Wild Plants of the Copper Basin: Indian Potato (Hedysarum alpinum); Sweet Pea (Hedysarum Mackenzii)
By Janelle Eklund
During the summer you can usually drive down the road - almost any road in the Copper Basin - and be swept away by the beauty of pink flowers lining the road. Role down your window and you most likely could drink in the sweet aroma of Indian potato and sweet pea.
Many people wonder what those brilliant flowers are. They look very similar so it requires a stop (of course in a safe spot), get out, and take a close look to get a positive identification.
If you are looking for food this identification is vital to your health. Indian potato (sometimes it is called Eskimo potato) roots are edible and sweet pea is very poisonous. The easiest way to identify them is when they are in flower but, unfortunately, this is not the best time to harvest Indian potato.
The flowers of Indian potato grow on a long stem. The little flower clusters are big on the bottom and taper as they reach for the top of the stem - kind of tapered like a tree. The flowers of the sweet pea sit in clusters around the top of the stem. They just look more 'clustery' and don't taper like the Indian potato.
Once both of these plants go to seed it is very difficult to identify them. The Old Edgerton was in full bloom with Indian potato one summer. On my morning walk I only noticed a few sweet pea plants and made a note of where they were. I went back and got my camera to capture their glow, along with the Indian potato that was next to them and very prolific.
I watched these beauties explode to life so fast. The flowers didn't stick around long, and it seemed in a heartbeat they morphed into their next seed stage of life.
A week later I went back to the same spot to see if I could distinguish between the two plants. I was hard pressed to find the sweet pea. I finally saw some subtle differences and brought home a sample of each to identify. Once they go to seed you must look at the pods, leaves or roots - or refer to a plant specialist - to get a positive identification.
The pods of the sweet pea are hairy, cross-veined, and have 3-8 joints. The Indian potato pods are smooth, net-veined, and have 2-5 joints.
Sweet pea leaves are somewhat whitish and fealty and the veins are hidden. Leaves of the Indian potato are smooth and the veins on the underside are obvious.
The root of the Indian potato grows to two feet long. The root of sweet pea is shorter and the tap root is not so branched.
Harvest time for the root of the Indian potato is either in the spring or fall after frost. If you do harvest the root mark the plant when it's in bloom to be sure you have the right plant so when you go back to harvest you know what you are harvesting. Still, identify it again as described above. When you do harvest in a dense patch, only take one or two out of every ten roots so you don't disturb the population.
Once you have positive identification Indian potato roots are very good in soups, coleslaw, eaten like a carrot, stir fried, steamed, boiled - take your pick of how to prepare.
Remember to be safe and respectful when harvesting wild plants.
From my light to yours-
Wild Plants of the Copper Basin: Nagoonberry (Rubus arcticus) Raspberry (Rubus idaeus)
By Janelle Eklund
As I walked down the Old Edgerton this morning the pungent aroma of plant decay wafted up my nostrils and into my brain where the vision of decay painted a beautiful picture of yellows, reds, oranges, and fading green. The plant kingdom seems to celebrate its eminent death with a party to beat all parties. The Japanese call this Wabi Sabi - finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. I learned this term while taking a macro plant photo workshop with the late Nancy Rotenberg some years back. One of our assignments was to find Wabi Sabi, connect with it, and capture it in a photo. And it wasn't the photo that was important, it was the experience and the celebration of life in all its forms. Nancy lived that life and her photography was a picture into her very soul and heart.
I have picked nagoonberrys where they grew amongst the diamond willow in a damp area behind the old house. The berry resembles a raspberry in shape. Their shiny red color makes them glow with happiness. They are quite delicious. They don't grow real abundantly but if you can find a good patch they are great for just eating or making jams, jellies, pie, or putting in the freezer for a winter time taste treat. If you are enjoying them in the raw eat them up within 2-3 days as they don't last much longer than that in the fridge. They do keep well in the freezer.
They are another one of those plants that love to hug the ground. In the summer it wears a pretty pink flower with five to eight petals. This stately flower changes its dress into a pretty red berry as summer is just starting to think about dying. Summer has already passed its prime so as of this writing all that is left is their wabi sabi leaves, helping to create that tapestry of beauty. Their distinct three-toothed leaflets resemble strawberry leaves and the stems they grow from are thorn less, making this a friendly fruit to pick.
The UAF Cooperative Extension Service flyer states that "The name of the berry comes from goon, a word in Tlingit that means “jewel.” Tlingit elders say the berries are like little jewels popping up from the ground."
On the other hand wild raspberries are abundant in certain areas of the Copper Basin. The leaves are similar to nagoonberry but more elongated. Unlike their cousin, the nagoonberry, they like to grow tall. But they are also huggers, hugging anything in their growing space, including you! Proceed with caution when picking as their canes are covered in little thorns that will grab your shirt or skin if you are not careful! Their dull red color hides lots of seeds. If you don't mind getting seeds between your teeth these are very delicious just to munch on. Also great on ice cream, in pies, jams, jellies, juiced - you get the picture. This year the plants were full of berries and maybe the hot weather had something to do with it.
From my light to yours-
By Janelle Eklund
When I lived in Kotzebue in 1980 I worked at a salmon counting camp on the Noatak River for Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game. In the fall the berries on the tundra around camp were so profuse. In the off hours I would pick a variety and mingle them together into jellies. I don't know why the crowberry stands out in my mind on those chilly fall days as I leaped inside the intoxicating bubble of brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows of the tundra carpet. Here I became lost in its dreamy state. The perfume-like taste of the crowberry married with the pungent aroma of decaying labrador tea - and other tundra foliage sticks in my mind to this day.
Crowberry, or as others prefer to call it blackberry, not only grows on the tundra but you can find it trailing around on spruce forest floors. The reason I choose to call it crowberry is because I grew up in Washington State where blackberries resembled raspberries - only they were black, their vines grew high, and were laced with sharp thorns. So it's hard for me to envision this little round berry hugging the ground as a blackberry.
The evergreen leaves of the crowberry pretty much resemble the needle-like leaves of the spruce tree. The fruit is very juicy and also slightly seedy. I like its perfumey flavor and, since I don't eat much jelly, making it into juice would suit me fine. Of course, you can mix other berries with it to give it another flavor.
Like low bush cranberries, if you wait until after the first frost these berries will reward you with a sweeter flavor. The crowberry publication of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension says that crowberries have lots of antioxidants, even scoring higher than Alaska blueberries. In the test that is done to score the levels of antioxidants it scored 94, and a score over 40 is considered very high. But once made into juice by heat extraction, jelly, or wine the antioxidants are reduced. They are also a great source of fiber.
The leaves and stems of this plant can be made into a tea which is good for any kind of tummy problems.
"Medicinal Flora of the Alaska Natives" book by Ann Baribaldi says that a cooled tea of the roots, as well as the stems, can be used as an eye wash in treating eye problems. "An Outer Inlet person stated that her grandmother's eyesight was saved with this medicine. For two to three weeks her eyes were washed with a tea made from the stem bark. Each time after the washing, the growth was gently dabbed at with a soft spruce pitch. Finally the growth became loose and was removed from her eye. It was said that she saw well until she died" (Kari 1995)." The book also states that in the Kotzebue Sound area "Crowberry juice was squeezed into the eye to remove cataracts. Other Native peoples used the stem for the same purpose. It was not stated how the stem was prepared. (Graham 1985; Mauneluk cultural Heritage Program in Fortuine 1988)." Native peoples have also used the juice of this berry to treat snow blindness.
As you enjoy the fall colors while picking cranberries, give a little extra time to fill a bucket of crowberries and enjoy their sweet flavor. They are often very thick on their little branches and you can practically scrape a handful at once.
This fall may your hands be stained with the fruits of Mother Nature!
From my light to yours-
By Janelle Eklund
Walking through the aspen forest outside my door on a sunny/grayish day a patch of intense red colors with stripes of yellow and orange weave a pattern that seems to lift its brilliance to the sky.
That red carpet is primarily made from bearberry leaves. There are three different kinds of bearberry: Arctostaphylos rubra (Red -Fruit Bearberry); Arctostaphylos alpina (Alpine Bearberry); and Arctostaphylos uva-ursi (Kinnikinnick). The red carpet you see comes from red-fruited and alpine bearberry. Kinnikinnick is an evergreen plant, keeping its green leaves throughout the year.
Red-fruit bearberry grows primarily in the lower elevations in moist wooded areas and on the tundra. The berry is red, translucent, juicy and seedy. The alpine bearberry grows in higher elevations and likes the dry tundra. Its berry is black, opaque, juicy and also seedy. The leaves of these two plants are similar. The flavor of both of these berries to me is somewhat dull and earthy. They aren't the most popular berry around. But if you cook and/or mix with blueberries they aren't so bad, or if you are out hiking they are good for a little snack when nothing else is in sight.
What I like most about them is the color of their leaves during cool autumn days. The tundra and woods receives a new intense palette of brilliance just screaming with joy.
The red Kinnikinnick berries are opaque and pretty mealy. They are edible but their flavor is also not the greatest, but becomes more palatable when cooked. The leaves of this plant have had a reputation of occasionally being used as a substitute for tobacco when dried. It makes its home in dry areas of the boreal forest and dry rocky bluffs. You will often see it intermingle with low bush cranberries.
There are some medicinal uses of Kinnikinnick as noted in Janice Schofield's Book, ‘Discovering Wild Plants’. She says that a tea made of it has been used to treat kidney and bladder infection, kidney stones, and urinary tract disorders. A decoction of this plant leaves can be used to wash skin irritation and rashes. She says to use in moderation - if taken in large or frequent doses "it can cause gastrointestinal upset, nausea, and central nervous system depression". She also warns that pregnant women should not use this plant internally because it could decrease circulation to the fetus.
Bears and other wildlife like to eat the berries of all of these fruits. This is where the plant got its name - bearberry - uva-ursi. This last spring when the birds were congregating here, waiting for the ice to melt, I noticed a lot of lapland longspurs and robins in the field behind the house. I went out with my telephoto lens to capture them pecking at something on the ground. It turned out to be last year's kinnikinnick berries. They were having a field day making a meal out of those berries!
Enjoy the brilliant colors of the season shining bright after a rain shower or dew drop morning.
From my light to yours-
Wild Plants of the Copper Basin: Low Bush Cranberry or Lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis-idaea); High Bush Cranberry (Viburnum edule)
By Janelle Eklund
The mild temperature at the end of August was rather pleasant in spite of the wet bushes on the tundra from the night’s rain. Since the rain had stopped, rubber boots and rain pants protected us from being drenched from the thigh high glistening leaves and branches.
Our buckets were ready to be filled with blueberries but I couldn't help noticing the brilliant red showing up on the low bush cranberry branches. These deep red berries and their shiny green leaf foliage hug the tundra intermingling with the blackness of crowberries, translucent red bearberries, lime green moss, and creamy white caribou moss - truly an amazing kaleidoscope of color! I lifted the cranberries to inspect their underside for ripeness and was greeted with a whiteness that told me - 'hold on there, we're still absorbing the sun and then will wait for a nice little frost so our insides will release its sugars.' A taste test confirmed the viewing test and gave a little pucker to the inside of my mouth, as well as a sour look on my face - hah!
Yes, the first frosts will help set the low bush cranberries and make them palatable and a delight to eat. Both Low and high bush cranberries are an excellent source of antioxidants, vitamin C and vitamin A. Therefore making them a great 'medicine' plant. Eat them or drink their juice for colds, coughs, and urinary infections. Janice Schofield recommends taking one or two teaspoons of concentrated low bush cranberry pulp in a cup of water for relief of an asthma attack.
Some people often confuse low bush cranberries with kinnikinnick. The low lying plants do look similar but kinnikinnick berries and leaves are dull and the berries are mealy. Low bush cranberry leaves and fruit have a nice 'glow' about them and the berries are more succulent and have that 'cranberry' taste.
Low bush cranberries are easy to store - freeze, dry, or add a little water and put in a cool area. If drying, dip them in boiling water to crack the skins and then put them in a food dryer at about 140°. I like to freeze them in quart zip lock bags and use them on my morning homemade cereal or conjure up a batch of cranberry muffins. I read somewhere to fill a glass jar with berries and fill to the top with water and store in the fridge. They are supposed to last for many months. I tried this method but didn't use them for 6 months or more and they seemed a little zingy. I think they would have been better if I'd used them up faster. Even though their taste wasn't so great, their color was still brilliant and beautiful.
High bush cranberries grow on tall bushes - some taller than me (5'1")! They have one large seed and the low bush cranberries have many seeds - so small they are pretty much undetectable when bitten into. Because of this, and a little more sour taste, I prefer the low bush over the high bush.
It is very important that you do not mistake high bush cranberry for baneberry, which is highly poisonous. Baneberries seem to form in bigger clusters and their leaves are a little more elongated and have more 'teeth' around the perimeter. Positive identification is a must, as ingesting just a couple of baneberries can be fatal. Refer to your plant book and/or plant expert.
So when cranberry season is almost upon us rinse out the blue from the blueberry buckets and get ready to harvest more of nature's bounty!
From my light to yours-
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.
Wrangell Institute for Science & Environment
WISE is a