The Pacific Northwest has a whopping 14 species of Vaccinium, the genus containing huckleberries, blueberries, bilberries and cranberries. With such dazzling diversity, it has taken considerable study and many a happy mission for me to track them down, but this year I’ve finally seen them all and tasted all but one.
I spent the last week in August with my brother in Juneau and took full advantage of the foray to forage on the Last Frontier. Our journeys took us climbing to the top of Mt. Juneau, braving the bowels of the Mendenhall Glacier, trudging across the muskegs of Douglas Island, and scampering along Gold Creek. Basically as far as bus fare and our feet could take us.
This northerly corner of our bioregion graced me with discoveries of a precious and palatable sort. I had my first taste of Lingonberries (Vaccinium vitis-idaea), caught the last of the ripe Nagoonberries (Rubus arcticus), a fruit that is thought by many Europeans to be the superlative fruit, and most exciting to me, I had my first good taste of Dwarf Bilberry (V. caespitosum).
Dwarf Bilberry (Vaccinium caespitosum) is a lowmat forming shrub that is usually less than 1.5’ (50cm) tall with upright to prostrate stems. Young twigs are generally round in cross section and covered with a dense layer of microscopic fuzz. The bark ranges from green, brownish green or yellowish green to peach, pink, or red on young twigs, but browns and become flaky with age. Leaves are dark green on the upper surface and lighter on the underside with prominent reticulate venation. At about 1” (1-3cm) long, the leaves have an elliptical to obovate shape and margins that are finely and sharply serrated, with hairs at the tip of each serration. The small flowers are borne singly near the branches and are longer than wide, range in color from white to pink, and each one often has an exerted pistil. Berries grow on short curved stalks and mature from green to yellow to orangish red to purple before finally ripening to dark blue with a whitish blue bloom. The tip of each berry has a skirt-like circular scar where the corolla attached to the calyx. The berries range in size from 5/16-7/16” (8-11mm).
Dwarf Bilberries have an extensive yet patchy range throughout western North America from Anchorage to San Francisco along the Pacific Coast and inland to the Rockies in British Columbia, Montana and Idaho, and the Sierra Nevada in California. They inhabit bogs, muskeg, and arctic/alpine meadows with other ericaceous shrubs such as Lingonberry (V. vitis-idaea), Bog Bilberry (V. uliginosum), Cascade Bilberry (V. deliciosum), and various heather species. Near my house in Northwest Washington, they can be found in the rugged Twin Sister’s Range and the remote Pasayten wilderness. I can honestly say that I’ve never found a Dwarf Bilberry in a boring place. It is almost as if a couple miles of bush-whacking is required to earn the right to find them.
Capable of fruiting prodigiously, Dwarf Bilberries can be collected quickly by hand or rake by anyone willing to stoop for these hobbit sized bushes. They have juicy dark flesh, thin skin, and a sweet and sour flavor that is almost as good as its close cousin the Cascade Bilberry (V. deliciosum). When picking bilberries, I prefer to kneel on the ground and pick into wide mouth containers placed below the bush. I empty this vessel frequently into a lidded bucket to minimize losses should I slip or accidentally bump it over. Bilberry picking is messy business and I usually return with purple hands, knees, and tongue--Bilberry badges of courage.
Christian and I were ill-prepared for our Bilberry bonanza; with nowhere to store the bountiful harvest we were forced to eat them all.