Mary Goddard walks the forest path with her basket, searching for deer heart. It doesn’t take her long to spot a small patch of heart-shaped plants growing beneath a large spruce tree. Mary says, “Deer heart greens are easy to spot because they’re shaped as hearts. The plants grow low on the forest floor in moist areas, and I often spy deer nibbling on them in my backyard.”
Deer heart (Maianthemum dilatatum) are one of the early and most abundant greens in Tlingit Aaní, yet not many people know they’re edible or how to prepare them. Deer heart is a single leaf plant about 4 inches in diameter growing on a single stem. The plant emerges from the soil rolled up and as it grows, the leaf unrolls to a heart shape. Thin delicate lines follow the curved shape of the leaf. Deer heart is often found growing close to fiddleheads, but typically deer heart sprout before the fiddleheads.
Harvesting deer heart is often family time, and today, Mary is joined by her husband Lucas Goddard and her young son, Ryker. Ryker bounds along beside her, excited when he spots them growing. Mary spends a few minutes choosing which new plants to pick. She then moves to another patch nearby. Learning about Southeast Alaska’s edible greens has been an adventure in culinary delight. “I thought Southeast was rich in seafood and meat but deprived of greens. The only greens we harvested growing up was black and red ribbon seaweed, and occasionally kelp.”
Mary grew up in Yakutat. “I am Kaggawaantan, Eagle, Brown Bear. My mother is Jennie Wheeler, a recognized spruce root weaver and skin sewer. My father, Matthew Wheeler is a retired schoolteacher and an active fisherman.”
Mary picks the delicate rolled up leaves, leaving the ones that are more open. There is a Tlingit saying, Haa atxaayí haa kusteeyíx site. “Our food is our way of life” describes Mary’s worldview. Harvesting traditional foods is important part of her identity:
“Growing up in Yakutat, it was not uncommon to harvest your food. My parents fished and hunted for our food and as children we were included in this process, especially foraging for berries. In summer when salmonberries were ripe and plentiful, our mother handed us buckets and told us not to return until the buckets were full! My mother, in her playfulness, made it a competition, proving she could pick faster than us. I use the same tactics on my son, Ryker.”
On any given day, Mary is excited to talk about Tlingit vegetables, sharing knowledge with others. Along with her husband, Lucas, they established Forest Fresh, a cooking blog that showcases recipes created from foods they harvest in Southeast Alaska. The Forest Fresh team includes their son Ryker, Mother-in-law Kathi Goddard, and sister Samantha Phillips. “We also have assistance from our dog, aka Beast (Ranger) who is our trusty recipe sampler.”
Mary’s interest in expanding her use of traditional foods began when she moved back home to Alaska over a decade ago. “When researching edible plants, I realized how rich in vegetables Southeast Alaska really is. I have been adding to my bank of knowledge since, gathering information from elders and plants books.”
When out walking in Sitka with an elder, Mary was introduced to deer heart greens. “The elder just picked it and nibbled it.” That moment set her on a course to learn more. “I was grateful to the elder because there’s very little information available. In fact, the proper name for deer heart greens is False lily-of-the-valley.” Since then, Mary has developed a relationship with the plant. “I have come to learn the best ways to prepare it, eat and share it.”
Much of the traditional knowledge about deer heart is not known. Mary prefers studying with elders and other traditional harvesters. “In the Tlingit way, this knowledge was passed down to me from an elder. Much of the plant knowledge that our Tlingit people had was lost with westernization and during the boarding school era when native children were sent away from their homes, depriving them of valuable information.”
Mary has had trouble finding out the nutritional information on deer heart. Some say the berries aren’t palatable, but she finds they are, especially after the winter months. The berries from the previous season are sweet and taste like jam, though she says there’s a big seed in the berry that’s inedible. Mary wants to know more about how people used the plant in the winter. Did they dry it or preserve it in oil? “I am sure there has to be a way.”
Mary points out to her son the different stages in plant growth. This is the best way to teach the younger generation, through hands-on experience, by incorporating Tlingit vegetables into our diet. Though, there is little information about how to eat deer heart, this doesn’t stop Mary from experimenting with recipes. She’s figured out the best time to harvest deer heart is when the plant is young and unfolding, which is the best stage for use in salads: “It’s Tlingit arugula.” Mary rolls up the leaves and cuts it thin for salad, just like one would do with spinach. She says the greens are a little peppery tasting, so when the plant is young, she thinks of it as an herb. Later, when the plant matures and becomes a bit rubbery, she uses the leaves to wrap fish fillets. When the plant is fully mature, she suggests using the stems in your recipes instead.
After an hour of harvesting, the basket is full and Mary, Lucas and Ryker head home to prepare the plant and make dinner. Together, they’ll clean the vegetables, running them under water, trimming them and removing the stems. Tonight, they’ll eat a salad made with Tlingit arugula, aka deer heart. Deer heart greens can be served fresh or served cooked and paired with other Southeast Alaskan greens like watermelon berry, berries, fiddleheads, and salmonberry shoots. Mary likes to make a big salad using the deer heart greens. “Add watermelon berry greens, berries, and violets, all of which can be found in the same season, and other favorite vegetables, and you have a gorgeous spring salad.” Her other favorite way to serve deer heart greens is to make a pesto, and when the deer heart matures, she uses the plant to wrap salmon for cooking.
People are curious about the recipes featured on Mary’s Forest Fresh blog, mainly wanting to know what local plants taste like. When asked about deer heart, Mary says, “Like most wild greens in Southeast, I find it hard to compare it to another plant, because deer heart greens taste like, well, deer heart greens.”
Dear reader, as you walk in the forest this spring, note the forest floor carpeted with hearts, a gift unfolding from Tlingit Aaní. Harvesting knowledge is surely a gift from the land, from an Elder mentor to a student, to a son, a friend, and now all of you. Mary Goddard of Forest Fresh shares with you this following cooking method using deer heart leaves. “The deer heart greens seal in the moisture of the salmon, making them melt in your mouth. If you don’t have deer heart greens readily available substitute with Italian Kale.”
“I absolutely love the presentation of wrapping deer hearts around salmon. They make your guests feel like they’re opening a gift.” — Mary Goddard
Deer heart Wrapped Sockeye Filets
PREP TIME: 10 minutes
COOK TIME: 15 minutes
READY IN: 25 minutes
OCEAN FOREST INGREDIENTS
Deer Heart Greens
4 Sockeye Filets, 4-6 oz. each
Salt & pepper
1 Tbsp olive oil
½ Lemon, sliced
Deer Heart Greens
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Rinse Deer Heart Greens and pat dry. On a baking sheet or pan create four beds of greens for the salmon. Place a filet in each bed. Salt and pepper the filets to taste. Drizzle or spray olive oil on the filets. Place one lemon slice on top of each. Wrap the leaves over top of the salmon and tie with cooking twine.
Place in a preheated oven and bake for 10-15 minutes, depending on the size of the filet.
Serve these beautiful packages as is, allowing guests to unwrap them like a gift.
• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes “Planet Alaska: Sharing our Stories” with her daughter, Yéilk’ Vivian Mork. It appears twice per month in the Capital City Weekly.