Practical ecological knowledge for the temperate reader.

Crowberry - Empetrum nigrum

(Heath Family)


Crowberry, E. nigrum, ranges from northern Alaska and the Yukon to California. Subspecies nigrum has male and female flowers on separate plants, whereas subspecies hermaphroditum has bisexual flowers. [Schofeld]

"Empetrum nigrum is an evergreen Shrub growing to 0.3 m (1ft) by 0.5 m (1ft 8in).
It is hardy to zone (UK) 3 and is not frost tender. It is in leaf 12-Jan It is in flower from May to June, and the seeds ripen in September. The flowers are dioecious (individual flowers are either male or female, but only one sex is to be found on any one plant so both male and female plants must be grown if seed is required) and are pollinated by Bees, flies, lepidoptera.The plant is not self-fertile.
Suitable for: light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils and prefers well-drained soil. Suitable pH: acid and neutral soils and can grow in very acid soils.
It can grow in semi-shade (light woodland) or no shade. It prefers moist soil. The plant can tolerates strong winds but not maritime exposure."[PFAF]

Status: Native. [E-flora]

Habitat / Range Low, exposed coastal heathlands and bogs; rocky mountain slopes, subalpine parkland, and alpine tundra; dry to wet sites, sea level to alpine. [PCBC2004] Wet to moist bogs, meadows, open forests, alpine fellfields and cliffs in the lowland to alpine zones; frequent throughout BC; circumpolar, N to AK, YT and NT, E to NF and S to NY, MN and N CA; Eurasia. [IFBC-E-flora]

Ecological Indicator Information

A shade-intolerant, submontane to alpine, circumpolar, evergreen shrub (transcontinental in North America). Grows on a wide range of sites in tundra, boreal, and cool mesothermal climates. Most often in nitrogen-poor soils in semi-terrestrial communities (peat bogs) where it inhabits topographic prominences. An oxylophytic species characteristic of Mor humus forms. [IPBC][E-flora]


Edible Uses

Other Uses

Medicinal Uses

Cultural & Historical Use



A locally abundant plant of moors, at one time regarded as a berry-bearing form of heather (‘Erica baccifera’), Empetrum nigrum was found in use in the Inner Hebrides by Martin Martin in 1695 as a cure for insomnia, a little of it boiled in water and applied to the crown and temples.175 It was presumably the ‘kind of heath’ claimed by a later author to be in use for the same purpose in ‘the Highlands’,176 but the description of its application is so similar that the record may be an unacknowledged repeat of Martin’s. Another record from the Inner Hebrides, from Colonsay, credits its juice with the power to heal sores that are festering.177[MPFT]

The berries are eaten by the Scotch and Russian peasantry. The fruits are black, about the size of juniper berries, of a firm, fleshy substance and are insipid in taste. They are consumed in a ripe or dry state by the Indians of the Northwest, are eaten by the Tuski of Alaska and are gathered in autumn by the western Eskimo and frozen, for winter food.[Sturtevant EPW]

Empetrum nigrum L. ssp. hermaphroditum (Lange) Bocher (blackberry, crowberry, deenich' uh). Berries are eaten fresh or processed into jam. They are considered good thirst quenchers when traveling in the woods. Formerly, leaves were boiled in water and made into a poultice to soothe pain. They were also boiled into a tea used for chest congestion and sour stomach. (No. 783).[EFY Holloway]

These berries are sometimes picked and eaten, but they are not preserved. According to Napaskiak informants, the people living along the adjacent Bering Sea coast brewed tea from this plant, using the entire plant. Crowberries have a limited use along the northern coast of Alaska (Anderson, 1939, p. 715) , and Heller (1953 , p. 79) notes that Eskimos mix them with other berries.[Oswalt Eskimo]

Bella Coola: Green leaves, with or without berries, boiled, and the decoction taken internally as a purgative.[Smith(1927)]

"Seed - best sown as soon as it is ripe in a cold frame. The seed can be very slow to germinate, stored seed requires 5 months warm then 3 months cold stratification at 5oc[200]. When they are large enough to handle, prick the seedlings out into individual pots and grow them on in the greenhouse for at least their first winter. Plant them out into their permanent positions in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frosts. Cuttings of half-ripe wood, 3cm with a heel, July/August in a frame. Takes 3 weeks. Good percentage[78, 200]. Cuttings of mature wood of the current year's growth, 3cm with a heel, October in a frame. Requires shade. Good percentage[78, 200]."[PFAF]


"A calcifuge plant, it is easily grown in a lime-free soil[200]. Prefers a moist sandy peaty soil and some shade[1, 3]. The two names var. 'Rubrum' and var. 'Purpureum' are of doubtful application to this species and may refer to E. eamesii[200]. Plants are usually dioecious though hermaphrodite forms are known. Male and female plants will normally need to be grown if fruit and seed are required."[PFAF]



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