I have fallen in love with an amazing berry and I think you should, too. This berry has many names. In the Tlingit language it is called gaawák. In Latin it is called Amelanchier. In English it is known as saskatoon, serviceberry, sarvisberry, juneberry, Indian plum, sugarplum, wild-plum, chuckley pear, bilberry, pigeon berry, shadbush, shadwood or shadblow. The name saskatoon is derived from the Cree word for the berry which is, misâskwatômina. What’s in a name? That which we call a saskatoon, by any other name would taste as sweet. I’m head over heels for saskatoons.
Growing up in Southeast Alaska, I’d never seen saskatoon berries. I didn’t know them as gaawák berries, either. Yes, I’d heard of saskatoon berries, but I didn’t think they grew in Southeast. I figured they were a northern berry or grew in the Interior. Actually, there are two species indigenous to Alaska. Amelanchier alnifolia ranges from Southeast Alaska into the Interior, and A. florida is found in Southeast and Southcentral.
Saskatoons (Amelanchiers) are in the Rosaceae family with familiar plants like roses, apples and plums. What I find fascinating is saskatoons look a lot like blueberries ,which are in the Ericaceae family, but their bushes grow much larger than local blueberries. The two Alaskan saskatoon varieties grow as shrubs some of which grow up to 6-feet tall and nearly as wide. Some saskatoons grow like trees and can reach more than 20 feet in height. Wow!
The berries look very similar to blueberries but taste a little bit sweeter and less tart than our wild blueberries. Not only are the berries tasty, they are a good source of calcium, potassium, vitamin A, Vitamin C, copper and iron.
The 20 different species of saskatoons that grow all over North America, Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, in a variety of locations, tells you something about the adaptable berry. They grow in a wide range of soil pH and climate zones. Here are a few of the varieties:
— Amelanchier alnifolia
— Amelanchier asiatica
— Amelanchier canadensis
— Amelanchier laevis
— Amelanchier lamarckii
— Amelanchier ovalis
— Amelanchier stolonifera
— Amelanchier utahensis
Now that I’ve eaten the two varieties growing in Alaska, I want to try all of the other species around the world. Yes, the world. I want to eat gaawák fresh, dried, frozen. I want to eat them in pies, muffins, pancakes and more. I’ve picked enough gaawák this year to make pies, jam and jelly, plus do some culinary experimenting. I’m definitely going to make a gaawák rhubarb pie.
Fall is here now, and I’m still picking high-bush cranberries, low-bush cranberries and end-of-season black and red huckleberries. Luckily, I discovered our gaawák berries also fruit later in the season. In various stages of fruiting, gaawák bunch together at the end of the branch. The ones I’ve been picking are white in color in their early growth and then they turn a pink-purple before they ripen into their final purple-blue color that makes them resemble blueberries. In late summer and fall gaawák are beautiful dripping off the bush in large clumps.
Gaawák harvesting can be deceiving. When you first start picking you might think they’re ripe because the berry is dark purple/blue on top, but if you look where the berry attaches to the stem on the underside, you’ll see it’s not fully ripened because it’s still a pink-purple color. You want the entire berry to be dark purple-blue before you pick them. What I’ve figured out, and now I instruct others, is if you’re new to picking gaawák, pick a few berries at different growth stages and taste them in their early stage up through the ripe stage. Through experience, you’ll know why it’s important to be patient and allow the fruit to ripen. When you finally get to eat the ripe stage when the berry is dark purple-blue, you’ll be very happy. Yum!
I haven’t made the saskatoon-rhubarb pie from the UAF Cooperative Extension site, yet. I’m hoping to find elders in Southeast who’ve made their special gaawák pies and willing to share their recipes with me. But, basically, it’s four cups of gaawák to one cup of chopped rhubarb. Preheat your oven to 425 first. Then get out your lemon juice, sugar, quick-cooking tapioca, lemon peel and pie crust. I often don’t have lemon peel on hand, so I just use the lemon juice. If you don’t have tapioca for thickener then substitute an equal amount of flour or a bit of corn starch. You can use store-bought pie crust or make your own. Most cookbooks or internet sites have recipes for double-pie crust. It’s typically flour, a fat — like canola oil, coconut oil or butter — and cold water.
— 4 cups fresh or frozen saskatoons
— 1 cup chopped rhubarb
— 1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
— 3/4 cup granulated sugar
— 3 tbsp quick-cooking tapioca
— 1 tsp grated lemon peel
— Pastry for a 9-inch double-crust pie
— 1 tbsp salted butter
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Roll out half of your pastry dough on a floured surface. Fit the pastry into a 9-inch pie pan and let it hang over the edges. In a large bowl combine the gaawák, rhubarb and lemon juice. Then add the sugar, thickener (tapioca or flour) and lemon peel. Mix with a spoon. Gently spoon the mixture into the crust and spread it out evenly. Cut the slice of butter into smaller chunks and dot the berry mix with butter. Now, roll out the top crust from the remaining half of the dough, or if you have a store-bought crust then carefully drape it over the top of the pie. Trim the edges to match and then fold and flute the edges or use a fork to press them together. Make a few slices in the top of the pie for the steam to escape. Take some long thin pieces of aluminum foil if you have it and wrap the crust edges so it doesn’t get too brown during baking. Bake at 425 for 10 minutes then turn your oven down to 375 and bake for 45-55 minutes until the pie filling bubbles and the crust is golden.
I wish I had time to make this recipe, but fall is here and winter is coming so I’m picking berries every day until I can’t pick anymore. I’ll eventually make this pie to celebrate the end of fall and the onset of winter. Also, there are still things I don’t know about gaawák berries, but it’ll be fun to do some more research this winter. Are there any traditional or historical stories related to these berries? How did my ancestors and contemporaries use or cultivate them? Could they be farmed in Southeast? What can I make from them? What do you make from them? And as I eat each bite of pie I’ll mull over this tasty berry’s multitude of names. What’s in a name? That which we call a gaawák by any other name would taste as sweet. Gaawák, aka saskatoon berries, are delicious and a fascinating berry.
I hope you learn to love them, too.