Cillqat antaartut uksuarmi. - The fireweed comes out in the fall.
Late summer in the Kodiak Archipelago is brightly heralded by thousands of fireweed blossoms. This widely distributed perennial plant is a member of the evening primrose family, and it grows in both a dwarf and tall variety in the Kodiak region. The tall variety (Epilobium angustifolium) has a long stalk, narrow leaves, bright pink flowers, and long stalks that can reach up to eight feet tall. This variety thrives in meadows, open forests, hillsides, and anywhere the ground has been disturbed. The dwarf variety (Epilobium latifolium) is more common over gravely substrate and grows only about a foot tall. As fall approaches fireweed leaves turn from dark green to a brilliant red and release seeds coasted in a downy fiber.
Fireweed has long been both a source of food and raw material in Alutiiq communities. In the past, the plant served as roof thatching for sod houses, especially in interior regions where ryegrass was not available. And steam bathing switches were made from fireweed stalks.
Young fireweed leaves are often eaten fresh, although they also can be dried and used to make a soothing tea. Fireweed shoots are also harvested and may be cooked or eaten raw. In Nanwalek, an Alutiiq community of the Kenai Peninsula, people cook fireweed leaves in seal oil. Today, many people harvest fireweed blossoms to flavor sweet syrup for pancakes and deserts.
Photo: Fireweed blooming at Cliff Point, Kodiak Island.
AkaRautaq miktuq. - The garden is small.
Although Alutiiq people have long enjoyed wild fruits and vegetables, gardening is a recent pursuit. Russian colonists were the first to attempt cultivation in Kodiak’s fertile soil, growing grains and vegetables. Barley crops fared well, but wheat failed to ripen in the cool, wet summer months. Vegetable crops were more successful. As early as 1790, Russian gardens produced potatoes and cabbages. By the mid 1800s some village residents were raising potatoes commercially for Kodiak Monks, especially on Afognak Island.
Gardening gradually became an Alutiiq pursuit. By the early twentieth century, many families tended large vegetable plots to supplement their harvest of wild food and store-bought groceries. Potatoes were the most important crop, although gardeners also grew lettuce, cabbage, carrots, rutabagas, beets, turnips, and radishes.
Gardens were often established in open, sunny places, not necessarily adjacent to their owner’s home. For example, Ouzinkie residents gardened in Sourdough Flats, on Cat Island, and on Garden Point. Similarly, Kodiak’s Potato Patch Lake takes its name from the many gardens that once surrounded its shores. Families worked together to develop their gardens. Men prepared the earth by hoeing and tilling. Women and children tended the plants: weeding, watering, and fertilizing with buckets of kelp. Because of their rich soil, old Alutiiq village sites were favored locations for gardens.
Families stored their garden produce in cool, dark cellars sometimes called potato houses. Dug into the ground, these cellars were lined with grass and accessed with a ladder. The grass provided insulation for the vegetables that were layered in the hole.
Photo: Children helping with a Ouzinkie Garden. Smith Collection, courtesy Tim and Norman Smith
Weguat qutmi naut. - Goose tongues are growing on the beach.
Goose tongue (Plantago maritime) is a low-lying plantain, an herb that grows in coastal wetlands on beaches, cliffs, and marshes across southern Alaska. This plant resembles a clump of grass. It has long, narrow, pointed leaves that grow in bunches from its base. These leaves are thick and succulent and a favorite food of bears. From its base, the plant also produces small stems of yellow or greenish flowers that grow up to eight inches tall.
On Kodiak, goose tongue is a widely harvested spring vegetable. The leaves have a mild salty flavor. People collect its tender young leaves from May until the plant flowers in late July. By midsummer, the plant matures and the leaves become bitter and fibrous. Alutiiq people eat goose tongue raw, steamed, or boiled. One local recipe suggests mixing crisp bacon and sautéed onions with four cups of steamed goose-tongue leaves to create a flavorful side dish. Other recipes include goose tongue in fritters or as a salad ingredient tossed with other spring greens.
Photo: Goose tounge growing in a coastal meadow.
Weg’et kiagmi anglitaartut. - The grass grows tall in the summertime.
More than sixty-five varieties of grasses grow in the Kodiak Archipelago, as well as many types of sedges and rushes. The most widely harvested grass is beach rye grass (Elymus arenarius), a plant common across the northern hemisphere. This tall, sturdy grass grows in open environments, particularly at the margins of saltwater beaches. It has wide, flat, coarse leaves that are known for their stiffness, particularly in comparison with other types of grasses. Beach rye grass was traditionally gathered by both Alutiiq men and women and used both fresh and dried.
Grass was an especially important raw material in Kodiak’s treeless regions. Alutiiq people used it in building and insulating structures. Each fall grasses were cut to thatch the roofs of sod houses, provide a clean floor covering, and create fresh bedding. Grass was also used in food storage and preparation. Storage pits were lined with grass, grass provided tinder for cooking fires, and it was used as a cutting surface: a clean place to butcher fish and meat. Alutiiq people once used rye grass to create a variety of household objects. They wove baskets, drinking cups, mittens, and socks from this grass and tied it into banya switches. Rye grass, which can be harvested throughout Alaska, remains a popular weaving material among Native peoples.
Photo: Weaver Arlene Skinner with grass dried for weaving.
Amaryat quuhnartaartut. (S) - Highbush cranberries are (always) sour.
The highbush cranberry (Viburnum edule), known locally as the bog berry or sour berry, is a large flowering shrub that grows in Kodiak’s thickets and clearings, often in shady spots. This plant, found widely across North America, produces small red berries that dangle from a long stem in small bunches. Be careful, it is easy to confuse this plant with the poisonous baneberry.
Alutiiq people harvest highbush cranberries for food and medicine, picking them as they ripen in late summer and early fall. They are collected in as large quantities as larger lowbush cranberries, although their small size makes picking more difficult and time consuming.
Highbush cranberries are made into jams, jellies, and syrups and added to desserts. This berry is also a favorite choice for akutaq, a traditional dessert where berries are mixed with fat and flavorings like salmon eggs, mashed potatoes, or in modern times, sugar. These berries may also be stored in oil for later use.
Many people mash the berries for their juice, which they use to treat sore throats, colds, and respiratory illnesses. A spoon full of highbush cranberry jelly in a cup of tea is not only tasty but soothing.
Photo: Elder picking cranberries with her granddaughter, Larsen Bay. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA collection.
Naparuaqutanek ikuutuq. - She found some horsetails.
Horsetail (Equisetum spp.) is a small green herb that grows throughout the Pacific coast of Alaska. There are many different species of horsetail, some that thrive on land and others that prefer wet, marshy terrain. Some varieties have a thin stem and feathery branches that give it the appearance of a horse’s tail. Horsetail is one of the most widespread plants in the world and a common colonizer. It grows well in wet soils, preferring moist forests, damp meadows, swamps, stream banks, and recently disturbed areas.
Alutiiq people gather and eat the spring stage of this plant, collecting the brown, branchless shoots that begin to develop in mid-April. These thick, succulent shoots grow up to a foot tall and have small, cone-like tips known as strobili. These shoots look like an asparagus spear. After removing the brown covering on the shoot’s head, horsetail can be eaten raw, added to salads, or boiled to make a tender vegetable. In Kenai Peninsula communities, Alutiiqs often serve horsetail with seal oil.
People harvest horsetail until early June when the last sprouts develop. The plants then form tough green stems with feathery branches. Although the plant cannot be eaten in summer, a variety of Alaska Native groups harvest the summer stage for medicinal purposes. People use the silica-rich stalks to polish wooden objects, make a greenish-yellow dye from the mature stalks, and incorporate horsetail fibers into weaving. The plant’s tubers are also edible.
Photo: Horsetail growing in a marshy area.
Laagat qatertaartut. - Lily roots are white.
The chocolate lily (Fritillaria camschatcensis) is a delicate flowering plant with lance-shaped leaves and clusters of dark purple or brown bell-shaped flowers. It is widely distributed throughout the coastal meadows of the North Pacific, ranging from the western United States to Japan. This perennial plant grows from a bulb of many rice-like roots and is sometimes called the rice lily. Despite its appetizing names, the flower emits an unpleasant, rotting odor that attracts pollinating flies.
The starchy root of the chocolate lily is edible and was traditionally collected by Alutiiq people in late summer. In August and September, people unearthed lily roots with digging sticks or collected them from vole caches. Many people preserved a portion of their harvest for winter use. Lily roots were ground into a flour or packed in seal stomach with oil and berries. The roots were eaten raw, roasted, boiled till tender and mixed with seal oil, or combined with sourdock and berries to create a tasty side dish. They were also added to Alutiiq ice cream—akutaq—a dish made by mixing fat, berries, and fish eggs with lily roots. In the historic era, mashed potatoes replaced lily roots in this popular dish.
Photo: Akhiok woman with lily roots and Chocolate Lily flower. Photo by Priscilla Russell, KANA Collection.
Ing’im ceniini kenegtangq’rtuq. - The mountainside has cranberries.
The lowbush cranberry, or lingonberry (Vaccinium vitisidaea), is a creeping plant with thick, oval, shiny, green leaves; pink, bell-shaped flowers; and round, red berries. The word kenegtaq literally means “something pressed down.” This plant flowers in mid to late June and is commonly found throughout Kodiak’s spruce forests, particularly in wet areas.
Alutiiq people harvest the bright red, sour cranberries as food, preferably after a heavy frost when the berries are sweetest. They were eaten as a condiment with fish or mixed into Alutiiq ice cream. Unlike many juicier berries, lowbush cranberries can be stored for a long time. Those used before freezing weather were traditionally kept in freshwater in a cool place. After freezing weather, the berries were stored in gut containers filled with seal oil.
The lowbush cranberry plant has medicinal properties. Alutiiq people prepared tea made from the leaves to treat colds. Eating raw lowbush cranberries is also recommended for sore throats, canker sores, and kidney problems.
Photo: Low bush Cranberry, By Dawn Endico from Menlo Park, California (Lingonberry), via Wikimedia Commons