Spring Flowers and Plants in Alaska
Springtime in Alaska! Baby harbor seal pups, young bears, and juvenile bald eagles saw humans for their first times over the last few days. I hope we left a good impression. And with the baby animals of springtime also come spring shoots, leaves, and flowers. There have been a few favorites noticed this week as we wander through meadows and bogs full of color.
Chocolate Lilies are one of the first plants that stand out in the crowds of color. They have a dark purple or brown colored lily that hangs from a straight stalk 12 to 24 inches off the ground. This plant is also called Indian Rice. In late summer you can harvest and eat the bulbs which are full of rice-like kernels containing sugars and starches. Traditionally, the bulbs were dried and ground and used as flour, but they can also be steamed or stir-fried and added to a meal.
Unfortunately, getting close to the flowers is not nearly as pleasant as looking at them, because though the flowers are beautiful, the blossoms perfume the air with a manure-like odor. According to stories, giving bouquets of chocolate lilies to unsuspecting recipients has been a favorite joke of children for a long time.
Salmon berry bushes also bring interest to the passerby, as these bushes can be very large and full of beautiful magenta blossoms. Rubus Spectabilis, which translates to “bramble, exceptionally showy,” is a member of the rose family and can make dense thickets of shrub up to seven feet tall.
The flowers are a humming bird favorite which lures both birders and photographers to sit by these bushes. The blossoms and buds are edible, but it feels blasphemous to eat them before they have the chance to morph into thumbnail sized ripe, pink, delicious berries. This plant doesn’t just provide us with berries though, infusions made from its leaves, bark, and roots are used as herbal treatments for diarrhea and dysentery. A word of caution though is to use only fresh or fully dried leaves because wilted leaves are mildly toxic.
One plant noticed by all, revered by herbalists yet despised by hikers, is Devil's Club. This is the plant we are all aware of as we hike through the forest. It has sharp prickles on woody stems and on the underside of the dinner plate-sized leaves. Devil's Club can grow to be 6 to 10 feet tall showing a cluster of white flowers at the top that will mature to a red color later in the season.
The scientific name for this plant is fitting; Echinopanax horridum. Echino is derived from Greek meaning "spiny," panax refers to the ginseng family to which the plant belongs and means “all healing,” and horridum is Latin for "prickly." This plant is twice prickly, but nevertheless all healing.
The young shoots of this plant can be eaten raw as a snack, in a salad, or dried as a herb to be used later in soups if they are harvested before the spines get hard and woody. The roots of Devil's Club should also be harvested in early spring as soon as the ground is workable. Once dried, the roots and inner bark make a tea that is cleansing and stabilizing. It is said to prevent cancer, stabilize blood sugars of diabetics, and relieve headaches or cold symptoms. A poultice made from the pounded fresh root is also an antibiotic and helps to keep down infections in wounds. No wonder the Tlingit thought this plant has powers that transcend into the spiritual world!
Enjoying spring flowers in an Alaskan meadow