In the spring, Alaskans are just beginning to come out of hibernation. The visitors in their parkas and fur hats are here while all of us locals are just starting to dig our shorts out of boxes and from the back of drawers. We’re still squinting at the warming bright orb in the sky as the dandelions, nettle and Indian celery begin to dance another season.
I’m so happy it is spring.
I can’t help but think “yum!” every two steps on a trail in the forest. It is time for spring greens again. This is my favorite time to harvest. I’ve been harvesting for weeks now. I’ve been harvesting cottonwood buds, a little devil’s club root and some poppy seaweed here and there. If you were to hike with me now, I’d be picking you watermelon berry shoots and trees the entire hike so you could try them.
Watermelon berry shoots are such a refreshing juicy spring green to eat. The tender young shoots have a cucumber-like flavor. The ones I’ve been eating this spring in Juneau are at least two feet tall and thick around as a sharpie marker. You can eat them fresh as you hike. You can take them home and chop them up to put them in a salad. You can sauté the new shoots with other veggies.
Not far from the watermelon berry shoots we found fireweed shoots. The new growth fireweed shoots are tasty trail snacks, and just like watermelon berry shoots, you can take them home to chop up fresh for a salad or sauté them with other vegetables like dandelion greens, nettles, plantain or Indian celery.
But like all wild harvesting it is important to know how to properly identify, harvest and use what you collect. When harvesting watermelon berry shoots, it is important to be able to properly distinguish them from false Solomon’s seal and false hellebore, which is poisonous. Later on in the season when the watermelon berry plant begins to fruit, don’t eat too many of the seeds as they can be a laxative.
Wild harvesting is all about who, what, when, where and why. A mistake can lead to some pretty crappy side effects. Learn your plants.
One plant I love is Indian celery. Of course there are many people who are allergic to it and should avoid it. Here is the trick to harvesting Indian celery: harvest new spring shoots on a cloudy day while wearing gloves, a long-sleeve T-shirt and pants. Indian celery sap and outer hairs contain a chemical called furanocoumarin. When combined with sunlight, furanocoumarin can cause severe blistering, pain and burning.
If you are eating the Indian celery stalk, peel it first. Many people love to dip the stalk in sugar. If you are eating the leaves, try drying them like kale chips. The new flower buds are a good addition to soups. Later in the season you can gather the seeds and dry them to use as a seasoning. The root of Indian celery can be a little bitter but it can be harvested from fall to early spring.
Learn your trees, too. Conifers are my favorite.
Before harvesting it is important to distinguish the different types of spruce trees for their varying flavors. It is also important to learn to distinguish between a hemlock and a yew. Hemlock trees are not hemlock the plant, which is poisonous. Hemlock trees are edible, but some people mix them up with yew trees, which are poisonous. It is important to tell the difference between hemlock and yew trees.
All of the edible conifers have distinct scents and flavors from each other. Hemlock needles have a sharp, heady, lemon flavor while spruce has a resinous, fruity, lemon flavor. Fir is becoming my favorite of all the trees to cook with because it has a zesty orange flavor. Studies have identified over 39 flavor compounds in pine needles and over 81 in pine bud/tips.
Conifer salts give a wonderful flavor to fish and roasted meats. Conifer tree needles are more than just their flavors. They are high in vitamin A, B, C, iron, numerous minerals, antioxidants and flavonoids. According to studies, they contain anti-viral and anti-inflammatory properties. Conifer needles are also one of the richest sources of polyprenols, which stimulate the immune system, cellular repair, and contain antiviral properties.
Conifer needles are fantastic in teas. Just add a handful of needles to a cup of boiling water and let steep for 10-15 minutes. A tea made from fresh spring tips will be sweeter, while tea made with older needles will be more earthy and woodsy. It’s also nice to add a pinch of warming spices like cinnamon, nutmeg or cloves, which are good for you.
Conifer needles can also make wonderful homemade oils and warming salves for topical applications on the skin. These salves are beneficial for sore muscles, and bringing blood flow and circulation to stiff limbs. They make a great lip balm. There is just so much to gather and harvest this spring I feel like I need to clone myself. Fresh or dried conifer needles (about a cup) can also be wrapped in a cloth bag and added to a bath for a nice soak. Epsom salt is a nice addition to accompany the needles as well.
There are some lovely plants and trees to harvest this spring. Please make sure to harvest in a sustainable manner. If you live in Juneau and would like to learn how to harvest hands on, contact us at email@example.com or find Planet Alaska on Facebook.
Indian Celery Chips
1 lb of fresh spring Indian Celery leaves
3/4 cup of sunflower oil or coconut oil (or less if you have a sprayer)
1 Tbps fine ground sea salt
1 dash of garlic powder (or more)
1 dash of onion powder (or more)
1 dash of ground pepper (or more)
Place chopped leaves into a baking dish and add the oil, salt and herb mixture. Gently toss the leaves, ensuring every piece is thoroughly coated. Place the leaves in a pre-heated oven at 300 degrees. (Spreading the leaves out on the tray can help to create crispier chips!) Cook for 20-25 minutes. (Wear gloves while chopping Indian celery!)
Watermelon Berry Syrup
1 cup watermelon berry juice
2 cups sugar
1 tsp lemon juice
Combine all ingredients in a saucepan and heat to 160 degrees. Use a candy thermometer; do not boil. The syrup is ready to use over waffles, pancakes, hot biscuits, ice cream and other desserts. Syrup will keep up to six months in the refrigerator without sugaring.
For long-term storage: Sterilize pint or half-pint canning jars and prepare lids. Immediately pour hot syrup into hot canning jars, leaving an inch headspace. Wipe jar rims and add prepared two-piece lids. Process five minutes in a boiling water canner.
Makes two cups.
• Vivian Mork Yéilk’ was born in Wrangell, Alaska and lives in Juneau. She’s Tlingit, a Raven from the T’akdeintaan clan, Snail House from Hoonah. Her Tlingit name is Yéilk’ (Cute-Little-Raven). She comes from a large multicultural family, which is also Sámi, Hawaiian, Chinese and Irish. She has an M.A. in Cross Cultural Studies with an emphasis in Indigenous Knowledge Systems. She’s a tourist guide, a traditional food and medicine specialist, a storyteller, a writer, a carver, a tinkerer, as well as a Tlingit language and cultural educator. She grew up exploring Southeast Alaska’s islands in a commercial fishing family, spent her young adult life as a professional vagrant exploring the world, and now moves a lot of stuff around in her tiny home.