Bill Sherwonit

Bill Sherwonit

For many years I noticed people harvesting plants along local trails, but had only a passing interest in what they were collecting. Most, that I could tell, seemed to be older folks, with roots in Asia, the Pacific Islands, or Alaska’s Native community. Few, if any, appeared to be Euro-American “whites,” that is, people like me. I figured they were following cultural traditions, but didn’t think much more about it.

As I moved into and then through my middle-age years and became steadily more interested in the nature of Alaska, I began paying more attention to native plants and the value of some for food and medicinal purposes. Eventually I too became a dedicated seasonal “gatherer” of wild edibles.

I began with berries, especially “wild blues.”

For as long as I can remember, I’ve grazed on tundra blueberries when hiking or backpacking through Alaska’s alpine terrain. But I began to more seriously harvest them, picking enough to bring some back home. Before long, I began to carry—and fill—pint or even quart containers on my autumn hikes.

Nowadays, from August into October, I frequently combine hikes with berry picking, most often in Anchorage’s “backyard wilderness,” Chugach State Park, but also in other locales (depending on where my travels lead me). By season’s end, I usually collect between four and six gallons of blueberries. Many are eaten fresh; others are frozen for the coming winter months and following spring and early summer.

It’s a grand treat, to daily eat locally picked wild berries in the depths of winter.

Blueberries remain my favorite, but in recent years I’ve harvested raspberries, lingonberries, red currants, and, more rarely, salmonberries (whose range doesn’t extend into the Anchorage Bowl or Chugach Front Range).

I eventually expanded my interest to “wild greens.” Through guidebooks and conversations with other wild harvesters, I learned which local plants are edible and tasty (recognizing that taste is a subjective thing) and can be eaten without being cooked.

Fiddlehead ferns were among the first I tried and remain among my favorites. As any serious plant person knows (and I eventually discovered) fiddleheads are a stage of a fern’s growth, when the plant is still tightly coiled and resembles the end of the musical instrument (the “scroll”) for which they’re named.

When harvesting fiddleheads, it’s best to select the ones with minimal brown “flaky,” papery coatings, which detract from the dining experience. About the size of a quarter, the fiddleheads I target unravel and grow into what are called ostrich ferns.

The late, renowned wildflower and plant expert Verna Pratt had this to say about ostrich ferns: “The lack of scales on the fiddleheads of this fern make is a tasty vegetable, cooked briefly like asparagus. Ferns are also tasty raw, but should be eaten in moderation.”

I should note that some edible-plant experts discourage any consumption of uncooked fiddleheads, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, they can sometimes cause intestinal distress (including severe diarrhea or vomiting); for another, “they contain thiaminase, a vitamin –B depleting enzyme,” cautions Janice Schofield, a widely recognized authority on Alaska’s wild plants and author of Discovering Wild Plants: Alaska, Western Canada, the Northwest and other books. “Heat destroys this enzyme and renders the fiddlehead safe for consumption.”

To be honest I only recently learned the drawbacks—and dangers—of eating fresh fiddleheads, after consuming them raw for years, though in small quantities and for the short period that local ferns remain in the fiddlehead stage. I continue to occasionally graze on them “in moderation” so I appreciate Pratt’s perspective as well as those who say “don’t do it.”

Some years after being introduced to fiddleheads, a friend encouraged me to try the early shoots of tall fireweed, when they’re only a few inches high and their leaves are still reddish and haven’t yet fully opened, and they’re now among the plants I regularly nibble in early summer.

Eventually I learned that a plant called “twisted stalk”—better known as the watermelon berry plant for the fruits they produce--can be eaten raw when still young and tender. Once a tried it, I discovered twisted stalk to be among the tastiest of local greens, with a hint of cucumber flavor in its stems and leaves.

I even discovered that the leaves of devil’s club can be safely nibbled, when they’ve just begun “pushing out” of the stalk, about the size and shape of a smallish thumb, the plant’s needles still soft. It has something of a bitter taste, a kind of bitter minty flavor to me that’s enjoyable in small bits.

And then there is the bluebell, also commonly known as chiming bell. The leaves—and in my experience, the unopened flower buds—of this locally common forest and subalpine wildlflower can be eaten raw. Though the leaves are hairy, they have a melt-in-the-mouth, almost buttery texture when eaten and a taste that is vaguely fishy. This is another plant I like to nibble “in the field,” in small quantities.

I expanded my knowledge of local wild, edible greens—and how they can become a tasty part of meals—a couple of years ago, when I took a class led by another knowledgeable local “plant person,” Jeanna Duryee.

First she led us on a local foraging expedition. Then, in a kitchen, Jeanna demonstrated a variety of ways that wild greens can be turned (or incorporated) into servings of various kinds, from pastas to sautéed delicacies. That’s a story in itself, but here I’ll simply note that I learned how easy it is to make a scrumptious stir-fried dish of mostly wild greens cooked in olive oil, with perhaps some cheese or other optional seasonings added.

There’s one other element to this evolving story that I’ll briefly mention here: my growing fascination with morels, one of the few wild, edible mushrooms that fruit in the spring, the same time that wild greens are in their prime. (Some, including my girlfriend, Jan Myers, would call my intense passion for morels an obsession, but that too is a story for another time.)

Last year and again this spring, Jan and I created our own wild, locavore dinner by combining wild greens, wild morels, and wild sockeye salmon—all harvested in Alaska (the salmon provided by one of Jan’s good friends, Anitra Winkler). Even the beer we drank was Alaska made.

This year I began by picking morels along the Turnagain Arm Trail (exactly where, I cannot say). Then, on the day of our locavore feast, I harvested a variety of wild greens along the Coastal Trail, in the woodlands south of Point Woronzof: devil’s club, fiddlehead ferns, tall fireweed, chiming bells, twisted stalk and even cow parsnip. We’d learned from Jeanna that cow parsnip, picked early while the stem and leaves are still small and tender, is not only edible but soft and tasty when sautéed.

I delivered the mushrooms and greens to Jan, who took over from there. She barbecued the sockeye salmon and created a delectable stir-fry dish from the mushrooms, greens, and a little bit of cheese, all cooked in olive oil.

A week later, while Jan joined some women pals for dinner and theater, I made a second locavore meal for myself, again consisting of wild Alaska greens, wild Alaska morels, and wild Alaska salmon, with olive oil and a few seasonings tossed into the mix, and all of that complimented by an Alaskan brew.

A much as I’ve enjoyed the meals, I take equal pleasure, if not more, in the hunt for local foods and the harvesting of them. And I make sure that I give thanks for whatever wild edibles I find and pick, for their nourishment of both body and spirit.

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at akgriz@hotmail.com.

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