The Versatile Kalyna

The Kalyna Country Ecomuseum is named after the highbush cranberry (Viburnum opulus), which flourishes along the banks of the North Saskatchewan River and the many streams and creeks that feed into it. A member of the honeysuckle family (formerly Caprifoliaceae, now Adoxaceae), this tree-like shrub grows anywhere from 1-4 meters in height, and is not to be confused with the distantly related lowbush cranberry (Viburnum edule) — the plant commercially cultivated to produce juices and the jelly or make the sauce customarily served with Thanksgiving turkey.

berry3“Kalyna” (pronounced “kah-li-nah”, with short vowels and the stress on the second syllable) is the Ukrainian word for the highbush cranberry, written kalina in Polish and Czech (pronounced “kah-lee-nah”), and calina in Romanian. The Slavic rendering of the plant was chosen as the designation for the Kalyna Country region because it was settlers from Eastern Europe who largely homesteaded the area northeast of Edmonton in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The newcomers were heartened to discover that a beloved plant which they knew so well from their native countries, grew naturally in their adopted Canadian homeland. That the name “kalyna” is pleasant to the ear, and the plant is warmly regarded, undoubtedly explains why Ukrainian parents sometimes choose give a daughter the name “Kalyna,” much like “Rose” and “Violet” are bestowed on girls because of their happy association with flowers.

In addition to having a poetic and musical-sounding name, the kalyna is thoroughly embedded in Ukrainian folklore, figuring prominently in many folk songs and sayings and frequently appearing as a motif in embroidery and traditional decorative art. It is especially noteworthy that the kalyna is revered as a potent national symbol expressive of Ukraine’s yearning for freedom. When a Cossack fell in battle while defending Ukraine, his comrades would lay him to rest in a burial mound, or mohyla, upon which they would plant a kalyna bush to honour his sacrifice. “Chervona Kalyna,” or “The Red Kalyna,” is a patriotic hymn first popularized by the Ukrainian Sich Rifleman in the tumult of the First World War and the struggle for Ukrainian independence. In the Second World War it once again served as the unofficial anthem of the Ukrainian liberation movement, inspiring members of the underground Ukrainian Insurgent Army. Today, Ukraine’s armed forces wear shoulder patches featuring kalyna berries and leaves, in much the same way that Canadian military insignia give pride of place to the maple leaf. Indeed, the strong attachment that Ukrainians feel for the kalyna bush is very similar to the emotion that Canadians feel for the maple tree and its immediately identifiable foliage.

Of course, references to the highbush cranberry can be found in other cultures where the plant is a familiar part of the natural vegetation. For instance, most Canadians are acquainted with the Russian folk song “Kalinka,” originally popularized by the Red Army Chorus and frequently played at breaks in hockey games to rouse the crowd behind the home team. What they might be surprised to learn is that this lively ditty is actually an affectionate celebration of the highbush cranberry plant!

In English, a sterile variant (Viburnum opulus var. roseum) of this distinctive shrub is called the “Guelder Rose” or “Snowball Tree”, while in French it is known as the “Boule-de-neige” and “Sureau aquatique”. The Germans call the same deciduous plant “Der Schneeball” or “Der Wasserahorn”, the latter meaning “water maple” because of the kalyna’s preference for riverside habitats, and the maple leaf-like shape of its three-pointed leaves. The “snowball” appellation is derived from the great bunches of white flowers that typically bloom on the highbush cranberry in May or June. In the wild kalyna these are comprised of small inner blossoms that are fertile, and larger five-petal outer blooms that are sterile — the combined bouquets decorating the bush each spring in striking pom-poms of white.

Cree-speaking peoples refer to the kalyna as “nepiminana,” a plant that they, along with the settlers from Eastern Europe, put to a wide variety of medicinal uses. Thus, the bark was employed in the making of a diuretic, a sedative, and a treatment for septic poisoning developed as a complication during childbirth. The inner bark was harvested in springtime, dried, and used to make a pain-relieving tea, which was helpful for relieving the muscle tightness that sometimes accompany menstrual cramps, giving the kalyna another of its names: cramp bark. The roots and leaves were similarly employed in making other therapeutic preparations, while the Ukrainian pioneers utilized the spring sap from the kalyna for its hemostatic (i.e., blood staunching) properties. Interestingly, the Cree way of saying highbush cranberry entered into English in a somewhat mangled form as “pembina” — a name given to two rivers in Manitoba and Alberta, and adopted by a Non-Governmental Organization dedicated to promoting sustainable energy. Pembina Hall is at the same time the name of a heritage building on the University of Alberta campus, which is appropriately the home of both the Aboriginal Studies Program at the U of A, as well as the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies — the Institute being one of the initiators of the Kalyna Country Ecomuseum project.

The bright red berries of the kalyna bush hang in abundant, drooping clusters, and give off a pungent and slightly acrid odour when crushed or in an over-ripe state. The unmistakable scent of the kalyna berries, which some people find rather unpleasant and liken to that old sneakers and sweaty socks, is especially noticeable when walking in the forest on an autumn day. Others find the scent less off-putting, comparing it instead to the smell of a piquant but appetizing cheese. For residents of Kalyna Country who grew up during the Great Depression, the bouquet of highbush cranberries remained an evocative reminder of the slices of bread dressed with kalyna jelly that they regularly took to school for lunch at the height of the “Hungry Thirties.”

It is, of course, a well-known fact that the aboriginal inhabitants of Western Canada sometimes added the fruit of the nepiminana along with other berries to flavour pemmican, the dried meat that was an important source of nutrition for Native Peoples and served as the “fuel” of the early explorers and fur traders. East European immigrants more typically incorporated highbush cranberries in their baking, or in a sauce to accompany meat dishes. Similarly, the versatile kalyna berry can be transformed into tangy jams and syrups, and to infuse vodka — commonly distilled as samohon, or homebrew, by Ukrainian pioneers — so as to give it a unique taste and an attractive colour. A healthier application of the fresh berries, which are rich in vitamin C, involves their use in the preparation of an effective cold remedy. However, as the berries have a high acidic content, it is not recommended that they be eaten in large quantities, as they are somewhat toxic and an over-indulgence of them can cause vomiting or diarrhea.

Nor is Alberta’s wildlife unaware of the nutritional properties of the remarkable kalyna, for a wide range of mammals are known to supplement their diets with the tart berries. Ungulates such as moose, elk, and deer typically strip the bushes clean in the process of devouring the brightly-coloured delicacy in the fall, while bears and rabbits like to partake of the wholesome fruit as a juicy seasonal treat. Among the bird population of Kalyna Country, Cedar Waxwings and Grosbeaks are notable consumers and connoiseurs of kalyna berries, finding them to be an especially important source of sustenance in the long winter months when food is scarce.

Although slightly smaller and more compact than its cousin in the wild, the domesticated highbush cranberry is equally prized as an ornamental and not surprisingly can be found gracing yards and gardens in the Kalyna Country region. All in all, the highbush cranberry is an integral part of the landscape of rural east central Alberta, and a fitting symbol of the heritage area to which it has given its evocative name. Call it what you will — nepiminana, guelder rose, water elder, cramp bark, or highbush cranberry — it is simply the kalyna plant that still adorns the countryside of east central Alberta and continues to inspire the Kalyna Country Ecomuseum!

© Jars Balan

*To be accompanied by photos of the highbush cranberry in flower and with ripe berries, as well as graphics and other related imagery of which there is an abundance.

Cooking with Kalyna