Planet Alaska: Winter Medicine

Tea-ing off on cold season.

Vivian Mork teaches harvesting of devil’s club in Wrangell years ago. ( Vivian Mork | For the Capital City Weekly)

Vivian Mork teaches harvesting of devil’s club in Wrangell years ago. ( Vivian Mork | For the Capital City Weekly)

I stand at my friend’s stove in Sitka slowly stirring my winter harvest, a concoction of spruce needles and Labrador tea. People all over Sitka have a cough, and my friend is one of them, so I’m making a big pot of medicine. I think of all the plants I harvested this summer still sitting on my shelves at my house in Juneau. I didn’t bring any of those hard-earned plants, and I don’t have time to be sick. This is the time of year my partner and I are selling our products and art at holiday markets all over Alaska. Though I wish I’d brought some dried plants with me, luckily, many plants can still be harvested in the winter, depending on the weather.

I close my eyes as I stir the medicine, and the spring-like aroma of the forest trail takes me deeper into a recent memory. Yesterday, I borrowed plant shears and a butter knife from a friend. Another friend loaned me her bear spray since there’re a lot of bears that don’t fully hibernate. The memory comes rushing in through the steam over the pot:

It’s a beautiful winter day and the sun is out and it’s warm with no wind. Sitka is often warmer than Juneau in the winter and cooler than Juneau in the summer. This week it’s been almost 50 degrees in Sitka and in the 30s in Juneau. It’s so warm I didn’t even bring gloves out to harvest: Crazy weather!

Spruce tips, seen here in various stages, are all edible but vary in flavor greatly. (Vivian Faith Prescott | For the Capital City Weekly)

Spruce tips, seen here in various stages, are all edible but vary in flavor greatly. (Vivian Faith Prescott | For the Capital City Weekly)

At the trailhead, I close my eyes and offer a thank-you to the forest. I find a good location where the ideal trifecta of cold-fighting Southeast Alaskan medicinals are growing; s’áxt’ (devil’s club), gítgaa (spruce needles), and s’ikshaldéen (Labrador tea, hudson bay tea, muskeg tea). I choose spruce tips and Labrador tea because of their vitamin C content. They both have 3-5 times more vitamin C than an orange in a cup of tea. I choose devil’s club because it’s good for everything that ails you. Oplopanax horridus is the Latin name for devil’s club. Oplo means weapon or armor in Greek. Panax means heal all. Horridus means wild, frightful, rough, bristly, standing on end and unkempt.

These teas are just what I need.

Seasonal tastes

The teas taste very different when harvested at different times of the year. In the springtime, they’re much more potent. Spruce tea is sweeter and more lemon zesty in spring and bitter in winter. Labrador tea is a little less aromatic in winter than in the spring and summer. Devil’s club plants are a lot dryer in winter and harder to harvest than in spring and early summer. I never harvest devils club when the berries are red in the summer, but you can harvest it in the winter, although it is not as potent. Even though winter isn’t the best time to harvest devil’s club, I’ll harvest it in small quantities if I need it.

I definitely need these plants this week while I’m traveling. I prefer to dose myself before I get sick, especially if others are passing around the crud, or when I’m exhibiting the early signs of a cold. I bend over and pick a handful of spruce needles from the lightest colored green tips as it is the newest growth on the tree. I pick a handful of Labrador tea that still has green leaves and hasn’t turned brown. I select a small branch of a devil’s club about two feet long and I don’t disturb any of the large stalks. I scrape myself a handle at the base of the devil’s club. From the handhold, I cut the stalk, scrap the needles and outer brown bark off with the dull side of the butter knife. Then, with the sharp side of the butter knife, I scrape off the green and white cambium layer where the medicine is.

I gather up my goodies and take a long look around the forest to appreciate the moment. As a Tlingit person, I come from one of the oldest cultures on the planet to reside in one spot sustainably for thousands of years. I take a deep breath. The Tongass rainforest is one of the largest producers of oxygen on the planet. There’s a symbiotic relationship with everything that resides here, including us. The devil’s club doesn’t survive well in clear cuts. The ones that do survive never have the strong medicine in them. Not only do my people need this forest, the whole world needs this forest. Even a simple walk in the forest is medicine. We hike, we harvest and we heal. I harvest sustainably so we can live here another 10,000 years.

Sharing the medicine

I inhale this harvesting memory like good medicine and stir the tea some more and adjust the temperature on the burner. The medicine is almost ready. I smile as I remember on the way back from harvesting yesterday, I ran into some other Sitka friends I hadn’t seen in months who gave me a hug and exclaimed, “Vivian, you always smell like the forest!” I gave them some of my goodies because they mentioned they were around some sick people too. Then, when I’d made it back to my friend’s house where I’m staying, I immediately set up the stove for a sweat. The cold was in my friend’s chest so I put the devils club in a pot of water and had her grab a towel to do what I’ve nicknamed a poor man’s sweat. As devil’s club heats, it releases some of its medicine in the vapors. She hung her head over the slow-simmering pot, threw a towel over herself, closed her eyes, and inhaled the vapors slowly through her nose and exhaled out her mouth. Devils club is an emetic and if you breath too much through your mouth instead of your nose it can cause you to vomit. With certain illnesses, though, that can help. In this case, it was not indicated. When my friend finished a round of breathing devil’s club, she began her first cup of Tlingit medicinal tea. I instructed her to do this four times a day for the next four days.

S’ikshaldéen, Labrador Tea is also known as Hudson Bay Tea and Muskeg Tea can be seen in this photo of Summer harvest in Juneau. (Vivian Mork | For the Capital City Weekly)

S’ikshaldéen, Labrador Tea is also known as Hudson Bay Tea and Muskeg Tea can be seen in this photo of Summer harvest in Juneau. (Vivian Mork | For the Capital City Weekly)

I only felt the first tickle of a cold in my throat so I did one round of a devil’s club sweat and one cup of tea. I felt better by yesterday evening. The round of devil’s club helped my friend sleep better last night and gave her the energy today to do things with her family again. I wonder if she will follow my directions when I’m not around.

Now, as I stand in her kitchen making a pot of spruce tip and Labrador tea, I inhale memory and a familiar winter medicine, not just the scent of the forest trail on my clothes, or the tea, but the immense gratitude for family, friends, culture, and this magnificent forest that’s cared for us for thousands of years. I can only hope we continue to be stewards of this ancient land so we can all live here for 10,000 more years.


• 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.


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