© 2002 by J. Agee
© 2000 by James L. Reveal
At Fort Clatsop on January 29, 1806, drawing partly on the Canadians' information at Fort Mandan, partly on his observations along the route, and finally upon the ample supply of specimens nearby, he described the plant as follows. (Definitions and explanatory notes are highlighted in red within brackets.) It was, he said:
the growth of high dry situations, and invariably in a piney country or on it's borders. It is generally found in the open piney woodland as on the Western side of the Rocky mountains, but in this neighbourhood we find it only in the prairies or on their borders in the more open wood lands.1 A very rich soil is not absolutely necessary, as a meager one frequently produces it abundantly.
The natives on this [the west] side of the Rocky mountains who can procure this berry invariably use it. To me it is a very tasteless and insippid fruit.
This shrub is an evergreen. The leaves retain their verdure [greenness] most perfectly through the winter, even in the most rigid [rigorous] climate, as on lake Winnipic.2
The root of this shrub puts forth a great number of stems which separate near the surface of the ground, each stem from the size of a small quill to that of a man's finger. These are much more branched, the branches forming an acute angle with the stem, and all more properly procumbent [trailing along the ground, but not rooting] than creeping, for altho' it sometimes puts forth radicles [the part of a plant that develops into a root] from the stem and branches which strike obliquely into the ground, these radicles are by no means general, nor equable in their distances from each other, nor do they appear to be calculated to furnish nutriment to the plant but rather to hold the stem or branch in its place.
The bark is formed of several thin layers of a smooth, thin, brittle substance [the epidermis] of a dark or redish brown color, easily separated from the woody stem in flakes. [See photo. The stem is 11 mm (7/16 inch) in diameter.] The leaves with rispect to their position are scattered yet closely arranged near the extremities of the twigs particularly. The leaf is about ¾ of an inch in length [generally, anywhere from½ to one inch] and about half that in width, is oval but obtusely [bluntly] pointed, absolutely entire [smooth-edged; not toothed], thick, smooth, firm, a deep green [above; a little paler beneath] and slightly grooved [due to a slight depression along the midrib]. The leaf is supported by a small footstalk [a petiole] of proportionable length.
The berry is attached in an irregular and scattered manner to the small boughs among the leaves, though frequently closely arranged, but always supported by separate short and small peduncles [a stalk at the base of a flower or individual fruit], the insertion of which produces a slight concavity in the bury while it's opposite side is slightly convex. The form of the berry is a spheroid [not perfectly round], the shorter diameter being in a line with the peduncle.—This berry is apericarp, the outer coat of which is a thin, firm, tough pellicle.3 The inner part consists of a dry mealy powder of a yellowish white color enveloping from four to six proportionably large, hard, light brown seeds, each in the form of a section of a spheroid, which figure they form when united, and are destitute of any membranous covering. The color of this [ripened] fruit is a fine scarlet.
The natives usually eat them without any preparation. The fruit ripens in September and remains on the bushes all winter. The frost appears to take no effect on it. These berries are sometimes gathered and hung in their lodges in bags where they dry without further trouble, for in their most succulent state they appear to be almost as dry as flour.—
On April 11, en route back up the Columbia River, the captains remarked that the "Sackacommis" was in bloom. That was at the Cascades, about 200 feet above sea level. They may also have seen the plant in the Bitterroot Mountains several thousand feet up, but in any case they didn't mention the plant's pretty little pale-pink, waxy, urn-shaped flowers. One would like to have read another of Lewis's characteristically pithy descriptions.
1. Bearberry is rather common throughout the Northern Hemisphere in Eurasia and North America. It occurs in the mountains of the American West as far south as New Mexico. In northern Canada and Alaska it may be found at or near sea level. The plant is often seen in cultivation as an ornamental ground cover.
2. At Fort Mandan on February 28, 1805, the captains received a gift of "Sacka comah" from Hugh Heney, a trader with the North West Company stationed at Fort Assiniboine, southwest of Lake Winnipeg in today's Manitoba, Canada.
3. Consistent with botanical usage in his day, Lewis used pericarp to denote a fruit. Today, the word is applied to the wall of a ripened ovary; the fruit of the bearberry is simply called a berry. Pellicle (PELL-i-kul) is Latin for skin, here the outer layer or skin of the fruit.