The Gift of Local Fare
March brings new shoots of seaweed to Alaska’s southern coast, providing fresh nutrition at a lean time of year for wild foods.
“Seaweeds are very nutritious,” says Vivian Faith Prescott, a lifelong Wrangell resident and author of My Father’s Smokehouse, a book on traditional Alaskan foods. “And they’re easy to gather.”
Prescott says seaweeds have been a reliable staple for as long as people have lived on Alaska’s coast. She says spring is the best time to gather them. “Like some other plants, seaweeds can get stiff and lose their flavor later in summer,” she says.
Prescott collects several seaweeds, including ribbon seaweed (Palmaria mollis, called k’áach’ in Lingit) and popweed (Fucus gardneri, called tayeidí in Lingit). But she says many species are edible and recommends Common Edible Seaweeds in the Gulf of Alaska by Dr. Dolly Garza as a resource.
Prescott’s favorite vessel for gathering seaweed is a woven red cedar basket purchased from local Wrangell artist, Faye Khort, who said she wanted the basket put to use, not sitting on a shelf.
On March days when the tide is out, she navigates the slippery intertidal zone, filling her basket with fresh seaweed clippings. Or she walks the upper beach after spring storms, which uproot new growth and pile it at the high tide line.
Prescott keeps in mind traditional rules passed down among the region’s Tlingit people. For instance, she says, never take more than you need so that there’s always seaweed for the shellfish and other creatures that rely on it for habitat and for elders who may come to harvest later.
Seaweeds are loaded with vitamins A and C and other nutrients. Often, people grind them into seasonings for soups and other foods. Sometimes Prescott fills baggies with dried seaweed and donates them to local elders.
“Or I’ll chop it up and eat it fresh,” she says. “It goes great with everything: eggs, casseroles, and especially any kind of fish.”