We’ve got musk ox in the pressure cooker, and we’re fixing vegetables and salad with the greens we harvested from the land. We spent the day harvesting a variety of spring greens: watermelon berry shoots, fiddleheads, fireweed shoots, young deer heart leaves, salmonberry blossoms and shoots, blueberry blossoms, dandelion flowers, dandelion leaves, and devil’s club tips. Now is the time to harvest a little bit every day.
Watermelon berry shoots are my favorite spring green. In the Lingít language they’re called tleikw kahínti, and in English, watermelon berry, twisted stalk or wild cucumber. Streptopus amplexifolius, is its scientific name. The shoots and the entire stalk taste like crisp fresh cucumber. The berries taste like watermelon and the leaves can be added to salads. They can be cooked in a variety of ways, or even pickled. You can harvest and eat all the new growth, from about 3 inches when they first poke out of the ground, until when the plants are about 3 feet high and become fibrous. Some years they don’t grow that big and some years they do. Break the plant near the bottom of the stalk. You can rub or peel the skin off with a glove if it has hairs.
I’ve picked watermelon berry shoots when they were three feet tall, and I ate them. Watermelon berry grows larger in Southeast Alaska than other areas in Alaska. They love our rainforest and don’t like the direct sun or hot weather. Last year was a great year for them, and this year is looking good too. They like the shade and they also prefer to grow near water.
Now that I’ve told you a bit about watermelon berry shoots, now I’ll tell you not to go out harvesting them without accompanying an experienced harvester. There are rules that Tlingits live by and it’s also a familiar rule among traditional wild harvesters and Indigenous peoples around the world: The first rule of wild harvesting is, “Don’t harvest what you don’t know.” The second rule of wild harvesting is, “Don’t harvest what you don’t know.” If you’re new to harvesting from the land, or even new to this particular plant, this is the most valuable wisdom you’ll receive.
One of our most important Tlingit values is respect and this extends to our plants and the land. All things are respected: Ldakát át a yáa ayaduwanéi. We are related to the plants. According to our traditional story, Raven first created humans from a rock and when they couldn’t die, he realized that wasn’t good, so he made humans from a leaf so we’d go through the same life cycles as plants. So, when you harvest plants, think about this story and how we’re related to everything that grows.
Respecting watermelon berry plants means knowing about them. In the early stages, watermelon berry shoots can easily be confused with false hellebore. Both have oval shaped leaves with striated ridges that come to a narrow point at the end. It’s easier to tell them apart as the plants age. As they age, the watermelon berry leaves wrap the stem at the leaf base and there’s space between the leaves. The plant also has a twisted stalk, and the leaves have less striations, and are not as ridged as hellebore. It’s identifying the newly emerging shoots is what I’m concerned with. If eaten, even a quarter size piece of false hellebore could kill you. The poison is much more concentrated in a younger plant so harvesting shoots can be especially dangerous. There are numerous steroidal alkaloids in the hellebore that are unsafe for humans and even a small taste may cause death. When I teach classes, I teach people the difference between watermelon berry plants and false hellebore directly after feeding them a watermelon berry shoot: You’ve eaten a yummy plant, but it could’ve been poison. Makes my students pay attention for the rest of the hike.
So how do you tell the difference? The best thing is to go out with a knowledgeable person and learn hands-on until you feel confident. Do not harvest watermelon berry plants until you can positively identify it. This is the only way to learn without poisoning yourself.
One nickname for the watermelon berry is twisted stalk. When the plant is older, the stalk grows with a twist. But when the watermelon berry and the hellebore plants are both young it’s hard to identify the difference because the watermelon berry’s new stalk might not be twisted yet. The hellebore has a thicker stalk, typically, but watermelon berry shoots can grow thick sometimes too. Another way to tell the difference is watermelon berry plants have seeds and hellebore does not. When the watermelon berry matures the seeds grow into berries. False hellebore doesn’t have those seeds. Though false hellebore is poisonous, in a tradtional healer’s competent hands the hellebore can be blended with skunk cabbage roots and made into medicine for bone healing.
I love watermelon berries, but eating too many can cause diarrhea. And if you’re going to make syrups or jelly, you’ll want to sift the seeds out because they have hairs on the seeds that can irritate your digestive system. Though, there are online resources like farm or harvesting schools, YouTube videos, and Facebook groups, you really need to have hands-on harvesting lessons to be able to harvest without harming yourself or others.
Every year, a popular harvesters Facebook page for Alaskans, will have photos and inquiries about false hellebore. There’s a frequent commenter on the page from Kansas who’s quite sure what every Alaskan plant is: “Oh that’s wild rhubarb,” she once assured a member who posted a photo of poisonous baneberry. Someone is going to die one day eating false hellebore because someone on Facebook told them it was watermelon berry shoots. One time, a woman posted a photo of her hand holding false hellebore. People mix this up with skunk cabbage and watermelon berry shoots. At the stage she was showing, a small amount could’ve killed her. In fact, a minuscule amount of the juice could start severe stomach aches and vomiting. If she had stuck her fingers in her mouth after taking the photo she could’ve been poisoned. What if she’d been out on the trail by herself?
Experienced wild harvesters know the difference between skunk cabbage, watermelon berry and hellebore. Novice harvesters sometimes make mistakes. You need hands-on practice with knowledgeable people. Facebook should not be the only and most reliable harvesting tool. There are many dangerous posts showing people harvesting things they don’t know, plants that could kill them, and overharvesting plants they have no idea how to preserve or with no intention of preserving. People who are new to Alaska somehow find their way to this Facebook page and the same misinformation is repeated over and over.
So, dear Fellow Harvesters, I’m not harvest shaming by explaining and warning and educating you. I care if you’re healthy and happy and, certainly, if you live or die. Learning to harvest from the land and sea is a lifelong journey. Please leave the plants where they are and take a photo to identify. Identify the plant where they have cited sources such as credible books. Then seek out a knowledgeable harvester in your area to go out with numerous times. Go with them lots, not once, or even a few times: Lots! Learn in smart and careful ways and remember: Ldakát át a yáa ayaduwanéi.
All things are respected.
• Vivian Mork Yéilk’ writes the Planet Alaska column with her mother, Vivian Faith Prescott. Planet Alaska publishes every other week in the Capital City Weekly.