Wild greens




Last year Jan Myers and I experimented with vegetable gardening. Ours was a modest effort, with predictably mixed results. Of the vegetables whose seeds we planted, we did reasonably well with carrots, lettuce, and spinach; and not so well with broccoli, peas, and zucchini.

Because our mini-garden was at Jan’s place, she inevitably devoted more time and energy to the effort and was, I think it’s fair to say, less impressed with our garden’s yield than I. Perhaps for the same reason, Jan wasn’t particularly excited about starting anew this year, instead being satisfied to tend her small but lovely flower garden and nearby berry patch and do other yard projects.

“But if you want to do it, go right ahead,” she told me.

Without Jan’s participation, I too felt less enthused. Perhaps some day I’ll give vegetable gardening another try. But for now I’m more than happy to spend my spring and parts of summer gathering local, wild foods: wild greens and morel mushrooms in May and early June; then “tundra blues” and other berries later in the summer. 

I suppose the point is that I’m more of a gatherer-picker than a gardener. As I’ve moved through my late sixties and into my early seventies, I’ve become especially impassioned—Jan would say obsessed—with hunting and gathering wild morel mushrooms (a fervor I’ve examined elsewhere and will likely do so again). But I’ve also come to appreciate the gathering of wild springtime greens.

For much of my life, the only “locally grown” foods that I had any interest seeking were fish. My dad’s brother, Uncle Peach, was the one who introduced me to the excitements and joys of angling. Though our relationship began as mentor-student it evolved over time into one better described as fishing buddies. For a time in my teens, there was nothing more fun than fishing with Uncle Peach.

My passion for fishing dimmed when I went off to college and eventually headed west to careers in geology and journalism (the former a short-lived but essential one, because it introduced me to Alaska). It wasn’t until I’d settled in Anchorage and then, in the mid-1980s became the Anchorage Times’ outdoors writer, that my excitement for fishing was reignited. 

For much of the next 10 to 15 years, sport fishing again took a central place in my life. Eventually I became an avid (if only modestly skilled) catch-and-release fly fisherman, who occasionally fished for food—both salmon and halibut—but more often than not fished primarily for “sport.”

Then came another change. As I moved through middle age, my values gradually shifted. A variety of factors—including my introduction to Alaska Native taboos against “playing with food” and a growing recognition in some Western circles that, yes, fish really do feel pain—prompted me to question just how “sporting” so-called sport fishing really is. 

To make a long story short (at least in this forum), my growing concerns eventually overrode the thrills of catching fish. First I stopped fishing for fun; then I stopped fishing altogether, though I still occasionally eat wild salmon and halibut caught by others. Usually those are fish offered as gifts, but I sometimes also eat fish at restaurants or social events.

 I’ve left open the possibility that some day I may return to fishing for food, but that seems less and less likely.

As my excitement for fishing waned, another began to emerge. Though I’ve long grazed on wild blueberries while passing through Alaska’s mountains in late summer and fall, it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that I picked enough berries to bring some home. As best I can recall, this new interest began during a solo kayak trip in Kachemak Bay State Park, when I camped in a place rich with both salmonberries and blueberries. 

Over the past quarter century, this berry-picking interest evolved into a passion. Nowadays, I can think of no greater outdoor autumn delight than gathering “wild blues” on hiking and hill climbing ventures into the mountains.

Though never a “blood sport” hunter of warm-blooded creatures, it seems I’ve always been something of a hunter-gatherer; even earlier than fishing, I hunted frogs and turtles, snakes and salamanders in my original homeland, Connecticut. That, too, was a catch-and-release practice.

My serious pursuit of wild greens and morel mushrooms only began in the past decade. For many years, likely going back to the nineties, I would occasionally graze on fiddlehead ferns or newly sprouting tall fireweed. But it wasn’t until Jan and I took a one-day field trip/class on wild, edible greens in 2017 that I learned how abundant and varied edible wild plants are in my adopted homeland—and easy to prepare. 

Over the past four years I’ve made it a springtime ritual to collect one or more meals’ worth of wild greens. The primary ones on my “collectibles” list are these: fiddleheads and tall fireweed; devil’s club (yes, the leaves of that spiny plant can be nibbled or picked for cooking, when they’re just emerging and the needles are still soft); bluebells; stinging nettles and cow parsnip (two other unlikely delicacies until you learn how to gather and prepare them); and, best of all for me, a plant called twisted stalk, perhaps best known as the watermelon berry plant when it grows to maturity. The young shoots of twisted stalk are both tender and delicious, with a taste that reminds me of cucumbers.

Sautéed in olive oil—perhaps with morels added to the mix—these greens can be eaten alone, topped with various spices, or combined with other foods, for instance cheese and/or pasta or even salmon. 

This spring Jan and I mixed greens and morels with pasta and a creamy Alfredo cheese sauce. Though delicious, the cheese sauce tended to overpower the more subtle wild tastes, so the next evening we simply sautéed the greens and morels in olive oil, then poured that mixture over pasta and added crumbled feta cheese. Outstanding, we agreed.

The local window for gathering wild greens and morels in their prime is a brief one, only a few weeks long. So just as I once spent many hours along lakeshores and stream banks casting for fish, I now spend long, pleasurable hours hunting and gathering morels and wild greens in Anchorage-area woodlands each spring and early summer. As with wild blues in August and September, I can’t imagine a better way to spend my days out in nature (with bird watching, wildlife encounters, and the beauty of wildflowers all part of the experience).

And with all that said, I’ll simply add: I feel the forest beckoning . . .

 

 Anchorage nature writer and wildlife/wilderness advocate 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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