Southeast alaskan herb foraging trip - fireweed, thimbleberry, labrador tea

medicinal
herbs
foraging
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(joan underhill) #1

i’ve gone out on a few specific foraging trips lately & wanted to share some photos (& hopefully see what You’ve been harvesting, wherever you’re at).

so on one of my days off last week, jon & i drove north of town (we live on a smallish island, and there’s only so much road, so we tend to just head out of town a few miles in either direction to get to better stands of wild plants) looking for wild edibles & medicinals. we found great stands of thimbleberry, fireweed, and labrador tea - so that’s what i harvested that day.

here’s some of the thimbleberry:

and the labrador tea (next to a non-blooming look-similar):

i hadn’t smelled labrador tea since we were out deer hunting last fall… and it definitely doesn’t smell as spicy or strong as it does in the interior. it gave me a nostalgic hunger to smell this not-quite-the-same labrador tea, when its aroma was such a quintessential part of our experience of walking though the forests of the kuskokwim valley.

here’s some of the fireweed:

i had to figure out how to conveniently hang up a big armful of it. i don’t have drying screens here, since we’ve lived on a boat for the past year, moved south with very little ‘stuff’, and needed everything to be compact. so for individual leaves that i harvest, i lay out layers of mosquito netting as my ‘screens’…

but for the fireweed, since i found large enough stands to harvest whole stalks, i eventually landed on the idea of stringing them up like chiles, with a big canvas needle & some waxed cotton thread. that way i could just string them up between the supports on our porch & let them wave in the fresh air, and i didn’t have to individually tie each bundle (like i normally do when hanging smaller bundles of stalks). it worked out perfectly.

then i realized that the ribs on the thimbleberry leaves are strong enough, and branch appropriately, to do the same thing…

that worked out pretty well, too. i had harvested a lot of thimbleberry, and the leaves can be pretty huge, so this turned out to be a really efficient way to dry them. otherwise, finding enough horizontal surfaces to lay them out on would have been pretty impossible.

the labrador tea leaves just went on mosquito netting in a large basket to dry. they’ll take a while. i only harvested the newer growth, and no stalks, as it’s not as abundant here & takes a lot longer to grow its woody stalks than the fireweed. it took me a few tries to find a spot that was okay to harvest, as the first few plants i asked permission kept telling me to go further into the patch… apparently the gravel dust from the nearby road spread further than i thought. so i put on my muck boots and headed deeper into the small, lumpy, sink-your-feet-in muskeg to find areas that were happier with being harvested.

here’s a partial view of the porch by the time i was done:

i went out for these herbs not just to replenish my own stocks, but also because i nearly sold out of my ‘happy alaskan tea’ blend at the last little farmer’s market i did here in town. i was really surprised, as when i’ve tried to sell herbal teas in the past people didn’t really go for them. but, there is a pretty strong local/wild foods culture here in ketchikan, so i figured i better have enough dried & ready to go by the next market. it went really well - i made about double the amount of tea blend this time and almost sold out again (and made up a big batch for taste testing, which went over well).

here are some other views from that foraging trip:
a wild bog orchid looking fancy:

views from connell lake, which i hadn’t been to before (wish we had a cabin & canoe there!):


connell%20lake

one the supposed ‘look similars’ to labrador tea with its pretty pink flower:

actual labrador tea being beautiful in the sunshine:

some little mint-family widlflower with adorable blue-purple flowers:

and a general view from the back road we were harvesting near.

it was so refreshing to be out and away from town for a few hours. this is the first time i’ve lived in a town/city for more than a few months since 2007, and it’s really wearing on my spirit. jon & i both miss the interior hugely, are sick of the noise & mess of town, and really drank in the lush quiet of these wilder areas, even though it was just for one morning. it felt wonderful to come home and have all these delicious & healthful herbs to hang up. rain threatened a day or two later, so i ended up having to string them up inside, & it has made our home smell fantastic.


(joan underhill) #2

on another recent day, i went out with a few friends to introduce them to some local medicinal plants. they’re new to the area, but came from washington state, and so were familiar with some of the local plants already. devil’s club is new for them, though, so we talked for a while about its character, uses, and preferences, & especially about how powerful & sacred it is & what it means to harvest & use this plant respectfully. they had their 4-year-old son with them, and we all had a pretty great time working with devil’s club and feeling its magic.

here’s a little baby leaf on the stalk that gave me permission to harvest:

and the stalk that my friends harvested, after we devised a creative way to cut it, not having brought gloves or pruners (one friend was carrying a walking stick with a crotched-end, so i had him use that to hold pressure towards himself on the stalk and use my knife to make angled cuts into the stalk & away from himself. hard to explain, but we each only got one tiny thorn-prick, so i count it a win).

i showed him how to use my knife to scrape the thorns off (along with some of the outer bark) and how to leave the medicinal inner bark at the same time. i asked the plant if it was okay with me harvesting its root, so i wouldn’t have to go mess with a different stalk, and it gave me a big fat No. so i wandered on further down the trail while they scraped thorns, until i found this wonderfully curvy stalk that was happy to be turned into medicine.

here’s a mostly-scraped stalk in the brilliant dappled sunlight:

here’s a close up of my stalk before i started scraping thorns:

thorns scraped, but not all outer bark removed yet:

and then with all the outer bark removed. the green & beige inner bark remains, and is where most of the medicine lives (some folks use the inner root bark as well, both are similarly potent).

next, i peeled off the inner bark. it peels very similarly to willow - easy when the sap’s flowing nicely in the spring/early summer.

here’s all the inner bark from that stalk, roughly chopped & ready to be infused in oil for a salve. it can also be cut smaller & dried for tea at this point (smaller cut because it’ll dry faster & more evenly).

the salve that i made from this is really strongly aromatic, and i’ve been using it on a pulled muscle in my foot & on my collarbone (which has metal hardware in it, and so now acts as a barometer & gets sore when the pressure changes). i’m really loving it so far. i think the next time i’m working on salves i’ll probably combine some devil’s club salve & cottonwood salve… they’d be a great powerhouse sort of combination. :heart:

have you harvested anything this spring or summer? i want to see!


(Agnes Seitz) #3

love your pictures- now I really have to go and borrow a camera to show what we are doing here…the area in the Yukon we live in is really late this year seasonwise…snow left end of May and we are just back to night frosts again these end of June days. plants are still quite small and many just start flowering right now… we gather about 20 different plants for tea…and I need to get about 10 pounds ( dried) for the two of us for the winter- in the Yukon that might mean 7- 8 months of cold and snow- makes for great tea time . Gathering starts right now with fireweed leaves, alpine strawberry leaves, raspberry leaves, black currant leaves - my absolute favourite- yarrow flowers , comfrey leaves ( more for salves) , dandelion roots , flowers will be a bit later. I am trying my hands on fermented fireweed tea right now - a Eastern Europe traditional way…and will add some wild rose pedals and wild bergamot .


(joan underhill) #4

@yukonagnes that’s awesome!! i miss harvesting in the interior, i spent may 2016- may 2017 on the kuskokwim, upriver of mcgrath.

yeah, it takes a Lot of good herbs to make it through those long winters, doesn’t it! :heart:

i’m so excited to hear black currant is your favorite! we have that here in southeast alaska as well, and i only just found out they were edible late last summer, hadn’t heard of anyone using them for tea - i harvested a handful of leaves to dry & test out, and now i’m super stoked to taste the tea!

sorry to hear about your late spring! i’d be so impatient by now. i’m curious to hear how you like your fermented fireweed!


(joan underhill) #5

the labrador tea i harvested on that trip is finally dry! it smells so incredible. such an iconic smell of the interior to me. :heart:


(Agnes Seitz) #6

Labrador is still flowering here…Great smell in the woods. First time…many years ago I gathered it and added it to my tea mix . We experienced some light headedness and some mind altering qualities…oops… I stopped gathering it…just enjoy the season smell…not so fond of its narcotic properties.Did you ever notice anything ?


(joan underhill) #7

hey agnes, no, i haven’t noticed that, but i’ve only used my labrador tea a few times and been pretty gentle with it. the books that i looked to for information gave pretty particular instructions for safe use.

this is from medicinal flora of the alaska natives by ann garibaldi


(Agnes Seitz) #8

great resources, thanks for sharing. I ve seen Ann Garibaldis book here at library, but will enjoy the ethnobotany approach ! This touches the heart of what I am looking forward to learn …finding / growing this intimate connection where plants are part of ourselves and back… this is mostly NOT about the chemical analysis of active parts in plants :slightly_smiling_face: especially with potent medicinal plants I do miss having a cultural meaning embedded in their use…some guidance based on experiential knowledge , some elders with actual hands on teaching
I like your approach of being - gentle- when we try plant medicines… Personally I am quite weary of plants that have mind altering effects - and this again is not about the plants…civilization already messes enough with my head :):upside_down_face: there is a place and time for these plants …now we just have to find- rediscover- the culture that goes with it…


(Trevor Ose) #9

@joan

Hi Joan,

I write from western Cascadia at the moment, and I lived in the Haines area for a good while previously. Nice of you to request to hear what others are harvesting. No pics handy, but I attempted to harvest a decent amount of pine pollen in early June. My large bag of pollen cones turned into a handful of pollen! I was not totally surprised.

I’ve not heard of drying the mature leaves of firewood and thimbleberry for tea, though I’ve eaten fireweed leaves while immature. Are their uses similar to raspberry leaf?

I’m curious who the labrador tea look-alike is, as I’ve identified it (but not harvested) as labrador. Do you know its name?

Your mint-family plant with bright blue flowers may not be a mint. It looks like what I know as american brooklime. Did it have a square stem? Here’s a link to the brooklime: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veronica_americana
Interestingly, the wiki link says brooklime has edible and medicinal uses, but I’ve not tried it.

I have a friend who made and used devil’s club root oil, similarly to how you mention using it. He says it’s the only thing he’s found to help with severe pain sometimes, and asked me to be on the lookout for more for him. But I principally avoid roots during summer, when the energy is farther upward. I see you use the stalk inner cambium as well. Can you speak to the strength of that cambium during summer months?

Your pictures are magical and I’ve loved your storytelling. I’m rather new to the feralculture site, and this is my first post of any sort. My recent days included some rather long wanders exploring new areas, breakfasting entirely on thimbleberries, trailing blackberries, salmonberries, red huckleberries, and black cap raspberries. Delicious. And observing numerous bear scats, trying to determine seed and plant sources. When I lived in Haines, besides upland plants, I made a habit of sea weed and intertidal zone plant harvests- lots of nutrients!

I have a taste for “meatier” berries in general, such as saskatoon/serviceberries and salal berries. If I get around to making dried cakes of each, perhaps I’ll document here! The serviceberries have begun their fruiting on eastern Cascade slopes. The salad need a few more weeks.


(joan underhill) #10

hi @skystone, thanks for the generous contribution! :heart: i so love hearing about other folks’ foraging efforts, favorites, and curiosities. i also did my first pine pollen harvest this spring, got a small sandwich-baggy worth, put it in the fridge, and got busy and failed to process it in time, and it went sour on me. :frowning_face: i felt pretty terrible, was hoping to try out some medicinal uses, as i haven’t worked with it before, and i always regret not handling harvests promptly, it feels disrespectful to the plants… but at the same time, if i weren’t working toward harvesting whenever i had the chance, i’d have lost myself to insanity in the city by now. so basically, i plead crushing cultural damage and a mangled sense of time management & priorities, and beg the plants’ forgiveness.

re: fireweed & thimbleberry for tea: fireweed is a pretty famous tea in its own right, great for balancing out digestive upset (works both directions, depending on what your body needs). i know both @yukonagnes and @jenniferocious have been experimenting with the fermented version, and i’m really curious to see their recipes & hear about their experiences once they’ve tried it a few times. supposedly fireweed tea was used as a ‘real tea’ substitute in russia/eastern europe during times when imported tea was unavailable. it does actually taste pretty similar.

thimbleberry - yes, i use it similarly to raspberry, & consider it pretty mild in flavor & effect. and yes, the fresh, young leaves are delicious to use in salads or as a food wrapper. from ‘medicinal flora of the alaska natives’ (pdf link in that other topic i created recently):

there’s also this decent blog post about use medicinally (mainly describing it as astringent, and thus toning, & a source of various vitamins & minerals, the minerals of which can only be utilized from an infusion or decoction):

& another, with slightly more helpful references to actual books, and more cultural information:

the labrador tea ‘look-similar’:

i call it a ‘look-similar’ vs. look-alike as it doesn’t look all that similar to me except for overall leaf shape & the fact that the flowers are at the top of the stalk. i’ve been warned by a number of people, both here in southeast and in the interior, to watch out for the ‘poisonous’ labrador tea ‘look-alike’, and this is the first time i’ve seen anything even vaguely similar. this, apparently, is ‘sheep laurel’ or Kalmia angustifolia. the leaves are not as leathery, have smooth, lighter undersides (no fuzz), do not have the characteristic labrador-tea aroma, and the flower cluster is shaped differently and is, obviously, pink when blooming. aside from that, the stem also appears pretty different, as it looks rather smooth and has nodes along its length, while labrador tea has a rougher, woodier stem with a bit of a bark-y exterior.

here’s where i found the name of the look-similar:

regarding the ‘mint-family’ plant… good question!!! i only touched its stem briefly, so perhaps my fingers deceived me, because the sensation of a square stem was what led me to refer to it as mint-family, but it does look Strikingly like the brooklime you linked to. next time i’m out there i’ll feel & look more closely & let you know.

we’re thrilled to live around devil’s club for the same reason as your friend - years before we lived here, my partner had told me devil’s club salve was the only plant-based pain killer that was really, impressively effective for severe joint & tendon pains for him. this was my first batch of salve, and i’m very happy with its effectiveness so far. i’m told that if you ask 8 people whether to use devil’s club root inner bark or stalk inner bark, you’ll get at least 10 different answers. various locals have told me that basically, each person has their preference as to When to harvest and which Part to harvest, and that all are sticking to those preferences, apparently with success. yes, i would personally also agree that avoiding a root harvest during summer is wise, but the stalk inner bark still seemed very potent even though it’s early summer. here’s some good devil’s club information from an acquaintance of mine who’s got a lot of experience with local medicinals & edibles in southeast alaska:

i’m jealous of your breakfasts lately!! meandering morning berry-harvests are one of my chiefest pleasures in life :heart: we only have salmonberries here so far, and just barely the first few huckleberries. no raspberries or blackberries to speak of, and thimbleberries will be the next to pop after the huckleberries finish ripening. then the blueberries & salal, around the same time. i’m really thankful this seems to be a good berry year so far -knock on wood- as last year (my first year here in southeast) was a terrible one. i’m looking forward to some delicious harvests.

congrats on your first post! thanks for sharing so wonderfully, and welcome to feralculture :slight_smile: