KODIAK — With summer fast approaching, people will be itching to start combing beaches and scrambling along mountain forest trails to take advantage of the Emerald Isle’s sunshine. Among the plethora of outdoor activities available is the opportunity to forage for nature’s bounty of healthy snacks and edible plants.
“There are lots of edible plants in Kodiak,” said botanist and educator Stacy Studebaker. “You can eat them fresh or you can stir fry them.”
However, Studebaker said the first step in forging begins with knowing what to look for.
“You have to get the right identification because we do have poisonous plants, and if you’re not careful, you could mix things up,” she said.
However, once people get a basic understanding of which plants to hunt for and pick, Studebaker said there are lots of advantages to foraging.
“Often times, our native plants are more nutritious than what you can find in the store because they’re not frozen or genetically modified,” Studebaker said.
Studebaker has spent much of her time in Kodiak and authored the book “Wildflowers and Other Plant Life of the Kodiak Archipelago.” Additionally, she has taught courses on the subject for more than 35 years. One of the first things she tells her students is to find undisturbed areas.
“You have to be careful where you find edible plants and make sure it’s a wild, clean location,” Studebaker warned.
Beaches are a great place to start foraging efforts, she said.
“A lot of greens grow up along the beaches before other plants are ready because they get more sun and that heats rock up,” Studebaker said.
Some early plants and greens that can be harvested in Kodiak include beach greens, also known as seabeach sandwort. The perennial plant has sprawling branches that form extensive mats and root at the nodes. The leaves are light green and succulent and can possess white or light green five-petaled flowers.
The beach greens can be eaten raw or cooked. They, along with the edible flowers, are rich in vitamins A and C. They can also be used for tea.
Another beach-thriving plant is the beach lovage, which can be used as a substitute for parsley. It’s identifiable by its pinkish or white flowers that form clusters at the top of ovalish, toothed leaflets that occur in threes. The plant begins appearing in May and lasts throughout the summer. Once the leaves start turning yellow, the herbs start to decay.
Goosetongue, which can also be found on the beaches of Kodiak, is usually on cliffs, rocky beaches and tidal flats.
The vegetable appear in dense clusters of fleshy, narrow lance-shaped leaves that grow from a long, thick root. The plant has small greenish-white or brownish flowers that grow up to eight inches tall. The leaves can either be eaten raw in a salad or boiled like spinach.
Be careful not to pick a similar looking plant with very tiny, greenish-yellow or pink flowers concentrated in the top half of the flowering stems. Those plants, known as seaside arrowgrass, are toxic.
Meadow hunting can also produce some useful plants, including the lady fern fiddlehead and fireweed.
“I make fiddlehead and fireweed pizza that people rave about,” Studebaker said. “It’s not only healthy, it looks pretty too.”
Fireweed is easily spotted by its long, narrow pointed leaves and a cluster of bright pink flowers on its upper stem. When it blooms later in the summer, it releases seeds attached to fluffy white strands.
The leaves and shoots can be eaten as vegetables, while dried fireweed leaves are a great substitute for black tea. When they start growing as red spring shoots, they can be eaten raw or cooked.
Once a person has fireweed collected, they still need fiddlehead for Studebaker’s famous pizza.
When they are still growing, lady fern appear as young, coiled fiddleheads that push from underground roots each spring. When collected, they can be eaten raw or cooked. They should be collected before they unfold.
As the summer grows longer, more and more edible plants are available, Studebaker said.
“We have 13 or 14 types of edible berries on Kodiak Island,” she said. “Salmonberries are the most plentiful and then there are two types of blueberries.”
Salmonberries usually grow in early and midsummer, starting in mid-June. The best time to collect is July. They grow on a prickly, woody shrub found in dense thickets on mountain slopes and meadows. Salmonberries range in color from red or orange to yellow when ripe and can be used to make jams, jellies or pies.
Bog blueberries can be found in tundra area, bogs and on mountains, such as Pillar Mountain, near spruce trees. Their bushes have dull green, oval-shaped leaves and bell-shaped pink flowers. They are usually best when to collect in August and September.
The dark blueberries make for some excellent jams and jellies and have lots of Vitamin C and antioxidants.
Another popular berry people can readily identify in Kodiak is the lingonberry, or low bush cranberry. Studebaker said those also grow on Pillar Mountain.
The lingonberry grows on creeping evergreen shrubs that have bright oval-shaped green leaves and stems no longer than three inches. The plant’s pink bell-shaped flowers grow on clusters and mature into berries. According to Studebaker, the tart berries make for excellent jams, syrups and sauces on wild game.
When collecting plants, Studebaker recommended using small plastic tupperware or little baggies. For berries, she said a useful technique would be to carry a jug with holes punched in either side, strung through with a rope to wear around the neck.
“You can use both hands to pick them and put them in the jug,” Studebaker said.
Even when someone finds a crop of plants to forage, Studebaker asked that they be respectful.
“Don’t pick everything, because next time you go there, there might not be any plants left,” Studebaker said. “Make sure to use everything that you do pick and not waste any of Mother Nature’s bounty because it’s just disrespectful.”
She also advised people to keep their patches a secret, as telling another soul would invite a quick depletion of the source and leave an individual scrounging for another spot.
“Sometimes you see skirmishes up on Pillar because people know about the lingonberries and blueberries up there,” Studebaker said. “Some people jump the gun and get up there to pick the berries before they are ripe just to beat other people. If you do that, (you’ll find out that) they aren’t very good when they’re green.”
Studebaker also advised people to be either be extra careful or travel in small groups when foraging meadows or wooded areas because they face four-legged competition for berries from the Kodiak bear.
“When bears come out of hibernation, they’re pretty much vegetarian,” Studebaker said. “If you’re on your hands and knees in a rich berry patch, you want to keep an eye out. When I’m out, my husband comes along and usually walks around and watches to keep an eye out.”