By Kurt Madar

Pilot staff writer

Brookings is known as the Banana Belt of Oregon, but it might be equally fitting to call it the berry belt of the Pacific Northwest.

From sweet and succulent to tart and tangy, nearly every kind of cultivated berry appears in the wild in a slightly different form. This cornucopia of berries not only feeds the bears and wildlife and provides spring flowers that are delicately colored counterpoints to the varied greens of the forest, they also have an important historical connection to the natives who once lived on the Northwest coast.

andquot;They used berries for dyes, and they used them for pemmican, which is dried venison, dried berries and fat. There are many versions - but essentially dried berries and meat,andquot; Jeff Gallemore, an interpretive ranger for Oregon State Parks, said.

Our berry appreciation has dwindled to just a few varieties, generally those that can be found in stores and gardens as well as in the wild. We may brag about a wonderful patch of wild salmonberries, but who among us seriously harvests thimbleberries? These are just two of the delicious berries that grow naturally and abundantly around Brookings.

While the native communities harvested 15 different types of berries, our current culture knows and eats only a handful. Strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries are the most commonly known. Other types found in stores are generally hybrids, notably the Marionberry. Though distinctive in flavor, it is a cross between Chehalem and Olallieberry blackberries.

Wild berries begin ripening by late May on the South Coast and continue into the fall. They include salmonberries and strawberries, followed by red elderberries, huckleberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, soapberries, thimbleberries, gooseberries, currants and salal. Finally, in late summer and fall, come the high bush cranberries, bog and mountain cranberries, and evergreen huckleberries.

andquot;I've been around here for about 30 years, not an authority but I know what I like to eat though,andquot; Gallemore said.

Though the names are familiar to many, few now recognize or eat wild berries apart from the prolific roadside blackberry, and it might come as a surprise to many who have sampled it that there are multiple varieties native to the Pacific Northwest. The same is true for the wild raspberry.

Blackberries and raspberries are probably the best known native members of the genus Rubus. Lesser known are salmonberries and thimbleberries.

The pink salmonberry flower is one of the first blooms to appear in spring, and the orange to red-brown berry - which resembles a blackberry - is the first to ripen. According to andquot;Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast,andquot; by Jim Pojar and Andy MacKinnon, the berries range in flavor from andquot;insipid to one of the best.andquot;

Salmonberries were a favorite food of native Northwest communities. Too watery for drying, the berries were eaten fresh or mixed with dried salmon spawn or salmon itself. The young stem sprouts were gathered from early spring through early summer as a green vegetable.

Salmonberries are generally found along stream beds and in damp openings caused by logging or landslides. Locally, a good place to look is along North Bank Chetco River Road or on any forested trail.

andquot;Salmonberries are fine, a little like a blander blackberry, they make wonderful jam and jelly,andquot; Gallemore said.

Thimbleberries, which resemble bright red thimbles, were also an indigenous favorite.

andquot;They're wonderful - a beautiful dark red and more flavorful,andquot; Gallemore said.

Coarse and seedy, and less watery than the salmonberry, they were often dried and eaten with shellfish, or made into cakes of mixed dried berries. The fresh shoots of the plant also were collected and eaten raw.

A gangly shrub or shrubby groundcover, thimbleberries can be found in open sites or open forest. The tart but pleasing berry ripens in early summer and, like the salmonberry, can be found locally on any Oregon State Park trail.

Wild strawberries, in the genus Fragaria, are tiny compared to their cultivated cousins. The flavor, however, can be so intense it seems as though a cultivated strawberry's flavor was condensed into an incredibly small package.

The small, creeping plants with white flowers bloom early and often hug sand dunes and sea bluffs where there is little or no tree cover. Strawberries were only eaten fresh by natives, though the leaves were steeped to make tea.

Huckleberries are Gallemore's favorite. andquot;Only bears and rangers eat huckleberries,andquot; he said.

Huckleberries, blueberries, and cranberries are in the genus Vaccinium, and all may be found in the Brookings area.

The most common of the three huckleberry types in the region is red huckleberry, Vaccinium parvitolium. An erect shrub, it grows to about head height in coniferous forest, often in and around openings. The berries are small and pale red, and have a tart aftertaste. Natives ate them raw, dried singly like raisins, mashed and dried into cakes for winter use, or stored in fat. The juice, though a bit watery, was consumed as a beverage or used as a mouthwash.

The rich season of berries is about to begin, but one caution: Among the berries of the Northwest are a few that are inedible and even poisonous. To learn more about the delicious and the dangerous, consult one of the many guides to plant identification such as Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast.