Falling for wild plants

You don’t have to do much stalking to find at least one wild plant in Alaska that tastes like asparagus.

I developed a habit of snacking on fireweed shoots last year. The tender red shoots are everywhere in early spring. They taste like asparagus and are often used that way. (It’s ironic that the classic book on wild foraging, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, describes a vegetable that escaped the garden.)

Snacking aside, I’m a vegetable gardener not a forager. Unless it’s blueberry season, I’m not looking for edibles when I go hiking.

Alaska Boykinia blooming in Gates of the Arctic National Park

Enjoying Alaska’s native plants has been a way to honor the memory of my father over the last year. Like some people track the birds they’ve identified, he tracked wildflowers, looking for new plants on family hikes and camping trips around the United States.

The field botany class in Anchorage taught by Dr. Marilyn Barker (offered again in May 2019 through the Alaska Botanical Garden) helped me develop some general knowledge of Alaska native plants.

During evening class hikes into local parks last year, Barker pointed out plants I hadn’t noticed before, like trailing raspberries and black currants on the forest floor, and juniper creeping over rocky outcrops.

My field botany lessons continued with last year’s Alaska Native Plant Society plant walk to the summit of Mount Gordon Lyon. Then in July, I was fortunate to spend a week in Gates of the Arctic National Park and learn a bit about plant ecology north of the Arctic Circle.

Barker had mentioned the existence of native species of dandelion in Alaska. Sure enough, we found a dandelion – just one – while climbing up a rocky slope high above Amiloyak Lake in the national park.

I don’t have a picture of that dandelion – the slope was covered in loose scree and my camera was out of reach – but I do have several witnesses.

We had other unexpected plant sightings on the Arctic trip, including Alaska Boykinia (Boykinia richardsonii) at peak bloom. Also known as Bear Flower or Richardson’s Brookfoam, Alaska Boykinia is a holdover from late Tertiary temperate forests and is found only in Alaska and Canada. Various sources indicate bears enjoy eating these plants during the summer.

My appreciation of flowering and/or edible wild plants remains very amateurish and playful. I may never become truly knowledgeable about native plants, but I’ll keep nibbling at it!

Culinary tip: Alaskans have many traditional and modern culinary uses for fireweed. I’m happy to just nibble on the raw shoots, while they are still tiny, during spring hikes. Read on for foraging techniques and recipes.

Chinese Cabbage

Curse of the bolting cabbage

A few years ago I began converting a portion of my cabbage harvest into stinky but mouthwatering kimchi.

Cravings for kimchi led to last year’s troubled experiment with growing Napa cabbage – the traditional cabbage for making kimchi. Also known as Chinese cabbage (brassica rapa, Pekinensis Group), Napa is said to have more nutrients than other cabbage varieties.

I am a sucker for colorful, unusually-shaped vegetables so I bought seed for Scarlette Chinese Cabbage, a showy variety with bright magenta leaves, a pale yellow base, and contrasting white midribs. The catalog said these cabbages could bolt if exposed to temperature fluctuations as young seedlings but I didn’t expect that to affect my plants.

The Scarlette Chinese cabbage seedlings were relentless. They crowded out other cabbage varieties in my seed flats and grew incredibly fast once transplanted into raised beds. They were a beautiful addition to the garden but quickly bolted. I salvaged a few loose heads for meals but mostly harvested cabbage greens. These became dehydrated vegetable flakes for an upcoming Arctic camping trip.

Chinese cabbage greens

Why did they bolt? Why would any self-respecting cabbage bolt?

The typical culprit for bolting vegetables in a well-maintained Alaska garden is the short nights of our growing season. Night duration impacts many plants through a phenomenon called photoperiodism, by which plants use their photoreceptors to measure the amount of light they receive. “Long day” plants like barley, spinach, radishes, and cilantro start flowering when nights are shorter. Short day plants like sunflowers need longer nights to start flowering.

Nurseries often use photoperiodism to trick plants into blooming but it seems to be less common for home gardeners to trick plants into not blooming. It’s easier to avoid plants that bolt or look for bolt-resistant cultivars. Perhaps that’s why photoperiodism is barely discussed in any of my gardening books.

All this aside, cabbages are usually categorized as “day neutral” plants, meaning they disregard day/night length. If they are bolting early in the season, it probably has nothing to do with photoperiodism.

Another culprit for bolting that might be relevant to my Chinese cabbage is called vernalization.

Vernalization is a beautiful word that describes how a period of cold weather is necessary for the flowering of many plants. It is more likely my Chinese cabbages bolted due to a cold spell in spring when I took my seedlings outdoors.

Other factors for bolting that are important to consider if day neutral plants are bolting include the soil quality, moisture level, and any other factor that might cause plant stress.

Chinese cabbage is a cool-weather crop that clearly wants to do well in my garden and I haven’t given up on it yet. This year I’ll wait to put seedlings outdoors until later in the spring when we aren’t as likely to have cold snaps.

Maybe I’ll make some scarlet kimchi after all.

Additional resources: I found a few good online resources for gardeners on photoperiodism, including a blog post from High Mowing Organic Seeds and an article from the Oregon State University Extension Service. Interesting scientific tidbits about photoperiodism and vernalization are shared in the book What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses by Daniel Chamovitz.

Eating runner beans

Ode to runner beans

In our household, runner beans are the vegetable equivalent of sockeye salmon, another abundant species that fills up Alaska freezers every year.

I started growing cold-hardy runner beans after learning that pole beans need a lot of summer heat and wouldn’t produce well in our garden. Bush beans would do well, but I wanted a climbing variety to train on a rustic, homemade trellis.

I learned about runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus) from a Master Gardener friend who grows them ornamentally. Looking at the varieties in the Territorial Seed catalog, I was impressed by their vigorous growth (8-10 feet tall!) and colorful blossoms. They even tolerate a light frost!

Runner beans
St. George runner beans twine up a trellis with dill and sugar snap peas.

Runner beans are an annual feature in our garden. They give us massive floral displays all summer and copious amounts of homegrown beans to harvest for winter meals.

Many gardeners who grow runner beans spurn eating them because the texture is coarser than a typical snap bean. I think runners have great bean flavor and the sturdy pods hold up better in the freezer. I harvest them after the pods grow nice and long but before they toughen up.

For beauty’s sake, my favorites are the St. George and Sunset varieties but I’m always looking for unusual ones that I haven’t tried yet!

Growing and harvesting tips

Alaska companies Foundroot and Best Cool Seeds sell Scarlet runner bean seeds with solid red blossoms and lush green foliage. You’ll have to look elsewhere for additional varieties.

I clipped this excellent 2009 article on growing runner beans from Vegetable Gardener magazine and re-read it almost every year. It has interesting factoids and detailed instructions for growing them. One important point is that you need bees in your garden to pollinate the bean flowers. I notice that our runner beans don’t get adequately pollinated until the raspberry canes nearby are blooming.

The article above points out that you can eat runner beans in three stages – snap, shell, and dried. Due to our short season and rainy fall, we almost always eat runners as snap beans. One year I hit the jackpot and harvested shell beans. We enjoyed the large, mottled purple beans simmered in a pot with fresh sage, water, and a glug of oil. I’m still waiting for that to happen again!

I grow bush beans for fresh eating and runner beans for freezing. Unlike other vegetables, I notice no difference if I don’t blanch runners before freezing them. I just wash, cut, and divvy them up in meal-size portions. They preserve well in vacuum-sealed freezer bags. I typically add the frozen beans to stews and pasta dishes near the end of cooking.

Gardening for the senses

Why do I garden? How can I help other gardeners? Meditating on these questions is what Transcendental Gardening is all about.

Like many others, I garden for the senses. Mostly to bask in the natural beauty, interesting smells, and fresh flavors bursting from the garden and share these pleasures with family and friends.

But I also garden for practical uses. Most of my plants are edible or useful in some other way. On this website you’ll see plenty of flowers but no actual flower beds.

Tarragon and poppies
Tarragon and Shirley double poppies catch afternoon light in the herb garden.

Lastly, I garden to satisfy my inner geek. I enjoy reading up on plant science and discussing plant problems with the experts.

At the end of 2018 I completed the Alaska Master Gardener Course and committed at least 40 hours of community service to assist other aspiring gardeners. Starting this website is one way I hope to provide community service as a new Master Gardener.

This website and blog are designed to assist other gardeners through the appreciation of plants rather than instruction. That said I’ve shared links to organizations, books, and websites that helped me on the Resources page.

Many gardening-related organizations and business owners in Alaska have websites, offer classes, and write regular columns. I don’t plan to offer these services but I’m happy to connect new gardeners in northern regions with organizations and entrepreneurs that offer instruction.

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