Feral Culture: Crowberries and Roses

Here's why people forage crowberries and wild roses in NL ...

Crowberries

Everyone loves a blueberry, of that there is no question. Few know that weeks before these gems are ready, a low growing tundra plant is already full of  small ripe succulent black drupes. 

They are the first berries of the season. The crowberry, Empetrum Nigrum, is found in barren, rocky places. The word empetrum itself meaning “growing on rocks.” It is an important food source in the north, high in vitamin C, manganese, and copper, comparable to blueberries in antioxidants and micronutrients.

It has many culinary uses depending on culture, the Sami enjoy the berry with reindeer milk, Innu mix it dried with grease or lard. In Labrador specifically, the leaves and the stem of the plant are burnt for  the flavour they impart when smoking arctic char, salmon, and sea trout. Most agree the taste improves with cooking, as they can be bland. I love to cook the berries in oatmeal.

Crowberries are evergreens, and their tough stems and “leaves” make them excellent for use in broom making or for scrubbing pots. These parts of the plant are also excellent for natural dye, producing green, brown and yellow hues.

Medicinally they are considered to be good for the skin, having an astringent effect, used in cosmetic preparations. In Dena’ina medicine, a tea of the leaves and stems is used to treat stomach problems and the root is used for growths and soreness in the eyes.

The plant has a proven diuretic action, and has been used to treat kidney disorders. In Russia it is used in folk medicine to treat nervous disorders, and some claim it has antidepressant qualities, though more study on this needs to be done.

Wild Roses 

Roses need no introduction, and there are several types growing wild here, such as Rosa Rugosa (large hip rose) and Rosa Canina (dog rose). The petals, buds, young shoots, leaves, and the rosehips are all edible, and each type of rose has its own distinct flavour, often the tinier ones like Canina being the most intense. 

The petals make a wonderful fragrant tea, a syrup made from them imparts the same flavour to deserts or cocktails. In Persian cookery, they are often mixed with cardamom, nutmeg and cinnamon in lamb dishes. In North Africa they are paired with the locally flavoured hot sauce, harissa paste. Victorian tea times often featured cookies made with both rose and lavender.

Rose hips make great jam and are extremely high in vitamin C, but care must be taken to remove the hairy seeds before use. Medicinally they have a rich history, Pliny the Elder in the 1st century CE recorded 32 uses for them. The Canina may get its name for its use by the Romans in treating rabid dog bites.

They were grown in medieval gardens more for medicine than beauty, and continued in mainstream use in Britain till the 1930s, a tincture of rose being used to cure sore throats. Today the volatile oil is used in aromatherapy and the rose hip is used in treating and preventing colds due to its high vitamin C content. In plant spirit medicine, roses help overcome heartbreak, connect with others, and open the heart chakra.

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