Monday, 9 July 2018

Cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus)

CLOUDBERRY[i] (Rubus chamaemorus)
Family: Rosaceae                      
(Swedish Lapland, August 2003)

Up on the bleak high moorlands of Scotland and northern England there are few instantly edible plant foods, this makes the tasty Cloudberry a plant to be cherished, especially in patches where it produces good yields (for distribution maps see Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora; see also Northern Ireland Priority Species). Such locations are doubtless closely guarded secrets among local pickers, as most British populations produce only small fruits and these only sporadically. However, yet further north, in the tundra, Cloudberry produces vast yields and the berries are gathered by the bushel (for details of ecology see: Aiken et al. 2007).

Medicinal and nutritional uses
Rubus chamaemorus fruits have anti-bacterial properties and are effective inhibitors against infections caused by E-coli and Salmonella bacteria (Nilson 2006: 52-53; Puupponen-Pimiä et al 2001). They also have a very high vitamin C content and so for inhabitants of countries at high latitudes they provide a vital nutritional complement to the diet when other fresh fruits and green leafy foods are scarce (Nilson 2006: 46; see also: Nutrition Value Online Database). Cloudberries are commonly used as remedies for seasonal cold weather infections; for example, during the post Soviet era the Naukan peoples (of the Russian Far East) made a tea from the sepals as a cure for colds, coughs and sore throats (Jernigan et al. 2017), and the Kortkeros (Komi Republic in northwest Russia) used an infusion of berries, flowers and sepals to treat influenza and coughs (Stryamets et al. 2015).
Cloudberry fruit – close up. 
(Swedish Lapland, August 2003)

Fresh Cloudberries have what is described as a sweet-sour taste and some consider them unpalatable (i.e., too acidic) until they fully ripen and become much sweeter. They can be made into jam, jelly, liquor and syrup (Nilson 2006: 57; see also Svanberg 2012[ii]; Turner et al. 2011). From the ethnographic literature it is clear that among the indigenous peoples of northernmost Europe, Asia, Alaska and Canada, Cloudberries were a staple food, often second only to Bilberries, and were particularly prized as they were among the first to ripen. On Nelson Island, on the Bering Sea coast of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska, Cloudberries (locally known as ‘salmonberries’) were gathered locally in August, however, it is also noted that: “most of the year’s supply is harvested during late summer berry-picking excursions to Baird Inlet northeast of the island. The berries are stored in barrels or sealskin pokes with seal oil to preserve them for use during autumn and winter and are often added to ‘agutuk’ ("Eskimo ice cream")” (Ager and Ager 1980: 36). Other indigenous peoples of North America use similar methods for storing the Rubus chamaemorus fruits (Karst and Turner 2011: 16-18). Local traditions dictated the best way to increase the storage potential, for example, the Inuit of Shishmaref (Alaska) put the berries in a pit with some willow and “as many pokes as it will hold”, the Gwich’in of Inuvik (Northwest Territories) stored them in birch bark baskets under moss, and the Alutiiq (English Bay-Port Graham, Alaska) preserved them either dried (in seal oil) or fresh (in water) in wooden kegs or seal stomachs within a cache pit[iii] lined with spruce bark and grass (ibid.). Similarly, Kuhnlein and Turner (1991) describe how the Haida and Tsimshian of the Pacific Northwest Coast picked Cloudberries “in mid-summer, when they were still hard, and stored them under water and grease in bentwood cedar boxes, or, more recently in tins, jars or barrels. Sometimes they were scalded briefly before being stored. (Kuhnlein and Turner 1991: 250, 253). They record how the Inupiaq Eskimo and other indigenous peoples of Alaska ate Cloudberries raw with seal oil and, at a later date, with sweetened milk; they note how the fruits “are also folded into whipped fat, and preserved in a seal poke or barrel in a cool place” (ibid: 253). And Pierpoint Johnson (1862) describes the storage practices of Laplanders: “[they] bury them in the snow, and thus preserve them through the long arctic winter, until the season when such acid fruits are peculiarly wholesome and acceptable.”

Prehistoric and historic usage
According to references in Arabic literature the Vikings sailing into the Mediterranean took with them barrels of Cloudberries to prevent outbreaks of scurvy (De Luca and Norum 2011: 2101, citing Fægri 1958). In 1596 the German physician Henrik Høyer, who was aware of the curative properties of the berries, includes in a letter to a colleague details of how local people in Norway use them to treat scurvy: “They cook the berries in an earthen or metal pot to a soft consistency without adding other liquid, because the juices are rich and soft, and they do not want them to be diluted with other liquids. There are many who mix this jam with more tasty things, such as honey wine from the island Fyn (in which these Northern populations take the highest enjoyment) and this jam is known and most well proven as a remedy for them against scurvy. And you would not easily believe the miracles these people in Norway make with this one medicine every day; indeed they absolutely swear that nothing has been celebrated with as many praises until now, not even either the scurvy grass (cochleare), or the common chickweed, or water cress, and other plants of this type which the Germans brag of and use for themselves.” (De Luca and Norum 2011: 2101). And further he comments on the practice of isolating those with scurvy on a nearby island known to have an abundance of Cloudberries until they recover: “They place the sick people in a neighboring island rich in these ripe berries, and the people are left there alone, and are not taken back home before they can return healed. And indeed those people, nearly excluded from all humanity, but (which is believable) desirous for life, are forced to eat these berries, if they want with this extreme remedy to regain the promised health, or as if they want to extinguish a thirst, from which they are suffering.” (ibid.: 2102). Nineteenth century Arctic explorers (e.g., Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld who was the first to navigate the Northwest Passage between 1878 and 1879, and Fridtjof Nansen who went to the North Pole in 1893[iv]) are recorded to have taken with them supplies of the fruits to compensate for the lack of vitamin C in other food sources (ibid.: 2105). In his memoir of the expedition Nansen recounts drinking a Cloudberry liquor:We spent New Year’s Eve cosily, with a cloudberry punch bowl, pipes and cigarettes; needless to say there was an abundance of cakes and the like…. (Nansen 2008: 322).

Finds of Rubus chamaemorus remains are reported in the archaeological literature (for references see: Kroll 1997: 48). An early reference to the use of the fruits is at the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age Oakbank crannog[v] site on Loch Tay in the Scottish Highlands, (Miller et al. 1998). A large portion of the settlement is preserved in situ below water and so organic preservation is excellent; many of the construction timbers (uprights supporting the house platform, partition walls, gangway planks) have survived and including floor timbers that are covered with household waste within which plant macroremains have been preserved. A total of seven Cloudberry pips were found in two organic samples. Two radiocarbon dated pips[vi] indicate that they were deposited during the latest occupation phase at the crannog (ibid.: 808). The authors suggest that the pips represent collection of the fruits from areas of peat on higher ground at some distance from the site, and they comment: “Berries encountered during transhumance or hunting may have been brought back as a treat for the family (ibid.: 810). At the Late Iron Age site of Dubby Sike, Upper Teesdale, six charred pips were found in a rectangular pit within the ring cairn[vii], and the author tentatively speculates that these represent deliberate gathering of the fruits (van der Veen 1986). In Trondheim during excavations at the archbishops residence, Erkebispegården, (founded in 1170 AD and occupied for about 350 years) a large array of economic plants were found in two Late Medieval (late 15th/early 16th century AD) contexts that were originally built as wells or cisterns but eventually served as cess pits (Sandvik 2000). Very few cereals were present but the samples comprised several fruits including Cloudberries and also seeds/pips of crowberry, fig, strawberry, apple, pear, raspberry, whortleberry/bilberry and grape, together with remains of hazelnuts, flax, opium poppy and hops (ibid.: table 1). The figs and grapes are noteworthy because they represent early imports (possibly in dried form) to Norway from southern Europe (ibid.: 90).  Large numbers of whole and fragmentary Cloudberry seeds were found at the Medieval settlement at Nadymsky Gorodok in the forest-tundra of Western Siberia (Korona 2015). These together with other edible fruits (e.g., wild cherry, Ribes sp. (black/red/whitecurrant), lingonberry, Arctic raspberry and crowberry) were preserved within the permafrost in cultural layers (dating between c.1500 and c.1700 AD) and are evidence of the exploitation of the local forest tundra plants (ibid.: 194). The author comments that in one area the wild cherry stones were found contained in a birch bark box, most of the stones were fragmentary and it is considered likely this is indicative of crushing dried fruits prior to consumption. Some Cloudberry seeds were also fragmented and they also may have been preserved in dried form and then processed before they were eaten (ibid.: see table 3).


Ager, T.A. and Ager, L.P. 1980. Ethnobotany of the Eskimos of Nelson Island, Alaska. Arctic Anthropology 17(1): 26-48.

Aiken, S.G., Dallwitz, M.J., Consaul, L.L., McJannet, C.L., Boles, R.L., Argus, G.W., Gillett, J.M., Scott, P.J., Elven, R., LeBlanc, M.C., Gillespie, L.J., Brysting, A.K., Solstad, H. and Harris, J.G. 2007. Rubus chamaemorus. Flora of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago: Descriptions, Illustrations, Identification, and Information Retrieval. NRC Research Press, National Research Council of Canada, Ottawa. [accessed: 22.06.18]

De Luca, L.M. and Norum, K.R. 2011. Scurvy and Cloudberries: a chapter in the history of nutritional sciences. The Journal of Nutrition 141(12): 2101-2105.

Fægri, K. 1958. Norske Planter. Cappelen, Oslo.

Jernigan, K.A., Belichenko, O.S., Kolosova, V.B. and Orr, D.J. 2017. Naukan ethnobotany in post-Soviet times: lost edibles and new medicinals. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 13: 61 DOI 10.1186/s13002-017-0188-1

Karst, A.L. and Turner, N.J. Local ecological knowledge and importance of Bakeapple (Rubus chamaemorus L.) in a Southeast Labrador Métis community. Ethnobiology Letters 2: 6-18.

Korona, O. 2015. Archaeobotanical finds from the Nadymsky Gorodok medieval settlement in the forest-tundra of Western Siberia, Russia. Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 24: 187-196.

Kroll, H. 1997. Literature on archaeological remains of cultivated plants (1995/1996). Vegetation History and Archaeobotany 6: 25-67).

Kuhnlein, H.V. and Turner, N.J. 1991. Traditional plant foods of Canadian indigenous peoples: Nutrition, botany and use. Gordon and Breach Science, Philadelphia; Reading

Miller, J.J., Dickson, J.H. and Dixon, T.N. 1998. Unusual food plants from Oakbank Crannog, Loch Tay, Scottish Highlands: cloudberry, opium poppy and spelt wheat. Antiquity 72: 805-811.

Nansen, F. 2008. Farthest North. The Norwegian Polar Expedition 1893-1896. Skyhorse Publishing Inc. (originally published by Harper & Brothers in 1897).  [available online at google books]

Nilson, G.S. 2006. Cloudberries – the northern gold. International Journal of Fruit Science 45-60. DOI: 10.1300/J492v05n02_06

Northern Ireland Priority Species. [accessed: 22.06.18] online database: [accessed: 02.07.18]

Online Atlas of the British and Irish Flora. Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland. [accessed 21.06.18]

Pierpoint Johnston, C. 1862. The useful plants of Great Britain: a treatise upon the principal native vegetables capable of application as food, medicine, or in the arts and
manufactures. William Kent, London.

Puupponen-Pimiä, P., Nohynek, L., Meier, C., Kähkönen, M., Heinonen, M., Hopia, A. and Oksman-Caldentey, K.-M. 2001. Antimicrobial properties of phenolic compounds from berries. Journal of Applied Microbiology 90: 494-507.

Sandvik, P.U. 2000. The vegetarian component of a late medieval diet. An example from Erkebispegården – the archbishop’s palace in Trondheim, Norway. AmS-Skrifter 16, 85-92.

Stryamets, N., Elbakidze, M., Ceuterick, M., Angelstam, P. and Axelsson, R. 2015. From economic survival to recreation: contemporary uses of wild food and medicine in rural Sweden, Ukraine and NW Russia. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 11:53 DOI 10.1186/s13002-015-0036-0

Svanberg, I. 2012. The use of wild plants as foods in pre-industrial Sweden. Acta Societatis Botanicorum Poloniae 81(4): 317-327.

Turner, N.J., Łuczaj, Ł.J., Migliorini, P., Pieroni, A., Dreon, A.L., Sacchetti, L.E. and Paoletti, M.G. 2011. Edible and tended wild plants, traditional knowledge and agroecology. Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences 30:1-2  DOI: 10.1080/07352689.2011.554492

van der Veen, M. 1986. The plant remains from Dubby Sike, Upper Teesdale (Co. Durham). Ancient Monuments Laboratory Report No. 4761.

[i] Other common names include: nordic berry, knotberry and knoutberry, in Newfoundland and Labrador: bakeapple, in Alaska: aqpik or low-bush salmonberry and in Scotland: averin or evron.
[ii] This reference also includes mention of: “An angler, who in the summer of 2012 was lost for almost two weeks in the forests of Jämtland, survived by eating spruce shoots and unripe fruits of Rubus chamaemorus L. before he was found again unharmed by his experiences.” (Svanberg 2012: 325).
[iii] For details see: [accessed: 02.07.18]
[v] For details see: [accessed: 04.07.18]
[vi] 14C accelerator date: 2155±65 BP  (390-50 BC 2σ, OxA-7103)

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