Over 200 species of small, fleshy, wild fruits occur in Canada. Most people consider them all "berries" but, technically, they are classed in different categories, including drupes (e.g., cherries, elderberries), pomes (e.g., saskatoon berries), true berries (e.g., gooseberries, blueberries) and aggregate fruits (e.g., raspberries, strawberries). Here "berry" is used in its less technical connotation. The following are favourite Canadian wild berries.
Over 12 species of blackberries occur in woods and clearings, mainly in eastern provinces and southern British Columbia. They belong to the Rubus genus in the Rosaceae family. They make excellent pies, jams, jellies and wines.
Blueberries, Bilberries, Huckleberries
There are some 18 species of blueberries, bilberries and huckleberries in Canada — belonging to the Vaccinium genus in the Ericaceae family — including bog cranberries (discussed separately). All are shrubs, with edible fruits which vary in colour from red through blue and black. Cultivated varieties have been developed from wild species.
Buffaloberries (genus Shepherdia, family Elaeagnaceae), silver buffaloberry (S. argentea) and russet buffaloberry or soapberry (S. canadensis) are deciduous shrubs with small, reddish orange fruits. In Canada, the former grows mainly on the Prairies, the latter from coast to coast. Fruits are bitter but good in jelly. Silver buffaloberries were used by Aboriginal peoples to flavour buffalo meat. Aboriginal peoples in British Columbia whip soapberries with water to make a favourite confection.
Chokecherries (Prunus virginiana) are shrubs or small trees, which occur across southern Canada. Fruits, ranging from red to black, grow in long clusters. They have large stones and can be astringent, but are excellent in jellies, juices or syrups. Six other species of Prunus (four cherries and two plums) are native to Canada.
Cranberries are low, vine-like perennials growing in muskeg and peat bogs. Three or four closely related species can be identified, belonging to the Vaccinium genus in the Ericaceae family. One of these species is the forerunner of the cultivated cranberry. Lowbush cranberry or lingonberry, (V. vitis-idaea) is related, but has smaller, clustered berries. Highbush cranberries (Viburnum opulus, and V. edule) are tall shrubs with tart, clustered fruits.
Some 14 species of currants are found in Canada. They belong to the Ribes genus in the Saxifragaceae family or Grossularioideae (gooseberry) sub-family, many resembling garden varieties and are used similarly. Fruits range from red to bluish to black. Currants lack spines or prickles, distinguishing them from gooseberries.
Gooseberries are spiny or prickly shrubs related to currants. Gooseberries occur almost everywhere in Canada except the Far North. At least 12 species, belonging to the Ribes genus, are found. The reddish to dark purple berries are tart and, like their cultivated relatives, are best in jellies and preserves.
Raspberries (Rubus idaeus or R. strigosus) are found in woods and clearings from Newfoundland to British Columbia and in the territories. Wild raspberries were used to develop cultivated varieties. Relatives of raspberry include black raspberry (R. occidentalis), blackcap (R. occidentalis leucodermis), cloudberry (R. chamaemorus), arctic raspberry (R. arcticus), thimbleberry (R. odoratus, R. parviflorus) and salmonberry (R. spectabilis).
Salal (Gaultheria shallon), an evergreen shrub, is restricted mainly to coastal BC. Salal has clustered berrylike fruits which, mashed and dried for winter storage, were, and still are, a major Northwest Coast indigenous food. Four other species of Gaultheria occur in Canada.
Saskatoon berry (Amelanchier alnifolia), is a deciduous shrub that grows from western Ontario to British Columbia and the Yukon. The city of Saskatoon takes its name from a Cree word for the sweet, fleshy fruits, which were of prime importance to Aboriginal peoples and early settlers. On the prairies, saskatoons were a major constituent of pemmican. They are still enjoyed and plant breeders are developing varieties for commercial production. Some 15 related species, all with edible fruits, occur in Canada.
Three species of strawberries (genus Fragaria, family Rosaceae) are native to Canada, growing in woodlands, meadows, clearings and coastlines. All are herbaceous perennials with leaves in three parts, and they closely resemble domesticated strawberries, which were derived from two wild species. Despite their softness and small size, their delicate flavour makes wild strawberries a favourite.