Squamish Language: yetwán (berry), yetwánaý (salmonberry bush)
Range: Found growing in abundance along the coast from Alaska through British Columbia and as far south as Oregon.
Habitat: Found growing in moist to wet conditions in both forest habitat and shaded swamps. Can be found growing along stream banks as well, and is often found growing in dense thickets.
Parts of plant used: Berries, spring shoots, leaves and bark.
Salmonberry is a shrub that can grow as tall as three metres in height and has papery, brown bark and small prickles all along the stem. The leaves have three lobes with toothed leaf margins and are compound with two lateral leaflets and one larger terminal leaflet. If you fold down the larger terminal leaflet the remaining leaves look like butterfly wings.
Salmonberry is one of the first botanical gifts that spring offers. In the early spring the plants send up succulent new shoots that can be picked, peeled and eaten fresh. The spring shoots have been harvested and eaten as a spring green by First Nations in the Pacific Northwest for thousands of years. My home community of Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish Nation, Canada) holds these shoots in high regard. The Skwxwú7mesh name for the shoots is stsá7tskaý pronounced saskay. My father told me once that he remembered picking these as a young boy. He said he would pick them when they were still tender and easy to bend, like a licorice, and then peel them on the spot and eat them as he played and walked in the forest.
The beautiful, papery, pink blooms of the salmonberry bush are one of the first splashes of color to grace the forests of the Pacific Northwest in the spring. These lovely flowers can be harvested and used as decoration for desserts. The leaves and bark have astringent qualities and can be thoroughly dried and used as a tea to treat diarrhea. It is important to ensure the leaves are dried completely as the wilted leaves can be mildly toxic.
The delicious, juicy berries can be eaten fresh from early to late summer depending on where in the geographic range of the species you are harvesting them. The berries range in color from yellow or orange to red. Some suggest that the appearance and color of the berries resembles salmon roe and that this may be where the common name originates. The berries are very juicy and for this reason were most often eaten fresh by indigenous peoples or blended in with other drier berries to make dried fruit cakes.
The Skwxwú7mesh people believed that the song of the Swainson’s thrush ripened the salmonberries on the bush.
Note from the author: I have always been taught to respect plants and to be sure not to harvest too much from one single plant. There are many other animals that rely on the food and medicine that plants provide. It is also extremely important to go out harvesting with someone who is confident with plant identification and who can help to harvest and prepare the plants in a safe and responsible way.