THERE’S NOTHING QUITE like the first salmonberry of the year.
It is a juicy mix of sweet and sour with a wild taste that can’t be defined.
If you don’t know what a salmonberry is, you probably aren’t from around here.
The rhododendron may be the Washington state flower, but the salmonberry would have my vote.
Salmon berries are the first berries of the year. Their yearly cycle mirrors the life cycle of the fish they’re named for.
The first salmonberry blossoms in the spring have been a sign since ancient times of the return of the first salmon, the spring chinook to their home rivers.
As the salmon berries blossom, the succulent sprouts of new salmonberry plants are the first fresh vegetable that can be gathered in the spring.
Salmonberry shoots were considered a prized spring tonic by the Native Americans and our early pioneers alike.
They were called “bear candy” because that’s also one of their favorite treats — so you had to get to them before the bears do.
Salmonberry shoots were gathered to serve with the first king salmon.
Not only were salmon berries a valuable food, but the bark and leaves were also used as a pain medication and disinfectant for festering wounds and burns.
As the salmon berries ripen in mid-summer, the salmon that migrate upriver in the spring are doing the same thing.
The salmon use the high water of the spring snow melt to get as far up the river as they can go before the water drops to summertime levels, making the journey more difficult.
All through this migration and the months of waiting in a canyon pool or a log jam, the salmon do not eat a thing. They rely instead on the body fat they gain from feeding in the ocean.
This represents an exchange of energy from the ocean upriver to the land and back again that, until lately, had sustained the animals, forests and people since the Ice Age.
As the salmon eggs grow larger, the salmon turn red as they get ready to spawn.
Meanwhile the salmon berries change colors from a light orange to a scarlet red until the salmon and berries are both ripe at the same time.
Salmon caviar has always been popular. It is a treasured gourmet dish among people who like fish.
That appetite is shared equally with the bears. If there are enough fish in the river, the bears would just as soon eat the eggs out of the females.
Some people would do the same thing with their fish if they thought they could get away with it.
Picking salmon berries is one of the most leisurely methods of getting food in the woods.
They grow along roads. You don’t have to bend over to pick them.
You can eat a lot of them quickly.
While generational feuds have erupted over the picking of a secret blackberry or huckleberry patch, salmon berries grow everywhere.
There is no such thing as a secret salmonberry patch.
That’s why I and many other right-thinking plant lobbyists think the noble salmonberry — with its long history of providing food and medicine to the people of our fair state, as well as serving as a reminder each year of the salmon we used to have — deserves to be appreciated much more than those cookie-cutter rhodys you get from a store.
The time has come to honor our plant heritage by making the salmonberry the official state flower.
We’ll thank ourselves later if we do the right thing now.
Pat Neal is a Hoh River fishing guide and “wilderness gossip columnist” whose column appears here every Wednesday.
He can be reached at 360-683-9867 or by email via patneal [email protected]