We took a little winter vacation last week and spent sometime cross country skiing and snowshoeing. It was a much needed break from all the busy tasks we have been focused on. We all had a refreshing and fun time in the snow. And vacation lives on, because our legs are still pretty sore from all the exercise.
On the final day out snowshoeing, just before heading home, we stumbled upon a winter surprise. Just peaking out of the snow near all the leafless, lowbush blueberry branches was a bright red bearberry.
My first introduction to the bearberry was 20 years ago on the top of Hogback Mountain in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The rocky top of the mountain was just covered in a mat of the low-growing, green ground cover. During late summer and fall lots of these little red berries grew. I never really thought about eating them. The blueberries, bilberries, and thimbleberries were so much sweeter.
My next exposure to the bearberry was as Arctostaphylos uva ursi, the medicinal herb. In 2007, when I was training to become a master herbalist, I rediscovered the plant but now could attach new value to it. Native Americans traditionally used bearberry for treating urinary tract infections and kidney and bladder inflammation. But, herbally speaking, they used a tea of the leaves; not the berry. (Several contraindications exist to using uva ursi as well as potential side effects. Don’t use unless you have consulted with a knowledgeable herbalist or healthcare provider trained in the use of herbs).
Since that time, we’re more interested in the edible wild plants. Last summer on our kayaking vacation, we collected a lot of bearberries and made a bearberry pudding and a bearberry lemonade. They didn’t have a very strong flavor and had a mealy texture. Not really a prime snacking berry, but we thought next time we would try them in a bread, a trail mix, or do a little experimenting to see how they could best be eaten.
The first surprise was finding a place close to home where we could find some bearberries this year, not to mention some wild blueberries. The second surprise was that the winter chilled bearberries were actually sweeter and a slightly nicer texture than the late summer berries. Good to know. I plan to take note in my phenology journal.(Something I will blog about another time).
While it’s not likely to ever collect enough bearberries in the winter to do much with, it may be worth it to try to harvest after a frost but before the snow falls. If the bear haven’t harvested the berries first.
And if nothing else, now we know that sometimes a bearberry might be hiding under the snow for a winter nibble while out snowshoeing.
If you know of any good ways to eat bearberries, we would love to read them. Please share with us in the comment section below.