Sea lettuce harvested in Wrangell sits in a basket. (Vivian Faith Prescott | For the Capital City Weekly)

Sea lettuce harvested in Wrangell sits in a basket. (Vivian Faith Prescott | For the Capital City Weekly)

Sea lettuce: The treat beneath your feet

You can eat it raw or chop it up for soups, salads, spring rolls or ramen.

I stand on my porch in my hoodie overlooking the beach below. I’m hopeful. Last night’s wind might’ve brought seaweed to my door.

I say, “beach,” and my border collies, Oscar and Kéet, rush to the gate. I open it and they run toward the stone stairs, romping down the steps to the beach. I stop at the top and they look up at me expectantly. Is it time to play the stick toss game?

I go down the stairs to the beach. I walk a few feet along the sand, sit on a large rock at the bottom of the seawall and remove my shoes. Kéet drops a stick at my feet, hopeful. She barks and I shush her, though bald eagles have already screeched awake the neighborhood. It’s 6 a.m., the tide is out, and I’m going sea lettuce harvesting.

Sea lettuce is not the kind of lettuce you buy in the grocery store or grow in your garden, but it certainly looks like that. Sea lettuce is in a seaweed family called Ulva/Ulvaria. It’s edible, and I love it. There are several types in Southeast Alaska and scientists are still making changes to their names and genus. Sea lettuce fronds are fragile and according to Dr. Dolly Garza, Alaska’s seaweed expert, the seaweed will fall apart when rubbed between your fingers. As a harvester, I pick and pack very gently.

[So, you want to learn how to harvest]

Sea lettuce types are so much alike even scientists have trouble telling them apart without the scrutiny of a microscope. Fronds can be as small as six inches and grow as large as two feet. There are nearly 100 different types of sea lettuce found on beaches around the world.

I stand up from the rock and step on the sand with my bare feet. Despite the fact it’s summer in Southeast Alaska, the seaweed is wet and cool. I step carefully like a heron walking across the beach. The crows have already been turning over the seaweed and picking bugs from between barnacled rocks. A half dozen gulls float in the water at the tide’s edge.

Kéet, a border collie, stares at recently harvested sea lettuce. (Vivian Faith Prescott | For the Capital City Weekly)

Kéet, a border collie, stares at recently harvested sea lettuce. (Vivian Faith Prescott | For the Capital City Weekly)

Sea lettuce thrives in the intertidal zone. It loves the Inside Passage’s sheltered bays rather than shores with lots of wave action. It’s often ripped from rocks in a storm, not plucked gently by mermaids. For sea lettuce, it’s all about balance. Nora Dauenhauer taught me that balance is an important concept in the Tlingit culture: moieties, Northwest coast art, harvesting from the land and sea, ceremonies, etc. Too much wind and rain can batter the delicate seaweed. Too much sun can make it rot. Harvesting sea lettuce is one way to teach balance to the next generation.

Some fronds are about the size of a big dinner plate, others are smaller, the size of your hand. Sea lettuce is commonly dotted with small holes. I often find its bright green fronds entangled in stranded popweed at the tideline. If you’re new to seaweed gathering, sea lettuce is wilted looking and easily missed. It’s thin and often mistaken for tissue on the beach once it starts to pale and die. Sea lettuce are nutrient scavengers, which means they grow well in polluted areas, too.

Make sure there aren’t any septic tanks, sewer outfalls or dump sites in the area where you harvest. Be careful to find a clean site to harvest because sea lettuce can be contaminated with toxic heavy metals in old industrial sites. Know your neighborhood.

A plant with many uses

I walk through the popweed, bending to pick up a large frond of bright green lettuce. I place my hand underneath the frond. It’s so thin and delicate I can see my hand underneath. Sea lettuce appears unappetizing if you’ve never tried it, but it’s good for you. It’s known to help in weight loss and maintaining or lowering blood sugar. A frond across the skin soothes a sunburn. You can eat it raw and chop it up fresh in soups, salads, spring rolls or ramen. Some types are fried to make seaweed chips. I prefer it dried for seasoning. Sea lettuce is one of the main seasonings I use on fish and meats, in soups and on eggs. It’s a replacement for salt in recipes.

Dried seaweed, like the kind seen here, can be used for seasoning. (Vivian Faith Prescott | For the Capital City Weekly)

Dried seaweed, like the kind seen here, can be used for seasoning. (Vivian Faith Prescott | For the Capital City Weekly)

Although I’ve eaten popweed and dried black seaweed most of my life, I wouldn’t have had the courage to explore more seaweeds without the help of Dr. Dolly Garza’s wisdom in Common Edible Seaweeds in the Gulf of Alaska.

Sea lettuce is connected to rocks with a tiny holdfast so small you barely see it. Some harvesters use scissors or a small knife and cut the sea lettuce off the rocks at the base of the holdfast. Others, like me, harvest the detached sea lettuce from the tideline. I sometimes take a basket with me to collect it, other times I just drape it on my forearm or pack it piled high in my hands.

[Youth group debuts Tlingit-language music video]

Sea lettuce is shared by limpets and tiny snails. I pick or rinse off the critters and return them to the beach. In this barnacled world, among seaweeds that are good for you, it’s hard to imagine an abnormal sea lettuce bloom can kill you. There’s not that much sea lettuce on my beach so I don’t have to worry but the world is changing.

There’s a species of sea lettuce that spawns huge green tides and when the seaweed dies it gives off a gas — hydrogen sulfide — that can kill humans. The blooms are thought to be caused by runoff from agricultural areas and over-fertilized rural and urban sites. In France, a horse rider out for a beach ride passed out after breathing in the toxic fumes, and the horse died from the fumes. Also, in the same area, a truck driver transporting the seaweed, died from the fumes. The blooms can deplete the water of oxygen, killing off fish and other plants.

Drying it out

I carefully lay out the bright green fronds on my picnic table in the sun. Some people use a sheet to dry it on. Sometimes, I drape stands over my porch. And because we live in a rainforest, sometimes I dry the sea lettuce on cookie sheets in a sunlit window or in the oven on a low temperature. When the seaweed crisps up, I crumble it with my hands and put it in a small mason jar with holes in the lid. Also, putting dried sea lettuce in small individual baggies works too.

Walk, search, bend, gather. Harvesting sea lettuce is meditative whether I walk barefooted or not. I take notice of things: A driftwood shaped like a bird, a new patch of arrowgrass growing up nearby. The sand fleas are hopping along with me and my basket is full of wet dripping sea lettuce.

Helpful Resources:

Edible Seaweeds of Alaska: Sea Grant:

Seaweeds of Alaska:

• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes the column “Planet Alaska” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’.

• Wrangell writer and artist Vivian Faith Prescott writes the column “Planet Alaska” with her daughter, Vivian Mork Yéilk’.

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