Nancy Hindes often finds wild creeping raspberries while walking along the road in front of her home south of Coupeville on Washington’s Whidbey Island.
“It grows along the ground. It’s not a very dominant plant, but I think it really likes gravelly soil, and that’s why it grows right next to the road,” she says, cautioning those unfamiliar with the wild plant to take care. “It will trip you.”
In summer, she keeps an eye out for its bright red fruit. “It’s one of the best raspberries I’ve ever eaten. It’s very sweet and very flavorful. When I see it, I’ll stop and have a little snack.”
Same goes for salmonberries and thimbleberries. “You find those shrubs all around here. They just grow wild,” Hindes says, noting she’s also found huckleberries in the woods near her house. “I’ve made jelly out of those,” she says. “It tastes kind of like blueberry.”
Hindes is the Native Plant Garden lead at the WSU Extension Island County Master Gardener Greenbank Educational Gardens. Established at Whidbey Island’s Greenbank Farm in 2009, the same year Hindes became a Master Gardener, the Native Plant Garden now showcases nearly a dozen varieties of wild berries, including huckleberries, salmonberries, and thimbleberries.
While there are no creeping raspberries in the Native Plant Garden, there is Oregon grape, salal, and the not-so-pleasing-on-the-palate kinnikinnick, or bearberries, which Meriwether Lewis called tasteless and insipid in one of his 1806 journals. He also made many not-quite-as-caustic mentions of salal, a staple for Native peoples.
“I’ve actually never tasted salal,” Hindes says, noting the berries were traditionally dipped in oil and pressed into cakes. In modern times, “people make jams and preserves out of salal berries.”
But beware: many wild berries, Hindes says, “are not as tasty as what we are used to eating. The native berries are generally a bit smaller and not as sweet as what we buy in the grocery store.”
The earliest berries to arrive in the Native Plant Garden each season are salmonberries. By March, the shrub is already flowering with rosy blooms. “We do get some fruit on it,” Hindes says. But, “We never get a lot of berries. If I see one that’s ripe, I eat it. It’s pretty flavorful.”
Blackcap raspberry is “very tasty,” too. But, “the plant has these wicked thorns, so you have to be careful.”
Hindes moved to Whidbey Island in 2007 from Iowa, where she worked as an illustrator—she specialized in botanical drawings—and her husband taught art at the University of Iowa. She first volunteered at Greenbank Educational Gardens as an intern just as their Native Plant Garden was getting established. Its designated berry garden patch grows along the left side of the upper path.
Look for blackcap raspberries, coastal strawberries, and red flowering currant, which are technically edible but might be best left for the birds. The blue musky berries offer an astringent aftertaste and bitter seeds.
Continuing down the path, there are serviceberries, best picked when they turn from red to a deep purple-blue and used as you would use blueberries.
The Native Plant Garden, which encompasses less than an acre on the back slope of Greenbank Farm Pond, is maintained by Master Gardener volunteers. An agreement between Washington State University and the Port of Coupeville, which owns the 150-acre Greenbank Farm, governs garden operations. Funding comes from the Island County Master Gardener Foundation’s annual Whidbey Gardening Workshop and plant sale, as well as local grants and donations.
In all, the Greenbank Educational Gardens, located south of the farm’s historical big red barn, are made up of eight separate garden areas, plus a greenhouse, worm bins, and the Native Northwest Prairie, just west of the Native Plant Garden. A driftwood arch welcomes guests. Or, they can get to the Native Plant Garden via a stone bridge.
Its steady stream of visitors has slowed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But generally, Hindes says, “people come from all over,” particularly the South Puget Sound region, Olympic Peninsula, and Seattle, Everett, and the rest of the I-5 corridor. The gardens are open to the public from dawn until dusk and free to visit, except now during the Master Gardeners’ weekly working hours because of COVID-19 restrictions. Volunteers turn out from 9 a.m. to noon Wednesdays for weeding, pruning, planting, and more.
“Master Gardeners are a very busy group,” Hindes says, noting there are about 90 in Island County. Of them, a core group of about 15 to 20 regularly work at the Greenbank Educational Gardens including 5 or 6 who faithfully show up to take care of the Native Plant Garden.
Before the pandemic, guests could visit during the weekly working hours and, Hindes says, “Master Gardeners would always stop and chat, and answer any questions.”
Now, just as then, Hindes encourages visitors to come during different seasons to see the plants in different phases. “You’ll be able to see the flowers, and you will be able to see the fruits. You will be able to see how the plant grows, and you will be able to identify it. You’ll be able to say, ‘Hey, that’s salmonberry,’ whether you see it in winter or spring or summer. That’s my goal in the Native Plant Garden. My goal is to grow these plants so a person can see what they look like in different seasons. My goal is to make it clear how it fits into the landscape or your home garden.”
If you’re not able to make multiple trips in a year, don’t worry. Hindes has also installed signs with photos of what the berry bushes look like during their different stages.
And, while you’re there, be sure to check out the rest of the Native Plant Garden and its neighboring gardens. “All in all, we probably have almost 80 species of native plants,” Hindes says.