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.

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