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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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’.