In mid-June, I finally stopped spending all my spare time puttering in the vegetable garden and made some dates to hike with friends and look for plants.
It’s now two weeks into July. We’re past the “peak flower” time for wildflowers in the Chugach Mountains. I’ve been too busy to post about each adventure but have saved up some memories and pictures to share in a few photo galleries.
My hiking group will have bittersweet recollections of one hike late June. Several of us joined a 7 a.m. trip that started on the lower slopes of Pioneer Peak – the familiar massif that looms over Palmer, Alaska. Six days later, we found out that one of our hiking companions and two others, including her husband, had died in a small plane accident.
Also, in recent weeks, Alaskans have been suffering from record-level heat, smoke from wildfires, and the dumpster fire of Alaska’s political situation. Higher elevations have been providing many of us with a little respite from all of the above.
Usually I’m pretty good at remembering how I met a fascinating new plant.
For amaranth, however, my memory is hazy. My best guess is I first laid eyes on a Love Lies Bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus), dripping from a friend’s front porch flower box.
Initially, my gaze focused on the plant’s long, magenta locks (other varieties come in lime green or even coral seed heads). Similar to my experience with runner beans, it took a few years of growing amaranth to appreciate its edible qualities.
Widely cultivated in ancient Mesoamerica and other regions for food and religious practices, gluten-free amaranth is by no means a cold climate plant. But even though A. caudatus (pictured above) and A. cruentus (to the right) look like divas, they don’t act that way. Amaranth germinates and reseeds like a champ, and needs limited attention during the growing season.
I’ve cultivated Love Lies Bleeding from saved seed for many years. In 2016, I grew out nearly every seedling that germinated – quite a lot – and peddled them to all of my gardening friends. That summer I created at least three new amaranth fans in metropolitan Anchorage.
Growing and harvesting amaranth is a simple way to learn rudimentary skills in threshing and winnowing. Amaranth likely isn’t a viable commercial crop here but growing it at home might be fun for families who want to try harvesting small batches of their own grain.
The amaranth genus includes some invasive plants that plague farmers, including pigweed, which has arrived in Alaska. I admit to a certain fondness for the plant, due solely to ‘Old Pigweed’, a favorite Mark Knopfler tune.
Growing and Harvesting Tips: For big, happy plants, provide fertile soil, sunlight, and lots of space. You can plant amaranth in containers and move them under the eaves of your house if you experience rainy falls that diminish seed production.
In the fall, snip the long flowering stalks when they are completely dry. Store them carefully and whenever convenient for you, thresh and winnow them. If the chaff blows in your face, wash it off carefully. Speaking from experience, rubbing chaff off your face is rather painful!
In my garden, amaranth grows much better than another ancient grain, quinoa, which develops seed over a longer season. I’ve also found it easier to harvest the seed from amaranth, perhaps because my quinoa seed never matured properly. All of the amaranth varieties I’ve tried produce edible salad greens and large quantities of seed. Plus they make amazing floral arrangements.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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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