Outdoor Adventures in Tacoma: Berries of the Pacific Northwest
by Alison Baur
One of the things I appreciate most about living in the Pacific Northwest is the availability of cheap or free fresh berries. Berry harvesting is also a great excuse to experience the outdoors!
My favorite place to get blueberries is Blueberry Park, located at 7402 East D St. and E 74th Street. Originally a blueberry farm, the school district purchased the land in 1968 in order to build a high school at that location. However, the school was never built and neighbors began working together to maintain the blueberry bushes. In 1997, the land was adopted by Metro Parks as Blueberry Park. Volunteers continue to maintain the park every third Saturday of the month from 9 am – 12 pm. The blueberries are still ripe, so be sure to visit this Tacoma gem.
I have a love-hate relationship with blackberries. My day job is to dig up the ubiquitous Himalayan Blackberry (Rubus discolor), an invasive species which has taken over our road sides and habitat sites. It is covered in thorns, and I have been scratched hundreds of times. However, the berries are delicious and best of all, free. Just look around and you’ll be sure to see blackberries wherever you are. If you are a huge blackberry fan and would like to have them conveniently located in your yard, there is a lovely native species of blackberry, called Trailing Blackberry (Rubus ursinus). They taste better, look nicer, have fewer thorns, and won’t grow into tall unruly bushes.
There is a native species of wild strawberry in Washington State as well (Fragaria vesca). This would be a great ground cover to grow at home because it is well-suited for our climate and it has pretty white flowers in the spring. If you are vigilant, you may even spot the wild strawberry while on a walk in the woods. There are also many local u-pick opportunities for strawberries in the local area. I usually go to Picha Farms in Puyallup.
If you love raspberries, you will be happy to know that we also have a native type of raspberry in the Pacific Northwest called the Black Cap Raspberry (Rubus leucodermis). It looks a lot like a blackberry vine except that the stems are an icy blue. Of course, raspberries are also a popular u-pick crop.
Thimbleberries, Salmonberries, and Red Elderberries:
There are many berries from the Pacific Northwest that you won’t find in your local grocery store. I personally enjoy Thimbleberries (Rubus parviflorus), although I know people who don’t. These tart berries are surprisingly common and I love to feast on them while hiking. Salmonberries (Rubus spectabilis) are a more popular berry. They resemble a blackberry plant except that their stems are golden in color and their berries are orange, yellow or red. Red Elderberries (Sambucus racemosa) are commonly harvested for wine or jam (don’t eat them raw).
Before You Harvest:
Before picking berries in the wild, it is important to familiarize yourself with their identifiable characteristics. There are poisonous plants out there, so it is critical that you first do your homework. I recommend the book “Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast” by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon as a source for descriptions and pictures of plants common to the Pacific Northwest.
An Edible Yard:
A good way to acquire a free native berry plants for your home would be to attend a plant salvage event and dig your own. Plant salvage events occur in locations with a plethora of native plants that are slated for development. These plants are either salvaged with permission from the developer, or they are typically bull-dozed. I recommend contacting the Native Plant Salvage Alliance or the Native Plant Society for information on upcoming salvage events.