Credit: Richard Hebda

Salmonberries grow as open to dense, raspberry-like thickets.

Gracefully arching canes arise from a woody crown often buried in a moss mat. On dry sites the bushes reach 1.5 metres (5 ft.) tall but in lush, damp forests on the west side of Vancouver Island and on rich Fraser Valley sites, monster salmonberries reach more than 4 metres (13 ft.) high. The brown, sometimes flaky bark has weak but penetrating prickles. Each compound deciduous leaf consists of three soft, saw-toothed leaflets, from 3 to 15 cm (1 to 6 in.) long. They appear as early as February, their fresh green colour especially pleasing in the strengthening light of early spring. Flowers appear with the leaves, joyfully hanging towards the ends of the branches, calling for a close look.

Five pale to intense-pink petals form a bowl-shaped bloom 3 to 5 cm (1 to 2 in.) across, cupped by a five-part calyx. A mass of showy stamens surrounds the central receptacle on which sit numerous pistils. Upon fertilization these develop into tiny, clear-yellow to dark-red fruitlets loosely attached to form the raspberry-like fruit. The berries can be quite large, up to 2.5 cm (1 in.) long. For this reason salmonberries were used in the breeding of modern raspberry cultivars. An especially attractive large double-flowered form is available for gardeners. Salmonberry inhabits the entire coast of British Columbia and scattered localities in the interior mountains nearly to the Peace River. The full range extends from Alaska to California. Its favourite haunts are moist sites from lowlands to mountain slopes, usually in forests and forest openings. Sometimes you can encounter it in sunny situations at the edges of swamps, marshes and streams. Salmonberries are easily grown and propagated from rooted runners or by removing a rooted cane from the crown mass. Late winter hardwood cuttings work too, and you can even grow salmonberries from seeds.

Give them a medium to moist, or even wet, site in shade or sun. Leave lots of room for the clump to expand, or cut wandering rhizomes to keep the patch in check. Sometimes the centre of a clump may die out. In this case, remove the weak crowns and refresh the soil. Hummingbirds love the early spring blooms and later on the fruits attract other birds. Berry flavour varies from insipid to deliciously sweet according to the clump; berry colour seems to have little to do with flavour. This versatile shrub was well utilized by coastal First Nations, who ate great quantities of young sprouts in spring.

Picked when soft and tender, they were peeled and eaten raw or sometimes steamed. North Coast peoples dipped the shoots in eulachon grease. The berries were widely eaten fresh as they ripened in late spring and early summer; great boxes of berries were collected and consumed during feasts. Even the canes were used – as shafts in harpoons, as practice spears or for holding cedar bark roofing in place.

Like the provincial tree, western red cedar (Thuja plicata), the attractive and useful salmonberry is finally getting formal recognition as one of our symbols of nature and place. Consider honouring its importance by growing one in your garden. The following plant is hardy to the zone number indicated: Rubus spectabilis (salmonberry) – zone 4 An expert on native plants, Richard Hebda is curator of Botany and Earth History at the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.