Spring, Taakw eetí, is sneaking into Alaska again. Fairbanks and Juneau are still covered in snow. In Sitka, there are signs of spring. As I take my dogs for a walk around the neighborhood I can see skunk cabbage popping up in the ditches. Pussy willow buds are soft to the touch. There are lots of blueberry and huckleberry blossoms coloring the trail. There are even a few salmonberry blossoms. Today I stood in a friend’s yard discussing all of the ways we can try to get rid of Japanese Knotweed in her yard while swatting at a dozen mosquitoes. I’ve been watching all of these signs of spring sneaking in for the last couple of weeks.
I know March is too early for all of these things to be out. I worry that the berries won’t be okay if the blossoms are out this early. It’s still below freezing at night. We have had hardly any snow or rain this winter in Sitka. This temperate rainforest needs that winter snow and spring rain to survive. I’ve been harvesting foods and medicines from Southeast Alaska’s forests all of my life. The time of year we harvest our traditional foods and medicines from the forest is changing.
Adapting to the changes isn’t easy. It means not only are we having to harvest sooner, we also have to harvest some things more quickly. The growing and prime harvesting time is shorter now. The forest is telling a very different story in the spring as it unfolds. In some places in Southeast, now is the time to begin looking for the spring plants to harvest and watch them as they grow. The forest will tell you what to harvest and when. When we go out to harvest in the spring we are often looking for many different plants at once, not just harvesting one kind at a time.
The x’áal’, or skunk cabbage, is out in Sitka. It is one of the first signs of spring in Southeast Alaska. The bear and deer love it, and so do I. I’ve had a salve made from skunk cabbage and devil’s club made by my friend in Hoonah that helped me to heal a broken sternum and manage my pain better than anything I could find on the shelf at a store. Early spring is the best time to harvest skunk cabbage roots for medicine. I still am learning about the best way to harvest, clean, and preserve skunk cabbage. I make sure when learning about plants that not only do I learn from books on botany, I learn from many different people who are Master Harvesters and have many years of experience.
Soon the k’wálx, or ferns, will be showing up all over the forest. I used to harvest fiddlehead ferns, berry blossoms, and devil’s club tips at the same time. They don’t grow together in the same way as they used to. The new buds or fiddleheads of the fern are one of our favorite spring greens. They taste great sautéed or steamed for about 10 minutes and eaten as is. They can also then be added to soups, pastas, omelets, sauces, and more. There is more vitamin K in our fiddlehead ferns in the forest than you can find in spinach at the store.
After these plants begin to sprout, you will see the new shoots of the lóol (fireweed), k’eit duxáayin (specifically the new edible shoot of salmonberries), and ch’eix’ (thimbleberry) start to emerge. The young new shoots grow quickly and there is a small window in which they are quite tasty greens to eat. When harvesting them think of them a bit like asparagus in that one part will snap clean and another part may be stringy. The fibrous part is beginning to harden and won’t taste as good as the part that snaps clean. Simply peel away the skin and eat fresh. If you harvest a bunch and take them home to clean you will find out quickly that this isn’t a good way to do it. The plants begin to dry out and the skin becomes harder to remove and most likely many of the new shoots will be thrown away instead of eaten.
It’s important to only take what you can process at the site of harvesting. Someone out there may have good ways of preserving them for use later, but I haven’t found anything that compares to eating them freshly picked. Out of the three, k’eit duxáayin are my favorite. There is a hint of the flavor of the berry in the stalk. I like to eat mine the way it is or sometimes I’ll bring a little sugar to dip them in. My nieces refer to these new shoots as trail snacks. They love them.
It is best when learning about local Alaskan plants to learn hands on and from local people. University of Alaska Southeast also offers some fantastic classes if you don’t have someone to teach you. Reading books on the plants will help, but it can’t replace the experience from years of hands on harvesting. It is also much better to read plant books than to read blogs about harvesting online. There is a lot of information that is incorrect in amateur harvesters’ blogs and articles.
For instance, if you read a blog about harvesting devil’s club from someone who harvests in Washington or Oregon you will find they commonly give directions to only harvest the root of devil’s club. The origin of these instructions comes from the perception that devil’s club is similar to ginseng. Even though it is in the ginseng family it should not be harvested or used in the same way as ginseng because it isn’t ginseng. It has some similarities, but it is devil’s club. It grows along its root systems better than it grows from seed. If you take too much of the roots then it can destroy the plant. If you take too many of the stalks, this can also destroy the plant. Devil’s club plays important roles in the ecosystem of Alaska’s forests and it is important to sustainably harvest it. In Oregon and Washington devil’s club is being devastated as commercial harvesters are predominantly harvesting large quantities of the root of the plant, and we don’t want that happening here in Alaska.
University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Cooperative Extension Services is a great place to start learning about harvesting, preserving, and preparing locally harvested foods and medicines if you haven’t found anyone local to learn from yet. We highly recommend searching out local experts in your area to harvest with over a few seasons. If you put plant people into the same room we can’t help but get excited and share our knowledge and love of the plants we harvest. Harvesting with local experts will help you to learn how the harvesting of our traditional foods and medicines from the forest is changing over time. Please harvest respectfully and sustainably.
Vivian Mork Yéilk’ shares the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott.
• Vivian Mork Yéilk’ shares the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott.