ST. ANTHONY, NL – The trees around town are looking particularly sprinkled with red. Like much of the island, St. Anthony is having an abundant year for dogberries.
But the plentiful sight of these berries often comes along with a warning that a harsh winter is on its way.
Dr. Philip Hiscock of Memorial University’s folklore department in St. John’s says the belief that the dogberry predicts winter weather has been spoken of for decades.
“It’s been a matter of comment for as long as folklorists have been collecting folk beliefs in this province,” said Hiscock. “The most common belief is that if you have a lot of dogberries, you’re going to have a harsh winter – meaning lots of snow.”
Hiscock says in some parts of the province, like Fogo Island, the exact opposite belief is espoused. According to some, plentiful dogberries are a sign that a much calmer winter is on its way.
With a history of studying the forest, Troy Mitchell studied the growth of dogberries in Twillingate for several years. He hoped to learn several things about the berries for his blog, Newfoundland and Nature, but his major concern was in finding the correlation between dogberries and winter weather – if any.
“I wanted to clarify things about the trees, how edible they really were, but the big giant question was around predictability for winter,” Mitchell said.
After tracking the amount of berries and the winter that followed for years, Mitchell concluded there was no discernable link.
“In watching it for years, I’ve never seen a link that carries it to be true,” said Mitchell. “With many berries it’s gone both ways, and with few berries it’s gone both ways. It’s totally random.”
Mitchell suspects this tale around dogberries and weather originates with the belief that an abundance of berries means birds need to be fed extra well in harsh weather. Therefore, the more berries nature produces for the birds, the rougher the winter will be.
Along with this naturalistic observation, Hiscock says plants as predictors of weather is a common feature across Canada.
“The Saskatoon berry out on the prairies has almost the same folklore associations with predicting weather as the dogberry does here,” said Hiscock. “In some places, black berries are said to the predictor.”
This correlation also extends into animals, and even insects.
“In New Brunswick, people will say the height of hornet nests will determine the winter weather,” Hiscock said. “The idea here is that animals know what the winter is going to be like, and they find ways to work around it.”
Usage of the dogberry in Newfoundland and Labrador extends well beyond a supposed foretelling of weather. Hiscock says the berries are also used in fine wines and jellies, as well making decorative wreaths.
One peculiar folklore belief surrounding dogberries is that they are a particularly intoxicating fruit for birds.
“One I sometimes hear is about the ‘drunk birds’,” said Hiscock. “I’ve heard people say in early spring or late winter the dogberries have actually fermented and the birds will get drunk off them.
“I don’t know the truth to that, but it’s a nice piece of folklore that goes around.”