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Gaultheria mucronata

Gaultheria mucronata

The (dare I say it) edible, tasteless fruit of Gaultheria mucronata provide a mass of lilac-coloured blueberry-sized globes lasting throughout the winter in the Pacific Northwest of North America. Various texts claim that fruit of all members of the genus Gaultheria can be toxic, but it is known that the indigenous peoples of Chile relied upon Gaultheria mucronata as a food source. I’ve eaten it without ill effect, though not for the taste. Rather, I find the sensation of popping the thick-skinned fruit a bit of a novelty.

Often known as pernettya, and less commonly as prickly heath, for many years this plant was placed in the genus Pernettya. This lasted until it was recognized that all members of the genus Pernettya were genetically indistinguishable from Gaultheria. As I mentioned in a previous entry, modern taxonomy suggests that nomenclature should reflect evolutionary relationships, so the names of all Pernettya species were changed in accordance with the evidence, and transferred to Gaultheria.

Botany resource link: Identification Of Major Fruit Types, via Wayne Armstrong's botany site. Pumpkins are pepoes.

11 Comments

Salal (Gaultheria shallon) was a food source for native Americans from Santa Barbara north (presumably throughout its range, which extends to Alaska). Here in California, where it grows only along the coastal strip, it can be locally plentiful but is under increasing pressure (even in parklands) from harvesting for the floral industry.

I have eaten it on occasion, and while not tasteless I wouldn't exactly describe it as flavorful, and the texture leaves something to be desired. I must say that (in this picture at least) G. mucronata certainly looks the more appetizing of the two.

Gaultheria is an interesting genus both botanically and aesthetically- thanks for your photo of a species I didn't know about. I'm curious what texts say that fruits of all Gaultheria members can be toxic. Pojar and Mackinnon state about our native Gaultheria shallon that "ripe berries from healthy bushes are hard to beat for flavour and juiciness." I've sampled them and found them pleasant-tasting (but a bit hairy).

Matt

Thank you for the information on the nomenclature change of Gaultheria mucronata. It would be useful to get cultivation requirements along with the interesting history of use of the plant in the comment section under the plant photo in question. I have used this plant unsuccessfully so far as it requires very moist conditions and quite a bit of sun to grow well.


Pernettya berries are quite good once actually fully developed and ripe. Not overly sweet or bursting with flavour to be sure, but pleasant and texturally very satifying. I prefer the red and purple ones, but I haven't done a blind tasting to see if there's really a difference.

Despite the recommendations of Pojar and MacKinnon (Plants of Coastal British Columbia), who are clearly very knowledgeable about such things, I have yet to encounter a Gaultheria shallon berry I could warm to. Similarly, I've met people who are Rubus parviflorus (thimbleberry) connoisseurs, but such an aggregation of drupelets reminds me of lipstick on raw potato skin.

With respect to toxicity of ericaceous berries, perhaps it is merely the unripened fruits that are unwise to ingest. Fruits of the Solanaceae (potato family) are invariably poisonous to humans until they are fully ripe, and some, like Atropa belladona (deadly nightshade) remain poisonous to us for the duration.

Beautiful image, Daniel.

Gaultheria mucronata Z6 - RHS Index of Garden Plants, Griffiths

Douglas-

This is a good illustration on the subjective nature of gustatory experiences. I do, however, totally agree with your assessment of Rubus parviflorus! I might also add that R. spectabilis (Salmonberry) fruits leave me similarly unimpressed, though some seem to relish them.

Matt

Matt & Douglas,

While it's true that Thimbleberry rarely gets juicy, at the very least it's sweet. And while Salmonberry tends strongly towards tart, it is sweet and juicy. The trick with both of these is finding them at the peak of ripeness, which is a much more brief window than for, say, Himalayan Blackberry (Rubus procerus) or red or black Huckleberries (Vaccinium parvifolium & V. ovatum, respectively).

One of my great pleasures in life is to be able to snack on the trailside as I hike through the California Redwoods, and at the right time of year, all of the above, plus California Blackberry (R. ursinus), Salal, and the occasional Raspberry (two unknown R. spp) or Gooseberry (several unknown Ribes spp) may be found on a single trek.

Douglas,

I forgot to add that while true that gustatory experiences are highly subjective, some of the differences in those experiences my be due to the plants themselves, i.e. different soils and microclimates, and possibly different subspecies or varieties.

I'm so glad read others comments on the taste of Gaultheria mucronata fruits. I love them! To reiterate, they're not a flavour burst on the tongue but more subtle, but nonetheless delicious. The ideal time to sample them is after the Fall rains have come and before a hard frost, when they will shrivel and start to fall off the plant. Plumpest individuals are tastiest. I've sampled dark red, purple and pure white fruits, and to my surprise, white ones are the most flavourful. I also heard someone recently refer to them as "blueberry-like".

Matt, see the last paragraph of this Google cache re: Ericaceae.

One thing I neglected to note as I'd written the bulk of this entry over a month ago in anticipation of this photograph appearing in an upcoming GardenWise magazine - Paghat has an excellent account: Are Pernettya berries edible or poisonous?, which is where I picked up on the purported toxicity.

Yes, the fruit is eatable, no doubt, now my problem is to find a male plant to plant next to the one that bears fruit, so it keeps bearing fruit every year.

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