Western Alaska residents fill buckets of late-budding salmonberries

Salmonberries. (Davis Hovey)

Rubus chamaemorus or salmonberries: Low-lying fruit budding from tundra plants, typically surrounded by three leaves, and made up of bright orange seeds or drupes almost resembling a big raspberry.

In Nome, residents rely on the unique berries to make sweet treats like akutaq, canning jam for winter and even topping off their favorite cereal. 

But, the chance to harvest salmonberries was almost lost this summer. Tundra foragers waited two long months without any sign of the budding fruit. Then finally, at the beginning of August, the aqpiks showed up. 

The timing was unusual, said Katie Spellman, who studies some of Alaska’s naturally occurring berries for the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ International Arctic Research Center.

“August? We don’t see salmonberries blooming in August,” she said. “That is not the season anywhere in Alaska that people usually document it.”

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Spellman said there’s a few possible causes for late-budding salmonberries (or cloudberries) including more precipitation when flowers bloom, which reduces pollination, or an overall lack of pollinators. While some types of berries can self-pollinate, she said, salmonberries have flowers with two different sexes, which make them more dependent on bees or other types of pollinators, and also extra sensitive to weather changes.

Changes in bud development with earlier springs and later falls is another possible reason behind the late-summer bloom, Spellman said.

“Salmonberries work through the summer to make flower buds for the next year that sit at the base of their stem on top of their roots just under the moss,” Spellman explained by email. “Typically they save these buds through the winter ready to bloom in spring. However, in a year where the fall is long and the weather warm, those buds can start popping open in a time that seems very late and unusual.”

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Rosa Wright preparing to make salmon berry jam. (Davis Hovey)

Life-long Nome resident Rosa Wright tends to think the late budding is related to the long period of rain that lasted through most of June and July. Whatever the reason, she said, she was delighted to finally see fields of orange berries across the Nome tundra this summer.

“Oh it was such a good feeling to fill my freezer with salmonberries, to fill up buckets,” she said. “I put away about six gallons this year, maybe seven.”

With part of this summer’s haul, she plans to incorporate the berries’ juicy, tart flavor into jam.

“Sometimes if you want to switch it up, I like to add a different flavor of Jell-O,” she said. “I like it a little less sweet. Some people strain out the seeds. I know for some Elders, they don’t like the seeds in there. I personally love the seeds. I love the texture, especially if you put it on toast and you get that crunch.”

But, while the salmonberries did bud this year, the predictability and consistency of their growth across the state is becoming less reliable, according to Spellman

Spellman said UAF’s berry research team has documented changes in the timing and condition of Alaska berry species through a series of projects over the last 10 years, as the growing season becomes longer.

“There are more and more observations of these late-blooming events because fall is lasting longer now,” she said. “So if the plants are like, ‘Oh it’s so great, it’s so nice, I can bloom in August.’ The bad part is the amount of time it takes from once it’s pollinated to make a fruit, it might not get that done in time before the snow.”

(Jerry Hupp, Michael Brubaker, Kira Wilkinson and Jennifer Williamson 2015 survey data)

To better understand these changes, and be better prepared for what future berry picking in Alaska will look like, Spellman and her colleagues are planning to convene an Alaska Berry Science summit this spring and to collaborate with microbiologists to better understand berry rot.

“I want my kids to be able to grow up and have berries to pick,” Spellman said. “So that’s why I do this work, because it’s important research for my family and I want my kids to have what I had growing up in Alaska. That experience and the knowledge of the land.”

To submit your observations of salmonberries, ask questions about the Winterberry Project or to volunteer as a citizen scientist, contact Katie Spellman at klspellman@alaska.edu.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the name of the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ center where Katie Spellman works. It is the International Arctic Research Center, not the International Arctic Center. This story has also been updated to clarify the process of salmonberries’ bud development.

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Davis Hovey is a news reporter at KNOM - Nome. Hovey was born and raised in Virginia. He spent most of his childhood in Greene County 20 minutes outside of Charlottesville where University of Virginia is located. Hovis was drawn in by the opportunity to work for a radio station in a remote, unique place like Nome Alaska. Hovis went to Syracuse University, where he graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science in Broadcast Digital Journalism.