Nagoonberries grow among moss and dwarf dogwood in a meadow in Gustavus. Photo by Sean Neilson/seanneilson.com
It is the superstar of berries, a taste of sunlight from the damp earth, a powerful punch to the palate of almost unendurable bliss. Nothing I have tasted in my life is on the same plane of gastronomic delight as the nagoonberry. Often elusive and harvested in secret, this berry is not to be purchased for love or money. But, you might ask, what is a nagoonberry and why has this delectable specimen escaped my notice?
The first nagoon I encountered was with a friend when I was new to Alaska. While strolling along a summery Southeast beach, he plucked something from the mossy turf and dropped a plump, wine-red berry into my palm. It was the size and shape of a fat thimble, warm and fragrant from the sun. The explosion of flavor lit up my mouth like tangy fireworks—the sweetness of strawberry, the juicy explosion of citrus, the texture of raspberry, the punch of cranberry. I became an instant devotee to the cult of the nagoonberry.
A nagoon or Arctic raspberry grows in Alaska’s damp meadows, dappled forest, and tundra. The diminutive plant itself betrays nothing extraordinary. Six to 10 inches tall, it has tri-lobed, toothy leaves that look much like those of raspberry. And well they should, as the nagoon is in the rose family, which also includes the raspberry, strawberry, and salmonberry. In springtime, the plant rises from the moss to unfurl a single pink blossom, which produces a lone berry.
In the thrill of the nagoon hunt, the hunter often experiences frustration. Ankle-high berries are often hidden in grass, rarely form patches of more than a couple dozen, and require frequent stooping. A lot of time is spent bumbling through forest, bog, and meadow to fill a bucket. Prize patches are guarded with jealous secrecy, even among friends. In my experience, nothing except morel mushrooms incites a similar level of defense and hoarding.
Once a bucket is filled, the work doesn’t stop. The brittle flowers are still attached to the berries, resulting in hours of tedious cleaning. If one is up to the task, the payoff is astounding. Besides devouring the entire collection in one sitting, there are a variety of nagoon products to make: syrup, jelly, liqueur, crumble, juice, fruit leather, and of course pie. Such riches are not to be bought, however. They must be earned through hard labor or, if you have excessively good friends, shared.
Nagoons have long been prized by indigenous people, and the English word nagoon is derived from the Tlingit word neigóon for “jewel.” While the berry contains sugars and carbohydrates, it is also high in vitamins and minerals difficult to obtain in the traditional Tlingit diet. Glacier Bay, home to the Huna Tlingit, was a nagoon harvesting hotspot. Berry patches were treated with reverence and presented with salmon eggs to nourish the spirit of the plants. Glacier Bay’s cultural anthropologist Mary Beth Moss says, “Harvesting berries was a family activity that allowed younger children to participate in gathering resources to share with family and clan. Berry patches were—and remain—treasured locations and are returned to again and again, linking harvesters not only to rich sources of healthy foods, but also to the ancestors that harvested there before them.”
For many decades of the 1900s, the Huna Tlingit felt excluded from their homeland by complex federal regulations, many of which precluded traditional hunting and gathering. The last 25 years have seen significant healing, though, and since 1996, the National Park Service has assisted the Huna Tlingit in accessing and harvesting nagoons to regain a subsistence link to their homeland.
Outside of Alaska, nagoons and their close relatives are circumboreal and enjoyed in many northern countries. Russians call them knyazhenika, “prince of berries” while the Swedish province of Norrbotten claims the Arctic raspberry as its provincial plant. Some European countries protect wild nagoons, whose habitat has shrunk with the draining of peatlands, and are even cultivating them for commercial harvest. Nagoons are finicky, however. They require damp but not saturated conditions, acidic soil, and surface organic matter. Even a slight change in conditions can signal the end of an excellent picking patch, and many nagoon fanatics are concerned about the effects of climate change on the habitat and distribution of the berry.
Years after my first nagoon, I am still just as obsessed as I was the day I learned of the berry’s existence. The nagoon encapsulates everything I love about Alaska—the smell of the forest on a walk, the down-to-earth do-it-yourselfness of Alaskans living off the land, and the bounty of the world around us. A bite of pie or forkful of syrup-soaked pancake is to walk the forests and meadows once more and revel in the life flowing through the Last Frontier.
Nagoonberry pie recipe
From Anya Maier
Prepared crust (top and bottom)
Enough berries to fill a pie plate
½ cup sugar
¼ cup tapioca (5-minute/instant)
A few Tbsp of cream or half and half
In a bowl, mix together berries, sugar, and tapioca. Place bottom crust in pie plate. Add berry mixture, sprinkle with cinnamon and top with upper crust. Brush crust with cream or half and half and bake at 350° for 45-55 minutes.