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Season's outlook: not berry good

Sorry harvest, piddling garden crops result of harsh weather

Posted: Sunday, August 18, 2002

If Demeter, the rotund Greek goddess of the harvest, wants to fill her cornucopia in Juneau this fall, she probably should just go to Costco.

Crops of fruits and vegetables from berries to broccoli may be smaller, later, and in some cases, nonexistent due to a harsh spring and a dark, wet June and July, said Tom Heutte, a plant expert at the Cooperative Extension Service of the University of Alaska.

"Let's just call it the year without a summer," he said.

Berry-pickers and bears will suffer the greatest loss because most raspberry and salmonberry bushes were so damaged by the cold spring that they will bear no fruit. Blueberries, especially cultivated plants, also were hard hit, according to Heutte.

Raspberries and salmonberries grow in biennial cycles, in which the branch, or "flower cane," that grows one year will bear fruit the next. When last summer's flower canes were beginning to bud, they were killed by an April frost. Blueberries that flower in early spring also were affected by that late freeze.

"Everything that has a flower cane got zapped," Heutte said. "Blueberries got nailed, too."

The lack of berries, a traditional subsistence food, is a blow to the local Tlingit population, according to Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute and professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska Southeast. Aside from the nutritional value of berries, berry-picking is traditionally a prime time for social interaction between young people and elders, she said. Berries also have a place in traditional ceremonies.

"Berries are served to the spirits of our deceased," Worl said, "For those deceased whose favorite food is berries, the lack of them is especially disappointing."

Area animals that feed on berries, from mice to bears, will go into winter less prepared, said Neil Barten, wildlife biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game.

"If there are other food sources, the bears may do all right, but not all the bears can feed on salmon," Barten said. The ones that rely on berries "may travel and spend more time finding food, with more of them heading into town."

Berries are an important food source for migratory birds such as the thrushes that pass through Juneau forests in the fall, said Bob Armstrong, local biologist and naturalist. The birds play an important role in distributing berry plant seeds in the forest. Deer mice also rely heavily on salmonberries for food, he said.

"There's always a ripple effect in these things. Owls, weasels and marten eat deer mice. If their abundance is down a little, it might affect other creatures," he said.

Aside from the berry loss, area gardeners have been calling Heutte at the cooperative extension to complain their gardens aren't growing. In many cases, what little is growing has been attacked by a fungus that is encouraged by the rain, he said.

"I had never heard of plants (in established gardens) not being able to grow because there is not enough light, but I think that is what is happening," Heutte said.

This may be one of Alaska's wettest cities, but if area gardens are any indication, more clouds have been blocking the sun rays than usual this summer, he said.

That may be true, according to Jim Truitt, forecaster with the National Weather Service in Juneau. Though his office doesn't have a pyrheliometer - the device used to measure radiant energy from the sun that reaches the Earth - there has been more "cloud stack" than usual.

"July was cooler and wetter than usual, and being wet implies a thicker cloud cover," he said. That implies there could be less radiant energy reaching gardens.

Truitt said the cloudier, wetter weather couldn't be linked directly to larger trends, such as the equatorial phenomenon El Nino, because Alaska is so far north. But he said weather patterns are definitely connected.

"At higher latitudes it is harder to make a direct connection, but there is some correlation," he said.

Linda Mosher, who has been tending a plot in the community gardens, said her garden has had a sad, slow season.

"My broccoli is about the same size it was when I planted (starts) in June," she said.

Master Gardener Ed Buyarski, who lives near Tee Harbor, where weather tends to be a little more mild, characterized his garden success as "variable."

He's had success with garlic, greens and broccoli. He agrees the wetness and cool temperatures have affected some plants, causing them to grow more slowly. He also had to begin planting late because of the cold spring. He doesn't think his apples or cherries will ripen if the weather continues like this.

"I would love to see a bunch of sunshine here to help stuff ripen up and dry out," he said. "I wouldn't mind a warm, dry fall too, while we're wishing."

Julia O'Malley can be reached at jomalley@juneauempire.com.

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