We focused on Southcentral Alaska, but Patricia Holloway, professor of horticulture at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, soon chimed in with a few thoughts about Interior Alaska. She has some excellent advice -- and a caution: "Not one person this side of Hades will divulge their best berry picking sites."
So pickers beware. But there's a bonus. Holloway offers tips on how to be sure berries are ripe, hopefully sparing less-savvy pickers the disappointment of laboring to gather berries only to discover they taste lousy.
"In the Interior, berry picking has been fair -- certainly not the bumper crop of the past couple of years, but not a total dud, either. Wild blueberries have been ripe since mid July and some good picking is still available, especially at higher elevations.
"Lingonberries (lowbush cranberries) are best picked when the fruit becomes a uniform burgundy. Lots of people pick them too soon when they are rock hard and red on top, whitish on the bottom. They have not developed full flavor. They are usually harvested beginning in September. At my berry sites, there are lots of unripe fruit hanging on, so it should be a good year.
"Red raspberries are a July berry around here. They are perishable, so they need to be picked just as soon as they ripen. Quantities have been spotty -- loaded at some sites, bare in others. Rose hips are beginning to ripen. They are best picked when they soften just a bit and are a uniform red. They are easy to dry and use mixed into all kinds of dried herbs and tea. Looks like another great year for rose hips."
Holloway also reveals a few hot spots:
"Look for blueberries in power-line cuts, roadsides, and higher elevations along the Steese and Elliott highways as well as Murphy Dome. There are also good berry picking sites along Ballaine and Nordale Road although I have not been out there to see what's available this year."
And what can make a berry crop go bad?
"The biggest culprits are bad weather during bloom and lack of pollinators. Sites with frosts in late May, early June during bloom time will have reduced yields. If spring is very cold, low-lying areas can be hit hard since the flower is the most frost sensitive part of the plant.
“Also cool, wet weather during bloom -- especially days and days of rain -- will reduce yields because the insect pollinators, especially bumble bees, are not as prolific. I saw lots of bumble bees out working the fields this spring near Fairbanks. There are lots of other reasons why a plant might not produce fruit -- predation by worms eating the flowers, poor flower bud development due to lack of nutrients or competition for nutrients from weeds and competing vegetation. It’s hard to tell just what causes one good berry year and another bad."
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com