|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: