Forest Foraging on Slaughter Gulch Trail
By Jennifer Tarnacki
He walked in and said, “There’s Devil’s Club out there.” That started it. The next morning we were climbing up the mossy waterfall on the Slaughter Gulch trail in Cooper Landing, scrambling on the slippery rocks, dog scampering around our feet. The densely mossy trails that meander through spruce and alder up here are bear paths, tamped down with generations of ancient ursine footsteps.
The Devil’s Walking Stick, as it’s been called, grows best in my favorite place: water- logged, forest cascades. What we coveted was mean, covered in spikes, but no match for our determination. He dug the roots and scraped the bark, while I gathered dandelion roots for a spring tonic. Forest foraging for detoxification, I brewed the tea and imagined the minerals working their magic.
Stepping into the forest to forage is an act of time travel. One of the oldest human occupations was to discern the edible from the poisonous, the nutritious from the toxic, to look past the “green wall.” In the past, those who foraged with knowledge of wild foods were the ones who survived. Wild food grown in a harsh northern climate is even more precious. To capture and harness these foods for our own potential requires the skill and knowledge of seasonality, the primal art of the forage.
All along the Slaughter Gulch Trail, dandelions, nettles, spruce tips and fiddlehead ferns bloom from the mossy undergrowth. Wild edibles come in many forms: greens, fungi, seeds, nuts, berries, roots, tubers and flowers. There’s plenty to forage in the Alaskan summer, and preparations are only limited by one’s culinary imagination.
Wild foods contain a very specific type of nutrition: vitamins and minerals, also known as micronutrients. Though taking up very small amounts of calories, edibles like dandelions, nettles, and spruce tips provide serious nutrition. They are loaded with vitamins A and C, as well as all sorts of minerals. Quality, not quantity, is where wild foods really shine, says Sunny Savage, in her TED talk on the gift of wild foods.
Since processed food lacks many of the vitamins and minerals we need in our diets, obesity and chronic illness have been associated with micronutrient deficiencies. And according to a 2015 article, 85% of Americans do not consume the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recommended daily intakes of the most important vitamins and minerals.
Reorienting ourselves to these “weeds” entails a powerful dietary paradigm shift. Stinging nettles and dandelions, prolific and often thought of as nothing more than nuisances, are powerhouses of micronutrients. Free food, found growing in our own backyard, that doesn’t require planting, gardening, or weeding.
For instance, one cup of dandelion greens contains 10 percent of the recommended daily intake of calcium, 9 percent iron, and 32 percent vitamin C.
That means that a cup of dandelions contains more calcium than a glass of milk, more iron than spinach, and as much vitamin A as carrots. It’s also full of Vitamin K, coming in at a whopping 535% daily intake.
Stinging nettles, those blasted weeds, are unsung nutrient powerhouses as well, with vitamins A, C, D, E and K, high iron and chlorophyll content, as well as calcium, magnesium, and zinc.
In addition to nutrition, wild edibles often contain medicinal qualities when prepared as teas or infusions. Stinging nettle has been used for centuries worldwide as a health tonic.
Brewing tonics out of spring’s first green shoots seems to be a metaphor for rejuvenation and renewal, as capturing their vitality often has the effect of refreshing the very spirit.
Certain plants, along with providing nutrition or medicine, inspire our imagination, cause us to take note; to commune. Take Oplopanax horridus as an example. One of the more fascinating and paradoxical wild edibles, both healing and injurious, sometimes called “Alaskan ginseng” and “Tlingit aspirin”: Devil’s Club.
According to an ethnobotanical review by the American Botanical Council, Devils Club is the most important spiritual and medicinal plant to most indigenous peoples who live within its range. Different parts of this plant are used by over 38 linguistic groups for over 34 categories of physical ailment, as well as many spiritual applications. Many indigenous groups, such as the Ditidaht, consider Devil’s Club sacred, a link between the ordinary or profane world and the supernatural or spirit world.
Abundant in the Tongass National Forest and an important plant to the Tlingit, Devils Club grows wherever water flows. It thrives in wet, dense, shaded forest habitats, and is most abundant in conifer forests. Thorny and covered with nasty spines, it is seen as blessed with a powerful protection. Its thorny branches have been used as protective amulets to ward off evil spirits.
The Devils Club leaf shoots as well as the bark can be eaten or drank. It can be steeped into teas, mashed it into salves, chewed, sipped and steamed for its restorative properties. It has traditionally been used to cure ailments ranging from minor colds to stomach ulcers, tuberculosis and hypoglycemia. It’s peculiar spiritual healing remains unverifiable, one of those things you must experience to believe.
These bonds with nature have been part of indigenous cultures for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. We are the lineage of a long line of successful hunter gatherers. To forage and feast is in our very DNA. In modern times, the effect might be different, but equally as relevant.
A 2016 meta study conducted and published in the Public Library of Science has shown communing with nature to be beneficial to both human well-being and conservation. Foraging, communing with purpose, is an intimate connection, directly eating what nature provides to nourish your own body.
The psychic implications could be subconscious but profoundly connecting, weaving us deeper and more bodily into the ecological web of which we are a part. This, in times of ecological destruction, could indeed be an amulet of protection.
Be careful in the Devil’s Club as it’s very aptly named, though it is nothing to phase an Alaskan.