If spring is the symbol of re-birth, the simple pink flower of the salmonberry could be the season's symbol. The salmonberry plant is considered to be a common plant species found west of the Cascade Mountains up and down the coast. Although it is often considered to be an inferior tasting berry to others such as the blackberry, huckleberry, or thimbleberry, the salmonberry is special for other reasons than its fruit. If you've been on a walk through the woods lately you've probably noticed a lot of "new green," maybe with a few non-native daffodils mixed in. Then the pink hits you. The blossoms of the salmonberry add not only color, but hope as well; hope for less rain and more flowers. When the Lewis and Clark Expedition stayed in this area during the winter of 1805-06 they didn't really stick around long enough to see the wonders of a Pacific Northwest spring. One could speculate that they may have stuck around a bit longer had they known that the rains do end and the flowers and berries take over.
When Meriwether Lewis described the salmonberry in April of 1806 he scientifically described the flower as being, "single, the peduncle long and celindric, the calyx is perianth, of one leaf, five cleft, and acutely pointed." Don't ask me what that means; I just know it doesn't sound particularly beautiful. As detailed as his description continued to be, Lewis didn't reveal any affection for the bloom or draw any deeper meaning from it. He was probably thinking about having to find horses and cross the mountains - again. I guess you can't blame him. From my perspective, where my Minnesotan hometown is still brown and gray, I can't help but to embrace this flower. There were others who came before me that saw other, more practical values in the salmonberry.
The indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest used the salmonberry for a wide variety of uses. The young sprouts were peeled and eaten cooked or uncooked. I haven't tried them yet but from what I've read they are sweet and juicy. The yellowish to pale pink berries have a similar color to the flesh of a salmon. The salmonberry is used in the First Salmon Ceremony possibly because the blossoms appear when the fish arrive. These early blossoms produce some of the earliest berries of the season.
The berries are sometimes listed as "insipid" in plant guide books. I have to admit, I had to look up this word to see how bad "insipid" is supposed to be. According to the good book this means "tasteless, without flavor." I'd have to argue with that description. Although the salmonberry is not as sweet as other berries, it has its own "mellow" quality, accompanied by a pleasurable juiciness. Do I sound like a berry connoisseur yet? Even if you don't appreciate the taste of the berries there are other potential uses.
The next time you eat too much salmon try eating some salmonberry. From what I've read, almost all the parts of the plant were used to cure indigestion. Coastal natives used the chewed up leaves to soothe burns. The pounded bark was sometimes used to help with toothaches. Both the shredded bark and dried leaves can be used to make a truly "organic" tea. The hollow shafts of the plant were use in games and had practical uses as a type of straw or funnel. These are just some of the few functional uses for the salmonberry.
Listening to Chinook Tribal Chairman, Gary Johnson formally introduce himself, he reveals another use for the bloom of the salmonberry. While remembering the ancestors that came before him, Johnson mentions a grandma or great-grandmother that was born "when the salmonberries were in blossom." How beautiful is that? Next time you see the simple pink flower of the salmonberry, remember that all plants are gifts to us and these gifts continue to give year after year.
Jon Schmidt is an Interpretive Specialist at Cape Disappointment State Park. To contact him, call the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at 642-3029 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.