My gardening projects these past few days have consisted solely of watering, watering, and watering some more. It’s bone dry here, and in fact, the province of Alberta is currently under a fire ban, issued this past Saturday. As I write this, the community of Nordegg, 335 kilometres (208 miles) northwest of Calgary, is threatened by a massive, uncontrolled forest fire. Over 150 firefighters are battling that blaze and 50 more are fighting a fire outside of the nearby hamlet of Lodgepole. Hopefully they will bring the fires under control within the next few hours.
The fire ban is in place just in time for the Victoria Day long weekend, considered “opening weekend” for the camping season. My hubby and I have stopped camping on long weekends – we just cannot face the crowds of people that leave the cities to whoop it up in packed campgrounds. We’ll head out camping during the shoulder seasons, or during the week, when sites are available and the level of zaniness drops slightly. Instead, over the next few months, we’ll be focussing on taking day trips to hike or fish or just have a picnic.
Indeed, the prospect of eating portable food by a river in a forested, mountainous area is partly the reason we headed out to Elbow Falls, near the tiny hamlet of Bragg Creek, a couple of Fridays ago. That, and we hadn’t been out to the Falls in over a decade and we live practically next door to them.
A bit of snow still lingered in the shadows, and the Elbow River was clear and cold. We watched an American dipper cavort in the water - this was our first time seeing one of these dark brown birds, and it was really entertaining to watch the way they move and feed. (While my blurry, blobby photos of the little gaffer were good enough to obtain a positive ID from the enthusiastic and extremely helpful birders on the Alberta Birds Facebook page, I’m afraid they’re not quite blog-worthy. You can read about American dippers and see a decent photo here).
Kinnikinnick (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi, common bearberry) was growing like mad everywhere you looked, stuffed into every rock crevice and creeping along the pathways. I’ve always been a huge fan of this pretty groundcover, with its leathery green leaves that redden beautifully in the fall, and the pale pink flowers followed by bright orange-red berries. Bearberry has an air of confidence (if plants can have such a thing): it appears as if it will withstand anything nature can throw at it and look supremely fabulous doing it. If I had a rock garden, this native would be one of the first plants I’d install.
While I knew that kinnikinnick berries were edible, I didn’t realize that the plant is such a useful – and complete – food source for many different types of wildlife. According to this article, kinnikinnick serves as a larval food for many species of insects, and butterflies and hummingbirds dine on the plant’s nectar. The berries are nutrition for bears (of course), deer and coyotes, as well as birds such as evening grosbeaks, sparrows, and grouse. Deer munch on the plant’s twigs in the dead of winter. And humans (another type of wildlife, especially on the long weekends ) have been eating kinnikinnick for centuries – consuming the raw berries or adding them to dried meat and breads, or drinking tea made from the leaves and berries. It is truly an amazing little shrub.
(Here’s a view of kinnikinnick berries – I took this photo in the Heart Creek area, near Canmore, Alberta, in August 2010)
What are your favourite food/medicinal wild plants?