Wild Plants Appeal as Meals, Medicine
April 25th, 2016 by Dianna Troyer
Gloria Simeon, center, shares her knowledge of wild plants with students during a summer field lab in Quinhagak. Photo courtesy of University of Alaska

Gloria Simeon, center, shares her knowledge of wild plants with students during a summer field lab in Quinhagak.
Photo courtesy of University of Alaska

For generations, Alaska’s native elders have advised drinking a tea brewed from fresh tender spruce tree tips as a springtime tonic.

That advice and other knowledge about the state’s wild edible plants is being passed on through a popular ethnobotany class offered through the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

“Students learn that spruce tea is rich in vitamin C,” says Rose Meier, assistant ethnobotany professor in Fairbanks.

She administers an ethnobotany certificate program offered through the Kuskokwim campus in Bethel.It is the first program of its kind in Alaska and one of a handful in the United States, says Rose, who facilitated its approval in 2009 in response to community interest.

Leah Walsh, a former student and ethnobotany program assistant, says she enrolled because she “sees a time when it will be of growing importance to again intimately know our water, know our food and know our medicine.”
Classes have become popular with non-degree-seeking students in Fairbanks.

“We have quite a few students with college and post-graduate degrees who are taking classes because they want to learn about wild plants and their edible and medicinal properties,” says Rose. “It’s also a way for them to connect with the vast natural world at our doorstep.”

Employees at UAF meet monthly to share experiences making teas, tinctures, cooking with native plants and using them medicinally.

The ethnobotany classes are taught via a telecommunications network, enabling students to learn in their homes from professors and elders.

One of the most popular plants in rural Alaska is the cloudberry or salmonberry, which produces plump orange, mildly tart fruit in July and August. In an online class manual, Katherine Hart, an elder in St. Mary’s, recalls how people stored the berries inside seal guts buried in pits. The berries were mixed with fish livers and seal oil, or with dried salmon eggs and seal oil. A traditional dish, uqumyak, was made with cloudberries mixed with snow.

Another elder, Modesta Myers of Pilot Station, told of suffering from a serious cough. Her mother boiled leaves from Labrador, a woody low shrub that grows on the tundra, and Artemisia in water in a covered pan until the tea was concentrated. She drank half a cup twice a day until she improved.

Rose says Artemisia, a plant in the sunflower family, and roseroot, a low-growing succulent, are two of the state’s most intriguing plants.

“They’re both considered a go-to plant to maintain health,” she says, noting some species of Artemisia have been studied for their anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial and antiviral properties.

Rose says the program does not advocate using plants as natural medicines, but provides information.

“We study how plants have been used both historically and today,” she says. “There are many powerful plants that should only be used by those who understand their medicinal properties.”

A highlight of the ethnobotany program includes a two-week summer field lab.

“Magic happens when you’re outdoors learning hands-on about the many ways that local plants have improved and continue to improve our lives,” Rose says.