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Refuge notebook: These are a few of my favorite things

Posted: May 16, 2013 - 6:41pm
A bowl of steamed ostrich fern fiddleheads on the table, late May 2012.
A bowl of steamed ostrich fern fiddleheads on the table, late May 2012.

If you spend any time with my family in the woods, you’ll find that we snack on berries, and mushrooms and other wild foods that are opportunistically encountered during our adventures. But sometimes we will deliberately direct some of our family activities toward gathering wild food plants that are only abundant during certain times of the year.

This time of year, early spring, has long been an important time for harvesting especially after a long winter. Roots of perennial plants are generally at their best from late fall to early spring, after the plants have stored carbohydrates and nutrients from the preceding growing season and before they begin tapping this cache for spring growth. As plants begin to grow in the spring, the green parts are often most palatable while they are growing quickly, before plant tissues become tough and woody through the process of lignification.

Like many people, I harvest fern fiddleheads as they begin to unfurl in the spring. Three of our fern species yield edible fiddleheads: ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), lady fern (Athyrium filix-femina), and spreading wood fern (Dryopteris expansa). Ostrich fern, with large, succulent fiddleheads and less brown scales than the other two species, provides the tastiest fiddleheads. 

Culinary uses for fiddleheads are similar to those of asparagus, and they can be preserved for later use by pickling or freezing. They must be boiled or steamed thoroughly since consumption of raw or undercooked fiddleheads can cause food-borne illness through an as-yet unknown agent.

The Dena’ina gathered fern fiddleheads (uh ts’egha, “fern coiled”) in the spring and boiled them, but the root of spreading wood fern (uh, “stem”), was a more important subsistence food. The roots were gathered en masse in the fall or spring and baked under large fires.

I have enjoyed young marsh marigolds as a potherb much liked cooked spinach. However, I approach marsh marigold (Caltha palustris) with considerable caution because of conflicting accounts, with some authors listing it as a poisonous plant while others consider it to be edible. Both are true.

Marsh marigold contains the toxin protoanemonin, which causes skin irritation, burning of the mouth and throat, vomiting, dizziness, fainting, spasms, and even paralysis. Thorough cooking destroys this toxin. Most sources recommend boiling the plants in one or two changes of water to completely remove toxins. Marsh marigolds were apparently not used by native peoples in our area, but the leaves were eaten by some more northern Alaskan Athabascans.

Devil’s club (Oplopanax horridus) is another species I target in the early spring. The tender, flavorful buds must be harvested (using stout gloves!) before they are about two inches long, before the spiny leaves begin to unfurl. I do not care much for the strong taste of devil’s club on its own, but it makes a savory addition to a soup or stir fry. Several recipes available on the internet include devil’s club buds. Devil’s club (heshkeghka’a, “prickle-big-big”) was highly regarded and widely used by the Dena’ina as a medicinal, but they apparently did not eat the new buds.

Wild plants should be collected for food only where you have explicit permission to do so. On the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, noncommercial gathering by local rural residents of fruits, berries, mushrooms, and other plant materials for subsistence uses is allowed without a special use permit. Noncommercial gathering of edible plants is also allowed in the Chugach National Forest and in small amounts on Alaska state lands.

Regardless of land ownership and permissions, wild plants should be harvested sustainably for the sake of others, for wildlife, and to ensure that these resources persist. In general it is best to harvest only from large, robust populations of plants and to take only a small portion of what is available.

For example, researchers in Maine found that harvesting half of the fiddleheads on an ostrich fern resulted in little reduction in growth compared to plants from which no fiddleheads were taken. However, removing all fiddleheads in the spring led to a decline in fiddlehead production. The take-home message was that no more than half of the fiddleheads from each plant should be harvested each season to maintain good production in the long term.

If you are considering sampling wild plants, learn to identify them with confidence and independently research their edibility. You should also be able to recognize our most dangerous plants, especially monkshood, false hellebore, poison water hemlock, and death camas so that you can avoid them.

Matt Bowser serves as Entomologist at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. You can find more information about the refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.

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