A berry good year

It’s a great year for berries and mushrooms in the Yukon. Val Loewen already knew it would be, back in mid-July.

by Claire Eamer

It’s a great year for berries and mushrooms in the Yukon. Val Loewen already knew it would be, back in mid-July. That’s when the Community Ecological Monitoring Project (CEMP) checks its berry plots to see how the Yukon’s boreal forest is doing.

CEMP has been operating since 2005, as a regional extension of a monitoring program that started more than three decades ago in the Kluane area. Every year, scientists and volunteers collect information about the plants and animals of the boreal forest near Whitehorse, Mayo, Faro, Watson Lake, and Kluane. They take the same set of observations in each region, following the same protocol, so that the information can be compared from year to year and from place to place. Loewen, a wildlife habitat biologist with Environment Yukon, says the intent is to collect data from right across the Yukon’s boreal forest.

The berry surveys take place in July, when most human berry-pickers are still just dreaming about the harvest. By then, Loewen explains, the berries have formed but not ripened, and animals haven’t yet begun eating them.

“Some of them are pretty small still, but you can identify them when you know what you’re looking for.”

Berries were plentiful this year. Mushrooms, which are surveyed in mid-August, were even more plentiful, Loewen says. “There were incredible numbers of mushrooms at the Forestry Preserve.”

The other Whitehorse-area site, in spruce forest in the Wolf Creek basin, had a good mushroom crop but not quite as spectacular as the Forestry Preserve. Mushrooms and other fungi appear to like the pine forest of the Forestry Preserve, she says.

Sampling berries at the two sites is a time-consuming process. The fieldworkers go back to the same locations each year, plonk down a pair of quadrats, each 25 centimetres square, and painstakingly count and identify all berries that fall within the quadrats. Then they move to the next location and start all over. At least 50 sites are counted in the Forestry Preserve and another 50 at Wolf Creek, so it takes a while to complete.

Mushroom sampling is equally painstaking. Mushrooms are counted within circles with a diameter of six metres, and there are 100 sampling sites at each location.

Loewen says the surveyors count total mushrooms, without identifying individual species. They’re all important food for red squirrels and other small mammals, but crops vary widely from year to year, mainly depending on the weather. In 2010, mushroom counts at most CEMP locations were low. However, this summer, while Yukoners complained about the rain, mushrooms were flourishing.

The most common berries in Yukon forests are kinnikinnick, cranberry, crowberry, red bearberry, and toadflax, and the CEMP surveyors record their numbers by species. They’re major food sources for small mammals, bears, and birds, so the size of the year’s berry crop can affect how many birds and animals survive the winter. Even coyotes and foxes will snatch a few berries in passing, Loewen says, “although it’s not their favourite food.”

Of course, human Yukoners make use of the berry crop too. Low-bush cranberries, high-bush cranberries, and blueberries are abundant and popular, Loewen says. Less common, but also popular, are cloudberries, raspberries, and – earlier in the summer – wild strawberries. Saskatoon berries grow wild in some places, such as the Marsh Lake area. And some people harvest rosehips for tea and preserves.

Environment Yukon biologist Bruce Bennett has calculated that 49 native Yukon plants produce berries, and 38 kinds of berries are edible – although not always particularly appealing to human tastes. Kinnikinnick berries, for example, are common at this time of the year and popular with small mammals, but most people find them mealy or tasteless. Still, if you’re lost in the bush, don’t turn up your nose at kinnikinnick berries. They’ll help you survive.

Only two kinds of Yukon berry are poisonous. Poison ivy berries are easy to spot since they’re white, an unusual colour for berries. However, they’re extremely rare in the Yukon, showing up so far only at a hot spring in the extreme southeast of the territory.

The other poisonous berry is baneberry or Actaea rubra. It’s an attractive, bright red, waxy-looking berry that grows in moist, shady conditions, particularly along stream banks. And it’s dangerous. A couple of baneberries can make you sick, and a handful could kill you, so it’s a good idea to learn to identify them.

For more information about Yukon berries and mushrooms, contact Environment Yukon. For information about the Community Ecological Monitoring Program, along with a link to its 2010 annual report, go to www.zoology.ubc.ca/~krebs/kluane.html.

This column is co-ordinated by the Northern Research Institute at Yukon College with major financial support from Environment Yukon and Yukon College. The articles are archived at www.taiga.net/yourYukon.

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