Does it not sound like a celebration?

salmonberry branchOn Cortes Island we often curse the more aggressive native plants.  Horsetail, salal, ferns, brambles, and exotics, like couch grass and broom, give us nightmares. They invade gardens, grow over trails and force us to concede that nature remains in charge. Regarding the salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis), an attitude reset could be in order.

The Salmonberry occurs throughout the Pacific Northwest. Just to confuse you, the generic name means blackberry in Latin and was derived from the word ruber, meaning “red.” The genus Rubus is believed to have existed since at least 23.7 to 36.6 million years ago. Many thickets can be found on Cortes Island preferring a moist nitrogen rich habitat, often associated with stands of alder (Alnus rubra).  The distinctive flowers – pink, red, magenta and a rare reddish purple – confirm the arrival of spring and longer days, generally in late March to early April.

Rufous HummingbirdBird enthusiasts here report that the return of the Rufus Hummingbird from their long Mexican migration often occurs within a day or two of the opening of the first salmonberry blossoms. These miniature birds depend on the sweet nectar to recharge their worn bodies until other nectar bearing blossoms greet the new season. In turn, the hummingbirds pollinate the plants helping them to grow fruit and seeds, which feed a variety of other birds later in the year. The flowers also provide an important nectar source for butterflies, bees and various other insects.

In time, salmonberry bushes form a dense thicket, which become ideal nesting places for songbirds and small mammals alike. The thorns of the salmonberry are not nearly as menacing as the blackberry, or even the raspberry, and make for less bloodletting if picked. An important riparian species, the salmonberry is also helpful in preventing erosion. With its deep roots and soil binding qualities, these shrubs can hold soil intact at the edge of a stream, pond, and ditch or on a steep slope. The timing of the first blossoms is now used as an indicator in gathering information on climate change in our region. For more information on this monitoring program under the leadership of the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust (CBT), can be found at their website, www.clayoquotbiosphere.org.

weird-fruit-salmonberry-ftrThe fruit ripens through mid-June to late-July and is similar in shape and size to other brambles like blackberries, raspberries and loganberries. The colour, however, is unusual in that a ripe fruit can be yellow, peach, orange or red. Salmonberry thickets are a favourite of the Swainson’s thrush, and the ripening of the fruit is also associated with the arrival of the bird, which is called the salmonberry bird in many different First Nation languages. The Nuu-chah-nulth regarded the ripening of salmonberries as a timing mechanism for the return of adult sockeye salmon and they also believed that bountiful berry crops signaled a successful sockeye harvest. The Nuu-chah-nulth name for the bush is “qawiish­mapt” (in the Tla-o-qui-aht dialect). The similarity in colour between salmon roe and salmonberries may account for the odd naming of the fruit. The plant was, and still is, an important food source for the coastal First Nation peoples. Traditionally, the berries were eaten with salmon, mixed with oolichan grease or salmon roe. The fruit is said to aid in digestion. New shoots, called “m’ayii,” were gathered in early spring, peeled and eaten raw, also steamed. The berries of this ecologically and culturally important plant also provide a good natural source of vitamin C.

rubus_spectabilis_olympic_doubleThis plant also naturally forms extensive clones, some of which have much tastier berries. New cultivars have been developed and the plant is now grown as an ornamental. ‘Olympic Double’ salmonberry is also known as Rubus spectabilis ‘Flore Pleno’.