Environmental Observations

What makes a good landscape design? Are those flowers edible? What grows best where?

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Vitamin Packed Alaska Spring Greens

Fresh picked spruce tips. Prepared for use on the left. On the right see the brown husk over the ends of the tips to remove.

Where would you get your food if you lived over 4,000 miles from the nearest commercial distribution center? Or nearest major farming center, or nearest clothing manufacturer (actually, most of us live that far away from where clothes are made these days). This is the situation for almost one million people living in Alaska; and places such as Hawaii, and Iceland. When a natural disaster hits—like a volcano eruption, earthquake, or a pandemic—that threatens to interrupt shipping lanes, people worry. People realize they have put a lot of faith into transportation networks that connect everyone across the globe. After the initial panic, I’d like to invite folks to sit calmly and think about what the store outside your doors offer. You’re not going to find boxes and bags of food and pantry staples just off in the woods, but you will find raw materials to sustain yourself, whether for an emergency, or to enhance your well-being.

A majestic swath of white spruce, sitka spruce, and hemlock in Girdwood, AK—the northern tip of the Pacific Coast rainforest.
Wild foraging is a necessity humans have been practicing since we sprang to life. I can’t begin to cover the history, all the opportunities, reasons, or processes here, there are books and guides available for that. But I will wax the virtues of being outside, of looking closely at what grows around you, and having a curious eye to see all the critters and their connections to the same plants we enjoy. Get your body outside and moving around. Foraging for wild, natural, clean foods will boost your immune system and sense of self sufficiency. This is true for the adventurous and for those of us who live far from conventional food distribution centers. 
Spruce standing tall above a cultivated garden with
clematis,maltese cross, and peonies.

It’s a race to capture all the fresh greens Alaska has to offer before the plants mature into blooming, lush, reproductive specimens. The first shoots of ferns, devil’s club, cow parsnip, spruce tree tips, and other common spring greens pack an array of vitamins and minerals—in addition to great flavors they bring to other foods. 

Spruce tips too far gone for picking, they will be bitter.
Spruce tips offer vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, and carotenoids—like beta-carotene, the colored pigments in vegetables that provide anti-oxidant properties. Fresh tips are harvested while their brown, sticky, papery husk is still on the very tip of the new cluster of needles. Once the covering has come off, the needles start to spread. That means the nutrients are also spreading and not as concentrated—the tips will not tase as good. These vibrant chartreuse  clusters are commonly pickled, steeped for tea, used in baked goods, dried for later use, or eaten fresh. The Dena’ina name for spruce tips is Ch’wala; the Tlingit name is Shéiyi. Squirrels and porcupine eat spruce cones and bark and needles. Squirrels eat so many seeds out of cones that large piles of pulp and pith build up under their favorite trees. These soft piles make a good picnic spot, and favored rest area for moose.

Young fronds of wood fern sautéed with garlic.
Young, just emerged fronds of wood and ostrich fern are delicacies in northern climates. Tender shoots contain potassium and a lot of vitamin A—also a carotenoid. Tight coiled fronds of ferns with brown papery coverings are best, not ferns that are brown and fuzzy. It cannot be emphasized enough: DO NOT harvest all the fronds from one plant. Unlike tree and bush leaves, the fern will not grow another frond in the same year. The brown husk should be removed before processing. Do not eat fern fronds raw, they must be cooked or pickled. A popular serving method is sautéed, seen here with garlic. The names for fiddleheads in Yu’pik are: cetuguar (aq), nengqaaq, ciilavik; in Dena’ina the names: elnen tselts ‘egha, uh ts ‘egha; the Tlingit name is K’wálx. Birds like to use fern leaf bits in nest construction.

Devil’s club is a prickly plant to use, literally and figuratively. To eat the spring greens, IT MUST BE HARVESTED right when it pokes out of the old stalk—BEFORE any spikes begin to appear. Devil’s club is closely related to ginseng, as its latin name implies: Oplopanax horridus, horridus indicating the threat of the spikes and toxicity of the berries. Despite the potential threats, devil’s club is an invaluable medicinal plant providing many remedies for infections, inflammation, and much more. Please consult experts on the use of or for properly prepared products. The Dena’ina name for devil’s club is heshkeghka’a.

Of course there are the other common “weeds” that are beneficial to our health that can be eaten raw, in salads, prepared as vinegars, or made into tonics. Those plants include: dandelion greens, nettles, chickweed, cleavers, and more. Harvest in clean habitats, not by the sides of roads where car exhaust has blanketed the surroundings. The plants offer the freshest, densest nutrients early before they bloom. When plants are blooming, more energy and resources are sent to the flowers, and that is fine, if the flowers are what drives your tastes.

Where ever you live, there are native and naturalized plants gracing your community ready to offer their tasty and useful constituents to your palate. Everything we eat now originated in the wild. The land around us has always provided what our bodies need.

Note that information provided here is for informational purposes only. Please explore the resources below for further details.


Native Alaskan traditional wisdom: Plants That We Eat, by Anore Jones
Harvesting and uses of a wide variety in northern regions: Discovering Wild Plants, by Janice Schofield
Alaska school program that matches a cultivated plant with a traditional native plant each month:
Identification in the field with some uses and cautions: A Field Guide to Alaskan Wildflowers, by Verna Pratt
Peer-reviewed scientific research into plants used in herbal medicines: 

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Tulip Season in Anchorage

The candy rich colors of tulips are popping all over town. Actually, a few started in early May—those located on southern exposures where warmth reflected off buildings helped the buds push up. Tulips make great additions to northern gardens: easy to plant, easy to tend, lovely to enjoy. But they come with one caution, don’t plant them where the moose tread. As delicious as they appear to us, the flowers literally are savored by the large, hooved beasts. 

Tulip tarda
Just look at these rich cups of color! It’s a good thing they are not aggressive in the garden. Tulips do grow easy here, yet they do not last for more than two or three years. The soil is not rich enough for their taste. However, Tulip tarda, a species tulip, with roots in the mountains Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and northwest China may return for Alaskans year after year. Since the little darling grew up in sub-alpine habitats, it only makes sense that it could live here. Only  in the past few years have folks in Alaska have tried it. Tulip tarda is the yellow and white variety seen here. 

Once upon a time I lived in Texas where tulip bulbs had to be kept in refrigerators most of the winter before planting. Imagine if you wanted 50, or 100, or 200 depending on the size of your flower beds. You’d have to get a separate fridge or freezer to winterize your bulbs. In Alaska bulbs are received in the early fall and planted by October at the latest—before the ground freezes. Folks in Alaska prefer their extra fridge or freezer hold salmon, moose, or berries.

One of the tulips shown here, the yellow and red variety, gains its coloration because it is infected with a virus. Commonly called tulip breaking virus, the pathogen leads to either fading or intensifying of color pigments. Dorothy Cayley, a horticulturist at the John Innes Horticultural Institution, experimented with tulips and the virus until she discovered it was transferred via aphids that carried sap from one plant to another. 

Though the bulb can live with the virus for a year or two, eventually the bulb falls victim to the pathogen and the plant dies. Such short lived excitement lends another cause to our collective romance for the fleeting beauty of flowers. 

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Successive Blooms and Co-Habitation

Perennial crocus in Anchorage, AK

No variety of plant thrives in solitary confinement, contrary to what folks who want perfect lawns might desire. Look at a native woodland edge, horizontal lines can practically be drawn across the vista as the species step down in size: canopy topping evergreen or deciduous trees, medium height trees with lower canopy, large shrubby evergreens or deciduous plants, herbaceous perennials, grasses, woodland wildflowers, short grasses and sedges, ground covers and vines, fungus, and the soil layer—too many strata of life to list here. 

Tended gardens benefit from co-habitation showing off for their human parents nearly all year. Here is a lovely example of a small flower bed in Anchorage. The crocuses planted in fall bloom first at the end of April through first of May. Some varieties of crocus are perennial and return year after year. Fritillaries, also known as speckled lilies, spike up midway through the crocus season and, like a blown-up balloon, out pop the dangly speckled lilies. There are hundreds of flowers called fritillaries, even a native variety in Alaska: Fritillaria camschatcensis, chocolate lily—that’ll show up here when it’s in bloom. There are even butterflies named fritillaries too. This variety is most likely Fritillaria meleagris. Surrounding and covering the crocus and lilies is a fine mat of creeping thyme. The thyme is evergreen acting as a blanket in winter, then as a mulch in summer. Most thyme thrive in the sun and in beds with good drainage. This little spot is slightly raised, about eight inches above grade, allowing sufficient water run-off.

Fritillaria meleagris surrounded by creeping thyme.

Underneath the bed is an old tree root from which mushrooms occasionally sprout. Not that it was planted there on purpose, the tree’s demise came long before the homeowner arrived. There are some cases where a tree root or log may be placed purposefully, it could be for a hugelkulture project, or fungus growing operation. Hugelkulture allows property owners to keep tree material they have removed from their property, on their property. Logs and limbs are piled largest on bottom to smallest on top with leaf material, twigs, and other organic matter filling in. As soil bacteria, mycelia, lichen, grasses, and insects move into the new hill of a home, co-habitation works like a charm and over time the pile becomes a natural berm. 

Plants in isolation suffer attacks from predators more often than vibrant ecosystems teeming with varied species. Monocultures are weakened by lack of biodiversity. Species in diverse landscapes support each another whether through decomposition into appropriate nutrients, symbiosis, shading, or simply holding each other upright. Working together, now that is a perfect environment.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Meanwhile, Spring Arrives in Alaska

The classic dream, a white picket fence and a rich bloomer, here it is Forsythia.

Though most parts of the country bask in summer—even Alaskan’s call this summer—botanically it’s still spring in the Great Land. Crocus came and left, tulips on southern exposures are blooming while their siblings in cooler spots will dot landscapes by end of May. Peony shoots have been working hard for the past month after snow left early this year—road crews began sweeping streets and sidewalks about three weeks prior to historical timelines. Spring primula are blooming, and vivid yellow pops of forsythia surprise walkers in older neighborhoods. Summers glow with twenty to twenty-four hours of sunlight per day in the north spurring all this rapid growth. The climate taught native and adapted plants to get it on in three busy months.

Primula working it's way up through last fall's leaves, April 22

And here’s a naturally curious tidbit about insects up north, some overwinter. Yes there are the standard flies, some adults live in crevices of buildings creeping out as higher angles of warm sun rays heat exteriors of structures. It’s kind of unnerving to open your curtains to a dozen or so pests frantically searching for an escape route between the window and screen. Tortoiseshell butterfly adults overwinter, the poor bedraggled wings flitting to warm gravel spots to elevate their body temperature. Even spiders, beetles, wasps, bumble bees, and other types of flies in the wild evolved to change their inner fluids to a sort of anti-freeze as they crawl under leaf litter to wait out the cold. Slugs have left pearly beads of eggs in the same leaf litter and anxious gardeners hope those beetles will find the eggs before they hatch. 

Milbert's tortoiseshell butterfly, April.

We’re preparing gardens now for planting, in fact some perennials went in the ground at the beginning of May. Homesteaders eager to get their own food growing traditionally planted gardens the first of June in South Central Alaska. Over the past fifteen years planting days crept up about three weeks earlier, depending on who you ask. Gardeners living on south facing slopes, or in warm coastal microclimates are a week ahead of those living in cool swales and at the feet of the Chugach Mountains. Flower cutting gardens, long the envy of plant lovers from the Lower 48, will soon burst with color. Those who moved to Anchorage in the early to mid-twentieth century surrounded themselves with towering delphiniums, plump peonies, and dazzling dahlias. That still happens today, along with trollius, primulas, clematis, and hostas.  

Lawn post snow, April 22

May 15, first watering

Plants are living with the climate adjustment. Thank goodness for all those overwintering insects, the early bloomers will be happy to host them.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Do the Trees Fear?

In contemplating our fear of viruses.

I wonder, is this what the trees felt like, when their sisters and mothers and uncles and aunts didn’t wake up in spring? When saw-toothy-edged elm leaves failed to unfurl, and mighty arms fell from the sky? And what of the eagle? Was it afraid, year after year when the safety of a thin calcium orb collapsed on a tiny, helpless chick? Did the bird wonder, what would happen, who would come back to the forest next year to eat mice and squirrels if my babies don’t live? And the prairie dog, the watcher of the plain, what did he think the day he popped up from his underground network, happy to greet his neighbor, yet his neighbor didn’t appear? Was he afraid, when next his grandmother didn’t wake up; and next the coyote that usually chased him home each afternoon? Did he wonder, will my children move to find new neighbors, will I live to teach my grandchildren which seeds to collect? And the coral; the brain, the fan, and the fish in their nooks, do they wonder if they can whisk the warm water away?  

Then I wonder, will I be able to teach my children how to make dinner? How to drive a car? Does my neighbor fear his father may not answer the phone tomorrow? And what of your boss, or auntie, or bus driver? Will you see them at the beach this summer? At the ice cream stand? Will your friends take off their coats and reach for the sun? 

Could the monarch, the manatee, and elephant come together? Do they have research that tells them why they disappear? Maybe there is a coalition with the ocean, the rainforest, and the river to find a vaccine that will cure them of us. 

Will the deciders ever help? Will the helpers get to decide? And I wonder, will we remember, will we be ready next time, and why didn’t we remember? And will there be food, and medicine, and shelter? But before, and after, will we hug? 

Above: An eagle soars over birch and spruce forest along Turnagain Arm, Alaska. Spruce have been in decline for a decade due to predation by the spruce bark beetle. As the climate warms, the winters are not harsh enough to kill the beetles. 

Learning about Intersectional Environmentalism

Trail leaving the northern most point of the  Pacific Temperate Rainforest in Girdwood, AK. When I see acres of rainforest burning, or the s...