Popweed harvest and cedar basket. (Courtesy Photo | Vivian Faith Prescott)

Popweed harvest and cedar basket. (Courtesy Photo | Vivian Faith Prescott)

Planet Alaska: Harvesting the soon bloom

Popweed makes a healthy snack.

The children head down the small trail to the beach. They’re excited because it’s spring in Southeast Alaska and it’s time for popweed harvesting. Wearing our boots and raincoats, my daughter, my great-niece, and my grandchildren, make our way through the boulder patch to the rocky end of the beach. Picnickers don’t typically use this part of the beach, but the sea stars, sea anemones and harvesters love it.

Today, I’m teaching the children how to harvest popweed. Harvesting popweed is an activity children can do and elders too, especially if the beach is easily accessible. Sámi and Tlingit values include experiential learning: learning while doing. Lately I’ve been referring to popweed harvesting as the soon bloom, because it might be the earliest spring plant I’ve harvested. And it seems earlier than other spring indicators, even skunk cabbage and pussy willows.

Grandkids harvest popweed. (Courtesy Photo | Vivian Faith Prescott)

Grandkids harvest popweed. (Courtesy Photo | Vivian Faith Prescott)

I stop and survey the beach. It’s perfect! There’s lots of popweed and it’s accessible. It grows between high and low water marks on rocky shorelines. There’re lots of names for the bright orange and brown seaweed draping southeast Alaska’s beaches: tayeidí (Lingít), t’ál (Haida), bladderwrack, fucus, yellow seaweed, rockweed, dead man’s fingers, Fucus gardneri and more. Popweed is one of the most common seaweeds found throughout Alaska, in the British Isles, Europe, and on both the western and eastern coasts of the United States.

[Planet Alaska: I believe in ferries]

I inhale the cool salty air. I hand out bags and small buckets to the children. I instruct them: “Don’t cut yourself with the scissors. No running with the scissors. And don’t stomp all over the seaweed.”

Popweed. (Courtesy Photo | Vivian Faith Prescott)

Popweed. (Courtesy Photo | Vivian Faith Prescott)

They look around and I know it’s impossible not to step on a barnacle or a blue mussel or a patch of popweed. “But Mummo, it’s everywhere!” says grandson Jonah.

“Just be respectful,” I say. “Now, we have to thank the seaweed for letting us harvest it. Gunalchéesh.”

They all know the Lingít word and repeat it together: Gunalchéesh. Gunalchéesh.

Grandson Jonah harvests popweed. (Courtesy Photo | Vivian Faith Prescott)

Grandson Jonah harvests popweed. (Courtesy Photo | Vivian Faith Prescott)

I bend down to a big popweed covered boulder and the children gather around. “See, this is when the popweed is first turning yellow.” They bend down and inspect the rock. “See, it’s not puffing out yet.” I pick a seaweed frond and put it to my mouth. “You can eat it.” They each try it. Crunchy and both sweet and salty.

[Planet Alaska: Brick and mortar, forest and trail]

For thousands of years, cultures have used popweed for medicine and food. It’s a common herbal supplement. There are known properties in popweed that treat thyroid disorders, and it’s known to increase metabolism and it’s high in antioxidants. It’s also used as an anti-inflammatory and for skin irritations. Too much can cause loose stools, though, and it can inhibit blood clotting. Studies have linked popweed with higher levels of the good cholesterol, HDL and improved digestion due to alginic acid. All I tell the children is “It’s good for you.”

Niece Rhiannon harvests seaweed. (Courtesy Photo | Vivian Faith Prescott)

Niece Rhiannon harvests seaweed. (Courtesy Photo | Vivian Faith Prescott)

I lift the seaweed revealing the tough holdfast sticking the seaweed to the rock. “Don’t pull the holdfast.” I reach my hands along the stem, just a couple inches below the bulb and show them where to cut. Don’t take too much from one rock. Go from rock to rock and harvest. Don’t forget to thank the plants.

Then I show them the next stage. “Here, this one is just puffing up a bit.” We taste the new tips. They’re delicious. Then we try the next stage. Finally, I pick a large popweed, though most aren’t fully bloomed yet. I hold up the bulbous seaweed and motion my hand like the ocean moving over the boulder. “These are air sacs that let the weed float straight up when the tide comes in.”

[Southeast in Sepia: Jefferson Randolph ‘Soapy’ Smith’s parlor]

As a kid, I tried eating these air sacs, and enjoyed the sound of popping beneath my feet. For most of my life, I used the gooey liquid in the air sacs for medicine. I break the sac it in half. “See the goop,” I say. “Your Grandpa Elmer used to put this on his cuts and pimples.” The youngest grandchild shows me her hand, a tiny scratch. I rub the seaweed ointment on it. She insists it feels better already.

Dried popweed. (Courtesy Photo | Vivian Faith Prescott)

Dried popweed. (Courtesy Photo | Vivian Faith Prescott)

“Go ahead,” I say. And the children take off down the beach, each stopping at their own rock to harvest. I watch them for a bit as I consider the children’s lineage represented: Frogs, kittiwakes, eagles and ravens are lifting seaweed from the boulders, down on their knees in the wet sand. Teaching the next generation is an important aspect of managing our fishcamp. I walk down the beach from boulder to boulder, helping the children and filling my own basket.

After about an hour, attention spans wane and one grandchild discovers a green starfish and a bullhead. Another decides the snacks we’ve brought are more interesting than the seaweed. Grandson Jonah, though, and his cousin Rhiannon, pick and pick. Rhiannon spends most of her time, meticulously harvesting a very clean product.

After a snack break and playtime, beach exploration and harvesting, it’s time to go our separate ways. The kids have had enough. I’m done too. At home, I experiment with drying the seaweed. My writer friend Amy O’Neill Houck is the publisher of Edible Alaska. She instructs me on how to roast the seaweed, a favorite of hers. I bake the popweed on trays at 300 degrees for about a half hour, but it depends on the oven and how much seaweed is on the tray. I turn the pans during the roasting and check it often.

From left to right, popweed is arranged to show different harvesting stages one through four. The fifth stage is not shown. (Vivian Faith Prescott | For the Capital City Weekly)

From left to right, popweed is arranged to show different harvesting stages one through four. The fifth stage is not shown. (Vivian Faith Prescott | For the Capital City Weekly)

About midway through, the seaweed magically turns bright green, before it gets darker. Finally the seaweed is dry and crunchy. The bladders pop in my mouth and it’s good. I try parmesan cheese on one batch, but I like it better plain. I save some fresh popweed and I chop it and use it all week in salads. My dad grinds some for a seasoning. I take baggies of roasted popweed to friends and family. It’s a new healthy snack.

There’s something exciting when one season changes to another, but especially from winter to spring. Next spring, as the snow melts and the rains come, I’ll walk the beaches, bend over the boulders, looking for the soon bloom, the first slight change in color on the tips of the popweed. Then I’ll know it’s really spring.

Popweed Stages: The following are suggested guidelines because people harvest differently and the seaweed has a variety of uses at various stages:

Stage 1. You can see the seaweed tips lightening. Harvest the flat new growth.

Stage 2. The tips (bladders/air sacs) pop out and start to fill. Perfect for harvesting. A mild, nutty and salty taste. You can dry this stage or eat it fresh.

Stage 3. New tips! Perfect for harvesting. Mild and salty. Dry this stage.

Stage 4. Bladders are filled and knobby. Inner substance is gooey. Harvest this stage for medicines. Some people dry and make powders.

(Not shown) Stage 5. The bladders will mature and become large. There’s good medicine inside.

Resources:

Dolly Garza is the go to authority. Common Edible Seaweeds in the Gulf of Alaska: seagrant.uaf.edu/bookstore/edibleseaweed/sg-ed-46a.pdf

A seaweed database for Alaska: seaweedsofalaska.com/default.asp

Edible Alaska: ediblealaska.ediblecommunities.com


• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’.


More in News

Jasmine Chavez, a crew member aboard the Quantum of the Seas cruise ship, waves to her family during a cell phone conversation after disembarking from the ship at Marine Park on May 10. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Ships in port for the week of June 22

Here’s what to expect this week.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Thursday, June 20, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

Pins supporting the repeal of ranked choice voting are seen on April 20 at the Republican state convention in Anchorage. (James Brooks/Alaska Beacon)
State judge upholds most fines against group seeking repeal of Alaska ranked choice voting

An Anchorage Superior Court judge has ruled that opponents of Alaska’s ranked… Continue reading

Joshua Midgett and Kelsey Bryce Riker appear on stage as the emcees for MixCast 2023 at the Crystal Saloon. (Photo courtesy Juneau Ghost Light Theatre)
And now for someone completely different: Familiar faces show new personas at annual MixCast cabaret

Fundraiser for Juneau Ghost Light Theatre on Saturday taking place amidst week of local Pride events

Jasz Garrett / Juneau Empire
A section of Angoon along the coast is seen on June 14. Angoon was destroyed by the U.S. Navy in 1882; here is where they first pulled up to shore.
Long-awaited U.S. Navy apology for 1882 bombardment will bring healing to Angoon

“How many times has our government apologized to any American Native group?”

Juneau Mayor Beth Weldon announced this week she plans to seek a third three-year term. (Juneau Empire file photo)
Mayor Beth Weldon seeking third term amidst personal and political challenges

Low mill rate, more housing cited by lifelong Juneau resident as achievements during past term.

(Michael Penn / Juneau Empire file photo)
Police calls for Wednesday, June 19, 2024

This report contains public information from law enforcement and public safety agencies.

A king salmon is laid out for inspection by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at the Mike Pusich Douglas Harbor during the Golden North Salmon Derby on Aug. 25, 2019. (Peter Segall / Juneau Empire file photo)
Emergency order bans king salmon fishing in many Juneau waters between June 24 and Aug. 31

Alaska Department of Fish and Game says low projected spawning population necessitates restrictions

Three cruise ships are docked along Juneau’s waterfront on the evening on May 10, as a Princess cruise ship on the right is departing the capital city. (Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Sitka residents join those in Juneau proposing hard caps on cruise ships as tourism grows

Two ballot measures could be presented to local voters in the two Southeast Alaska towns this fall

Most Read