Several species of fruit-bearing plants are quite plentiful and widespread throughout the boreal forest. Plants that produce fruit in the form of berries are the most common, as these plants tend to thrive in the acidic soil common to the conifer dominated landscape of the northwest. These plants had a wide variety of uses by traditional hunters, trappers, and gatherers.
Author and photographer Terry Garvin noted many uses of fruit-bearing plants by the traditional hunters and trappers of the northwest. The following is an excerpt from Mr. Garvin’s book, Carving Faces, Carving Lives: People of the Boreal Forest, reprinted with the kind permission of the author.
Across the boreal forest, there are as many as two-dozen plants that bear edible fruits and berries. Some plants, such as the black currant, red currant, and twisted stalk, are rare. Others are both plentiful and widespread. Cranberries (the high bush, low bush, and bog variety), pin cherry, blueberry, chokecherry, raspberry, saskatoon, and rosehip are familiar to all bushland people.
Aboriginal Elders used these berries in many ways. Berries could be eaten raw, or preserved as jam, jelly, or syrup. Berries could also be easily preserved by drying. Dried fruit could be softened by cooking it in water, or mixed with ground dried meat and fat to make pemmican. Dried berries were also beaded to create necklaces, or attached to crafts and clothing as decorations. Berry juice was used as a dye in the production of art and craft items.
Fruit availability depends on growing conditions which vary from year to year. High bush fruit plants are vulnerable to spring frosts. Ground cover plants, like the blueberry and bog cranberry, are found in sandy soils, and are also affected by spring weather. Raspberries and rosehips are found in disturbed soils, such as those along roadways or in recently-burned areas. Rosehips, and high bush cranberries remain on the plant through the winter, and can be picked through the cold season when their natural vitamin C is particularly valuable. Where berries were plentiful in one year, there may be few the next; people must search out the best places each year.