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Empetrum nigrum

  • Name also: Black Crowberry, Mossberry
  • Family: Heather Family – Ericaceae
    (formerly Crowberry Family – Empetraceae)
  • Growing form: Perennial dwarf shrub.
  • Height: 10–30 cm (4–12 in.). Stem limp–ascending, commonly reddish.
  • Flower: Corolla regular (actinomorphic), magenta, very small; petals 3, approx. 1.5 mm (0.06 in.) long. Sepals 3. Stamens 3, purple, 3–5 mm (0.12–0.2 in.) long. Pistil of 2–9 fused carpels. Flowers axillary.
  • Leaves: Alternate–whorled, stalkless, overwintering. Blade linearly needle-like, hollow, margin curled downwards, lower surface with pale, hairy stripe.
  • Fruit: Shiny black, juicy drupe.
  • Habitat: Forest heaths, rocky outcrops, sandy areas, rocky outcrops, sea-shores, barren bogs, fell heaths.
  • Flowering time: April–June.

Crowberry’s generic name Empetrum literally means ”growing on rocks”: this evergreen plant doesn’t need to waste energy year after year like plants that shed their leaves and it can grow on very poor soils. Crowberry’s habitat in Finland is two-fold: crowberry (ssp. nigrum) grows quite sparsely around bogs and on barren heaths in southern and central parts of the country while mountain crowberry (ssp. hermaphroditum) is one of the main plants that grow in northern Finland in forests, on fells and around bogs. The differences between the species are usually small and from the point of view of the average naturalist insignificant, but they have a huge practical significance: southern plants are usually dioecious i.e. unisexual staminate and pistillate flowers grow on different plants, and the sterile wind-pollinated plants are usually sparse. The small berries are almost hidden between the needle-like leaves. Northern crowberry plants are bisexual, meaning that the pistils and stamens are in the same flower, and their berries are usually abundant and also have a better flavour.

Crowberries are eaten my many animals from robins to capercaillies, and from stoats to bears. It grows tenaciously on fell tundra that has little snow cover and is one of rock ptarmigan’s most important sources of food during the cold, dark winter months. The berries survive intact under the snow throughout the winter so they provide valuable nutrition for migrant birds before the glut of insects that comes with the summer. People in the north have used the local harvest to supplement their diet since time immemorial. The berries have been eaten with dried and salted fish, roe, reindeer milk and sour milk. The berry also has a strong reputation in the north for preventing scurvy. The berries and stems have also been used for dying cloth and leather, sprigs have been used as brooms, and it can also be used as fuel. The berries used to be sold in the south of the country in days gone by, primarily as an ingredient for juice and wine.

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