So, you want to learn how to harvest wild edibles in Alaska.
At Planet Alaska, we are often asked how to harvest all sorts of things. We have been teaching people for many years now and have been harvesting our entire lives. You can’t get within a 5-foot radius of us in the early spring and summer without one of us trying to feed you wild edibles or trying to hand you some lovely medicinal made from Alaska’s wonderful plants. When people ask us on Facebook how to harvest various things, they seem to be looking for a simple answer. Here’s the thing, learning online about how to harvest plants is a horrible way to learn how to harvest plants. It is always best to learn hands-on from a local knowledgeable person when it comes to wild harvesting in Alaska.
There is some good info out there online, but there is lots of bad info, too. Bad plant harvesting info can make you sick or even worse cause death. Bad plant harvesting info can also have negative impacts on the plants themselves and the ecosystem they live in as a whole. In Alaska, nothing beats hands-on education from a local knowledgeable person who immerses you in how to harvest wild edibles. Yes, there are wild edible knowledgeable people who moved here from somewhere else, but there is a huge difference harvesting with an Alaska Native person whose family has been harvesting here for thousands of years, or even from a non-Native Alaskan whose family has been here for several generations.
We highly suggest finding knowledgeable people in your community to learn how to safely harvest. When you find us, we will most likely be a bit guarded with our information. Be patient, we need to make sure that you will harvest sustainably. Some of our quirky Alaskan Sourdoughs only like to share their harvesting information with people they have a close relationship with. Sometimes they won’t even tell their own family where their harvesting locations are. University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Services is also a great resource for wild harvesting in Alaska. They also know many local knowledgeable harvesters to send you to the right people depending on what you are interested in learning. Master gardeners are a wealth of plant information too and they can tell you all about the invasive edible weeds.
Alaskans know that our resources need to be harvested in a sustainable manner no matter what resources they are. Sustainability is at the foundation of what is Alaska. We have experienced what happens when over-harvesting occurs whether it is done by individuals or companies. There have been generations of newcomers who have made their way to Alaska and seen this place as an endless supply of resources. This is obviously not true. We have not survived for more than 10,000 years in Alaska by over-harvesting or harvesting poorly. Indigenous Knowledge Systems in Alaska are all based off of the harvesting from the land and waters in respectful manners. Sustainable harvesting is much more complex than “just don’t take too much”.
An example of sustainable harvesting practices that is more complex than “Just take a little” is seen with how our Tlingit people harvest seagull eggs. Seagulls are indeterminate egg layers which means that they will produce eggs depending on how many are added or taken away from their nest. We see three eggs in a nest we let them be. If we see two eggs in a nest we harvest just one. If we see one egg in the nest we harvest it. The seagull will then lay more eggs. Wild harvesting is all about the who, what, when, where and why.
Those of us who are fairly knowledgeable wild plant harvesters are always perplexed why organizations and educational entities here seem to offer wild edible plant classes in July or August when lots of the plants are past harvesting time for the new growth — The plants do not care about our schedules. I have taught numerous classes where we can harvest berries and salmon in July, and I point out all of the plants they could have eaten months before. In southeast Alaska, I start harvesting plants in February or March depending on the weather and where I am. Sitka’s spring shoots always pop up earlier than Juneau’s. After the beginning of June, it is all about the berries and salmon. There is a small window of opportunity to harvest most spring greens in Alaska. Some of them that are tasty when they first pop up will later become fibrous, or woody. Some will change in such a way that they can give you burns, upset stomach, diarrhea and a whole slew of horrible side effects. Here are some helpful wild harvesting tips.
Rule No. 1: Don’t harvest what you don’t know.
Even if you harvest with someone who seems knowledgeable, double check their info. When learning new plants, I find different people who can teach me about them. I then like to compare the info I am given by people to one of Janice Schofield’s plant books. Her books have always been among the best for harvesting wild edibles in Alaska. Don’t pick a bunch of plants that you don’t know, bring them home and then post pictures to Facebook asking people to identify what you have harvested. Simply take a picture of it growing where you found it, and this will also help people to identify the plant you are curious about.
Rule No. 2: Become knowledgeable about poisonous plants first especially ones that look similar to what you want to harvest.
An example of this is when new harvesters have made mistakes harvesting s’ikshaldéen, commonly known as Labrador tea, and instead harvested poisonous western bog laurel. New harvesters that wanted to harvest watermelon berry shoots but instead harvested poisonous false hellebore. New harvesters who wanted to harvest the young shoots of goat’s beard but instead harvested poisonous baneberry shoots. Know before you go.
Rule No. 3: Harvest the wild edibles in a sustainable manner. We are all stewards of Alaska.
Learn how that specific plant grows through the seasons. Harvest accordingly. Some plants are meant to be harvested in the spring and some parts of plants are best harvested in the fall. Learn how the plant propagates itself. Does it grow best from its rhizomes or from seed? Only take what you need. Make sure you are harvesting over a large area and only taking a little here and a little there. Leave some for other harvesters, animals, and seasons to come.
As a Tlingit person, I let the plants know that I am harvesting them respectfully by talking with them. I give a gift of song or hair in reciprocity.
Rule No.4: Harvest plants in clean locations with permission.
Even though plantain and yarrow love to grow in parking lots, they are not clean places to harvest. If you are harvesting on people’s land ask them if they have ever used pesticides on their property or if the property was used for any industrial operations. Find out first if the land you are harvesting on is federal, state, or private property. Then get the proper permits or permission if necessary.
Rules No. 5, 6 and 7: Have fun. Stay safe. Keep learning.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’.