Feast of the Foliage

Ferns unravel near Amalga Harbor on Monday, May 22, 2017. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Hi, Juneau!


I’m gonna talk about plants. Not for botany, not for linguistics, nor horticulturalist practices (I always thought that sounded like taking care of horses), but for the plain and simple fact that plants are tasty! So, household chefs, foodgrammers, and other “nutrition enthusiasts,” read on!

I’ve talked a bit in this column about my meager beginnings as a future master gardener. It’s mostly for perpetuity, so I have verifiable documentation that yes, I wasn’t always the green-thumbed garden god I will be.

But I will say this — gardening really speaks to my underlying desire for self-sufficiency. And I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this desire. Solar energy booms, tiny home sales, and a resurgence in quality home cuisine are all to some degree expressions of what is most likely a particularly American urge and an Alaskan ideal: the drive to witness the production of one’s own necessities.

One of my favorite ways this gets played out is in the “Alaskatarian” lifestyle. The premise is basically this: if it’s not from around here, don’t eat it. Some people, formerly including myself, only take this so far as to apply it to meat. Others make it their ideal for all food groups. I say good for them! These days my version of Alaskatarian is I promise to only eat at restaurants in a 20-mile radius. Sigh.

Perhaps you’re already pretty familiar with some of the local cuisine around here. My friends and I, whatever our dietary labels, harvest deer and bear, trout and salmon, crab and halibut. If you’ve ever had the chance to partake in that harvest you know that it’s always delicious, and occasionally cost-effective. However, today I wanted to highlight an equally important, but somewhat overlooked, part of Alaskan harvesting: plant foraging.

The Juneau area is an underfoot banquet, and in the summer, it’s serving all courses at once. You may have already done some berry picking, but you might be surprised, as I was, to know about some of the other plants you can find around here.

A quick note before I begin: firstly, you’ll notice that I’ll be talking a little about what plants look like, but I will not be telling you how to identify them. That is on purpose. There are plenty of lookalikes around here, and some of the plants in the Juneau area are deadly in just the smallest amounts. As much as I love my column, you should not be getting your life-or-death plant identification from a short article with no pictures!

Secondly, be aware of people’s property when you’re harvesting. In fact, if your family didn’t live here 200 years ago, you should always be aware that you’re almost always taking food from Tlingit Aani, and so be respectful of that fact. For that reason, and also because it’s fun, I’ll be including some of the Tlingit names of my favorite plants in capital letters.

Fiddleheads. K’WÁLX. No, you’re thinking of that restaurant. They call it the Sandpiper now. I’m talking about that green violin-scroll-looking plant that’s actually a baby fern. If you hurry, you can just barely catch them before they start unfurling and becoming bitter! It’s recommended that you cook them for optimum edibility, and they are, in my humble opinion, the better version of brussel sprouts.

Spruce tips. Ah — this is the weekend to pick them! Incredibly versatile and delicious, just pull the bright green tips from spruce limbs and pop ‘em in your mouth. Alternatively, you can make soda, syrup, or more. I put them in my chewing gum.

Nettles. I’ll admit, I associate these frothy fire stalks with little more than really burning arms and being chased by a witch’s dog. It’s a long story. But apparently, if you can get past the stinging part of the plant, you can do all sorts of things with them, including frying the leaves for chips!

Berries. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m paid by the word, so before I launch into a Forrest Gump “shrimp” style speech, I’ll just say they’re delicious.

Fireweed. LÓOL. It’s easy to find, brightly colored, and great for pickling, I’m told! It’s an iconic fixture in Juneau, and, good news, we’ll never run out of it! Unless we’d rather trade giant fields of it for a motocross or a warehouse. But you can ask city council about that one.

Rhubarb. This stuff is a beast. You can pick it and pick it and it just doesn’t stop growing! Don’t eat the leaves- they’re poisonous. But the stalks make delicious baked goods and crumbles!

Dandelion. “It’s not a weed- it’s a salad!” I’m still working on my marketing campaign for that one. Just don’t pick them out of the median.

Roses/Rose Hips. K’INCHÉYI. So delicious and so overlooked, I’m talking about the wild Sitka roses that grow around here. Not your grandmother’s soapy smelling European variety. Great for tea!

Speaking of tea — those knee-high black leaved plants that grow in muskegs? They’re called Labrador Tea! It’s my goal to harvest and use some of that this summer.

Devil’s Club. S’ÁXT’ is the much better name for this versatile plant. Make tea out of the root-bark, or just nibble off the bright green buds before they grow spines! Watch out for the poisonous berries though.

Twisted Stalk. Also called watermelon berry, these leaves are perfect for garnishing, snacking, or adding to a salad. Very tender.

Various seaweeds, including sea asparagus, and bullwhip kelp are tart and delicious, especially pickled or used in salsa.

I’ll cut it short before I overdo it! Also, I recommend avoiding bi-valve mollusks and mushrooms, unless you’re with an experienced guide or harvester, as it’s easy to make a deadly mistake with some of those.

Anyway, I hope you have a great time going through the greenery, foraging the flora, and exploring the ecosystem. Let me know if you know of any other awesome finds that I missed, or favorite recipes!

• Guy About Town appears the first and third Sunday of every month and includes seasonal musings on what changes and what doesn’t in a small town. Guy can be reached at unzicker.music@gmail.com.


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