By Leigh Joseph
Soapberries (Shepherdia canadensis), also known as Buffalo Berries, are a culturally important food and medicine to many Indigenous Peoples in Canada. The berries have been an important trade item for many generations and this practice still continues today. In places where soapberry does not grow people still trade for these highly valued berries.
The berries are bitter in flavor due to the presence of a chemical compound called saponins which causes the soapy consistency of the crushed berries. Saponins have many potential health benefits to humans. They can help to reduce cholesterol, reduce the likelihood of certain cancers, they are high in antioxidants and help to boost immunity.
Food Uses: The berries are edible fresh but are quite bitter and get sweeter after a frost. The saponins contained in the berries cause them to foam up when whipped with water. Preparing the berries in this way and adding sugar makes a desert that is often called “Indian Ice Cream” that aids in digestion and has a unique flavor. Soapberries can be made into a medicinal jelly as well. Traditionally the whipped berries would be sweetened with other sweeter berries.
Medicinal Preparations: The berries, juice, leaves and stems can be used medicinally. The berries can help lower blood pressure and juice from the berries can be used to treat digestive ailments. A decoction of the stems and leaves can be prepared by simmering them in water and drinking. This decoction can then be taken as a stomach tonic or for treatment for constipation or high blood pressure. Elders have also shared that there is a soothing property to the juice when applied to eczema and other skin irritations.
Harvest Time: Mid-late summer/early autumn. The berries are sweeter after the first frost.
Storage: Soapberries can be frozen, canned (hot water bath), dried or smoked. They can also be juiced the juice can be canned (hot water bath) or frozen.
Recipe for Soapberry Whip
2 Cups soapberries
2 Cups water
Optional sweetener (sugar or other sweet berries)
Using a clean metal bowl, crush the berries up and add water (and sweetener) then whisk the mixture until it froths up and becomes pink and fluffy like whipped cream. Enjoy!
** Using an oily bowl will prevent frothing of soapberries.