Aatat suit’kait cucunartut. - Lupine flowers are beautiful.
Lupine (Lupinus nootkatensis) is a common, brightly flowering plant than can grow up to three feet tall. It has a long, stout stem that supports a dense cluster of blue, pink, or occasionally white flowers. It grows clusters of six to eight silky leaves and long woody roots that are a favorite food of brown bears. Lupine is a member of the pea family found along the North Pacific coast from British Columbia to Japan. It thrives on dry slopes, meadows, and gravel bars, where it produces seed-filled pods. Beware! Lupine seeds are poisonous. When ingested they can cause a fatal inflammation of the stomach and intestines.
Alutiiqs once harvested lupine rhizomes for food. This part of the plant grows underground, between the stem and the roots. Lupine rhizomes were commonly collected in the spring, when most tender, although they could be taken at any time of year. The rhizomes were cleaned, cut in half, and fried in oil to create a tasty dish.
Photo: Lupine growing in a coastal Alaskan meadow.
Uruq mecuutaartuq. - The moss is always wet.
Today, hundreds of species of mosses grow in the coastal environments of the Gulf of Alaska, thriving on wet ground, tree trunks, branches, rocks, and even in freshwater. These soft, fluffy plants absorb water through their leaves and stems, making them an excellent source of spongy material.
In Alutiiq, the word uruq means both moss and diaper, reflecting the use of moss in swaddling babies. Moss collected from the ground was washed and dried, then stuffed into an infant’s clothing, cradle, and carrier. Elders remember this practice and note that people often collected moss in the warm season and saved quantities of it for winter use. Absorbent mosses also served as toilet paper and menstrual pads, lined vegetable roasting pits, functioned as wicks for stone oil lamps, and were employed in processing seal skins for kayak covers. People laid wet moss on seal skins to loosen the hair so they could be easily scraped clean.
Drier mosses, collected from trees, were a source of insulation. Because this moss does not shrink with age, people stuffed it into cracks in sod houses, used it in thatching roofs, and added it to clothing. A layer of moss increased the warmth of hats, mittens, and boots. Campers also piled tree moss on branches and covered the pile with a grass mat to make a comfortable temporary mattress.
Photo: Moss covered Sitka spruce trees, Fort Abercrombie, Kodiak Island.
Suupalitaartut sliyaaparanek. - They make soup out of mushrooms.
Cool temperatures, darkening days, and wet weather are all signs of fall in Alaska, and of mushroom season. Mushrooms are fungi, the fruit of plants that grow underground and obtain their nourishment from decomposing matter rather than sunlight. These delicate plants reproduce quickly when temperature and rainfall are just right. In Alaska, mushrooms are most common in late summer and early fall and can be found as far north as the Arctic Circle.
Although mushrooms are colorful and fun to find, many are poisonous. For example, the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), a common gilled mushroom with a white stalk and a speckled orange cap, is deadly. Never eat a wild mushroom unless you are certain of its identity and that it is safe to consume.
Although not widely collected by Alutiiqs today, Elders recall their parents gathering and cooking mushrooms. Some varieties were cooked with fish and onions. Others, like the bolete (Leccinum insigne), were fried in butter. In Larsen Bay, people once gathered and stored puffball mushrooms (Lycoperdon) for medicinal purposes. As the puffball ages, it darkens and its insides become powdery. Alutiiqs applied the powder to burns and skin infections to promote healing, particularly wounds that were slow to close. Puffball powder might also be applied to a fresh injury to prevent future infection. Mushrooms are still collected by Kenai Peninsula Alutiiqs, who snack on some varieties while walking in the woods.
Photo: A pair of poisonous fly agaric mushrooms.
Puyurnit piturnirtaartut. - Nagoonberries always taste good.
Also commonly known as the wild raspberry, or arctic raspberry, the nagoonberry (Rubus arcticus) is a low-growing plant that bears a sweet, dark red, segmented, raspberry-like fruit. On Kodiak, Alutiiq people use the same term for nagoonberry and raspberry, illustrating the similarity between this indigenous fruit and the historically introduced red raspberry. Many people consider nagoonberries one of Kodiak’s best-tasting wild fruits. Alaska’s Russian colonists called the nagoonberry the king of berries for this reason.
Nagoonberries grow in open environments, particularly in damp soils. They thrive in tundra, bogs, meadows, and along streambanks and lakeshores. The plant has crinkled, toothed leaves with three lobes, similar to those of a strawberry plant. Each plant bears a single pink flower that produces one berry. As such, they are not as abundant as other types of berries.
Nagoonberries ripen toward the end of July and are available through August. They separate more easily from their stems when they are ready to be harvested, although some people prefer to harvest them when they are a little underripe and firm. Kodiak Alutiiq people use these plump, juicy berries in many ways. Nagoonberries are eaten fresh, cooked into jams and jellies, and preserved in freezers and jars of oil. People also harvest the young sprouts of this plant, which can be peeled and eaten.
Photo: Pink flowering nagoonberry plant.
Uqaayanat angtaartut. - Nettles are big.
The stinging nettle (Urtica lyalli) grows widely across the northern hemisphere. It thrives in open meadows, flourishes in damp soil, and is found commonly in dense clusters in areas disturbed by human activity. In the Gulf of Alaska, nettles often grow on the surface of archaeological sites-where they prosper in the rich organic soil formed by ancient garbage.
Nettles have distinctive toothed leaves that hold tiny stinging hairs. When broken, these hairs release formic acid, a skin irritant. The Alutiiq word for nettle literally means “something that makes you burn all over.” In the Kodiak area, people often refer to nettles as “burners.” Despite their stinging quality, young nettles are a tasty green vegetable. They are collected in the spring or early summer, boiled for fifteen minutes to remove their bite, and eaten like spinach. Nettles are also used to flavor food. They are added to soups or burned while smoking fish.
Nettles are also widely recognized for their medicinal properties. Nettle leaf tea is said to soothe respiratory problems, particularly tuberculosis, while a tea made from nettle roots can ease the pain of arthritis.
Una aRam’aas’kaaq caayuq piturnirtuq. - This chamomile tea tastes good.
Pineapple weed (Matricaria matricarioides) is a widespread, low growing herb with pale green, berrylike flowers and a fruity scent. It thrives in open fields and disturbed areas, and grows particularly well around human settlements. European settlers introduced Pineapple weed to North America and it is now found across the continent. Also known as wild chamomile, the Alutiiq word for pineapple weed—aRam’aas’kaaq—comes from the Russian word for chamomile —romashka.
Alutiiq people use the leaves, stems, and flowers of the pineapple weed. Islanders add the edible flowers to salads or pick them for a snack. Others steep the leaves and stems in boiling water to make a medicinal tea. The plant is potent fresh or dried and may be steeped for up to an hour, depending on the desired strength of the tea. Alutiiqs use pineapple weed tea for relaxation. It is said to soothe nerves, prevent nightmares and promote sleep. It is also a remedy for nausea and a mild laxative. A few drops will help a newborn baby move its bowls.
And if smelly hands are a problem, rub the plant’s fresh leaves on your skin. Pineapple weed has a deodorizing effect.
Ilait naut’staat yaatutaartut. - Some plants are poisonous.
Pitun’illgu una-yaatartuq. - Don’t eat this—it is poisonous.
Alutiiq people have long recognized the poisonous qualities of certain local plants. Some of these plants were harvested for their medicinal value, and at least one was used in hunting. The most well-known Alutiiq poison was made from the roots of the monkshood plant, Aconitum delphinifolium. This beautiful blue-flowered herb grows in meadows and has a long slender stem. According to one historic source, the roots were dried, pounded or grated, mixed with water, and left to ferment. Fat from the corpse of a dead whaler was then added to the concoction to make a chemically and spiritually potent toxin.
Aconite poison contains an alkaloid that paralyzes the nervous system and lowers both body temperature and blood pressure. Whalers used it to immobilize whales. They smeared the poison on the long tips of slate whaling darts that they cast into the side or the tail of an animal. Although the poison did not kill the whale immediately, it acted over several days to paralyze the animal, which eventually drowned. With luck, the carcass would float to shore, providing abundant food and raw material for the whaler’s community.
Photo: Purple flower of the poisonous monkshood plant.