Plants That We Eat: From the Traditional Wisdom of the Inupiat Elders of Northwest Alaska

Plants That We Eat: From the Traditional Wisdom of the Inupiat Elders of Northwest Alaska

by Anore Jones


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Plants That We Eat: From the Traditional Wisdom of the Inupiat Elders of Northwest Alaska by Anore Jones

Plants That We Eat is a handy, easy-to-use guide to the abundant edible plant life of Alaska. Drawing on centuries of knowledge that have kept the Inupiat people healthy, the book uses photographs and descriptions to teach newcomers to the north how to recognize which plants are safe to eat. Organized by seasons, from spring greens through summer berries to autumn roots, the book also features an appendix identifying poisonous plants.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781602230743
Publisher: University of Alaska Press
Publication date: 07/28/2010
Pages: 241
Sales rank: 787,605
Product dimensions: 7.04(w) x 9.94(h) x 0.66(d)

About the Author

Anore Jones is a botanist and the author of Iqaluich: Fish That We Eat.

First Chapter


Nauriat Nigiñaqtuat
By Anore Jones

University of Alaska Press

Copyright © 2010 University of Alaska Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-60223-074-3

Chapter One

Leaves Used with Seal Oil

Raw in Seal Oil

The Iñupiat way of storing greens or vegetables in seal oil is an excellent way to preserve nutrients. Since the oil is stored in a cold, dark place to keep it fresh, the greens are also well preserved. Furthermore, the oil keeps air away from the greens, which would destroy the vitamin C. Some of the oil-soluble vitamins-A, D, and E-in the plants go into the oil to be eaten there. The golden oil gets a greenish color. Rodahl (1952) found the vitamin content of plants stored in oil quite high, even after long storage.

The proper Iñupiaq way to eat leaves is to gather them and put them into seal oil. Then, as you eat the oil with meat or fish, you also eat the greens. Iñupiat often prefer to eat other vegetables with seal oil too, perhaps intuitively knowing that the oil/fat is necessary with the greens during digestion in order for the body to utilize the oil-soluble vitamins. It's similar to our cuisine-we eat celery and peanut butter, oil dressing on a salad, vegetables with dip, or cooked and buttered greens.

To Store Green Leaves in Seal Oil

The surface of the leaves must be dry before they go into the seal oil. Moisture might be from rain, dew, washing, or sweat from being inside a plastic bag. For this reason, cloth sacks are best to use for picking because they allow moisture given off by the plant to evaporate. After you put leaves into oil, stir them around to work out trapped air bubbles. As they age in oil, the fresh greens form gases, which should be released once a week, or as necessary, by unscrewing a jar lid or opening a poke or plastic bag or bucket to let any gases out. The less moisture within the leaves, the better they will keep.

The leaves that keep the best in oil through freezing and thawing are the willow, sea lovage, and pink plume. Whatever they may lack in lettuce tenderness they make up for in durability. Other plants temporarily stored in oil include sourdock, saxifrage, fireweed, wild rhubarb, wild celery, and garden vegetables like celery, carrot, turnip, and parsley. Since vegetables are usually eaten with seal oil during meals of quaq (frozen meat or fish) or paniqtuq (dried meat or fish), they are often cut into serving size and stored in the container of oil that is brought to the table. This temporary storage is just while they are being eaten, because these vegetables have too much moisture or are not suitable for long storage.

Oil can handle only a certain amount of moisture. A twenty-gallon barrel of oil will easily handle a gallon of fresh leaves. If you let those leaves dry for a day first, the same amount of oil will handle more leaves. If you put too many leaves into oil, their moisture will cause the leaves to sink and ferment. This forms a sludge on the bottom that should not be eaten, especially when meat or fish has also been stored in that oil. Oil may turn rancid from oxidation, but it never "rots" to become poisonous. However, water or any moist food could rot in the oil and form poisons if the temperature stays too warm (more than 40?F). Prepared and stored properly in a sigluaq, the fermented leaves and meats are safe to eat raw in seal oil.

Since the willows are so abundant everywhere, and they are among the first fresh green in the springtime, we will start with them.

If you haven't yet learned to enjoy willow buds, know that you are a learner. Try some every chance you get. After several springs, you will find that you have grown very fond of them. I have been nibbling willows for the last twenty years, and each spring I enjoy eating them anew.

Of the forty species of willows in Alaska, thirteen grow in this area. Of these, the two most common are also the best to eat, ukpik and sura. Although no willow will hurt you, some do not taste good. Be sure to learn the best ones-the sura (leaves of the diamond willow) and the natatquq and misruquq (stem and scrape of river willow).

The parts eaten on several types of willows include:

very new leaves, the bud not yet fully grown

the tender, new growing tips of the shoots and roots after they are peeled

the juicy layer between the bark and wood of the shoots or roots (in Iñupiat, the scrape or misruq; or the inner bark and vascular cambium)

Laura Smith of Selawik described one low-growing tundra willow that has roots that taste like peppermints when peeled.

Tents pitched in the river willows These sura leaves are mature and too old to eat.

Uqpik, -piik, -piich, Uqpisugruk Big Willow (C), river Willow, Felty-leafed Willow, Alaska Willow

Salix alaxensis

(Andersson) Coville (tree or shrub)

Willow Family (Salicaceae)

Grows 1 to 20 feet high and up to 7 inches in diameter in our area. Common along rivers, often covering large areas. Important moose and ptarmigan feed.

Flowers are the pussy willows, qipmiuraq, qipmiurat, meaning "little willow puppies." These bloom before breakup, while the snow is still on the ground and before any other leaves or flowers appear. Kids sometimes suck the sweet nectar.

Leaf buds younger than those shown in this drawing can be eaten, but Iñupiat usually eat only the young leaves of sura.

Full-grown leaves are edible but too old to be palatable.

Tops-dull, dark green, hairless.

Bottoms-covered with dense, white felt.

Stem-this is the natatquq, or young stem growth. Newly growing, a stem is smooth and green; wood inside is soft and juicy. Year-old stem is thick and fuzzy and has become woody inside.

Older stems- smooth, coppery, green-brown.

Old bark-gray and rough.

Pussy willow stem in early May. Two months later, natatquq will have grown out of this stem.

Natatquq-peel and eat the tender, new shoot. Toward the tip it becomes smaller and harder to peel. The other direction peels more easily. As the woody tissue increases, just chew and suck the juice out without eating the fibers.

Peeled willow stem is covered by misrug.

Misruq is the "cambium," or juicy layer between the bark and wood.

Peel the willow; scrape off the misruq or juicy cambium.

Brown bark peeled off.


Pick and eat uqpik as shown in the drawings. Today, only the scrape and the soft, peeled ends of the new shoots are eaten from the river willow.

Nutritionally, the shoots, leaves, and scrape are all very rich in vitamin C and are good sources of other vitamins. Vitamin C is needed by our bodies every day, and it is good to know you can find it from the common willows.

As the river breaks up, the new leaf buds swell and burst with tiny green leaves. These taste OK when they are very small and smooth, but about the time they get big enough to pick easily, they also get tough and fuzzy-felty textured.

As the leaves grow to full size, their stems also lengthen. When these stems get big enough (4 to 18 inches), they are good to eat. After first carefully peeling off the bark, the soft, green new wood (natatquq) tastes cool, sweet, and juicy, somewhat like cucumbers or watermelon.

As the new shoots grow too old and woody, you can eat the cambium (misruguq), which also tastes like cucumbers or watermelons. The bark comes off easily, and you can scrape, suck, or chew off the juicy growing layer from the wood. It's more a cool, refreshing taste than a food. Today, the old people enjoy eating cucumber because it reminds them of when they were children at fish camp, playing among the willows and eating the natatquq and misruguq.

All these different stages of willow can sometimes be available at the same time near a large snow bank. There, the first willows to melt out can have 2-foot-long new shoots when pussy willows are still blooming over disappearing snow.

Kanunniq, -niik, -nich Diamond Willow Tree Sura, -surat, or Ikutautchiaq Young leaf Buds Sura Willow, Diamond-leaf Willow

Salix pulchra Cham. (tree or shrub)

Willow Family (Salicaceae)

Grows all over Alaska. The bushes are short (1 inch to 4 feet) on the tundra and in the mountains, taller in the forests and swamps (up to 6 feet). This is the main willow to eat, although several others have been used, and none are harmful.

Sura are young willow leaves at the best stage to pick.

Budscale covers the leaf bud all winter. It is stiff, shiny, and dark brown.

Stipules from last year's leaves are found at the base of each bud. They are small, brown, papery, thin, and leaflike. Some stay on for 2 to 3 years.

Dead leaves from last year. At least a few (and often many) remain on the branch. They are a good clue that the willow is sura.

Stem is smooth and dark brown. Some young twigs have a fine fuzz that they lose with age.


This is the only willow seriously harvested anymore. Pick very early in the spring when the leaves are 1/2 inch to 1 1/2 inches long. These are the mildest-tasting sura and are best when picked off the stem individually. But that is tedious. One compromise is to pick larger leaves, which have a stronger taste, or to strip the buds off long, smooth shoots by pinching as you pull.

You have to watch closely to catch them just right. You may wait and wait for sura to be ready to pick, then, if you don't watch, they will be too big-they grow fast in the warmth and continual light of springtime.

Preserve in seal oil right after you pick them. Sura keeps very well, even all year if stored very cold or frozen. It can be thawed and frozen many times. Upriver, the old-timers put sura in their fish oil when they had no seal oil.

Eat whenever you eat seal oil with meat or fish. Also, nibble from the plant as you walk along. Don't expect the first taste to be good. It will taste pithy, slightly bitter, and astringent. Know that with sura you have to endure the bad taste to get to the reward. As you chew for a minute or two, the taste becomes sweet and refreshing. When you get used to the taste, you can eat a lot.

With sura, it's the aftertaste that counts. It does more than just taste nice-it makes your mouth smell good too, not only to you but also to others. An unsuspecting friend passing by might comment, "Hey, your breath smells good-what are you eating?" There is some magic in sura.

Nontraditional uses. Sura can also be dried and used as tea or in soups. One person even canned the leaves and said they were good. Sura is also good in fresh salads.

Nutritionally, sura is seven to ten times richer in vitamin C than oranges! That makes these leaves an important addition to our diets. In fact, this willow is the highest Alaskan plant of those tested in vitamin A and calcium and second highest to rosehips in vitamin C. (Calcium is the most abundant mineral in our body-99 percent being in our bones and teeth. Calcium from our food is needed daily for growth and for the normal activity of our blood, heart, and nerves.) Since these nutrients are often inadequate in today's Eskimo diets, sura is still an important food that is available to everyone.

Willow catkins, which have gone to seed. They are old and rusty brown and may stay on the branch over the winter. (When you see these old, reddish brown leaves and catkins plus old, narrow stipules among the new buds, you know for sure it is sura.)

Mature leaves are smooth and do not have hairs. The tops are dark green, and the bottoms are lighter with edges that are usually smooth. They are 1 to 2 1/2 inches long.

Pictured are midsummer leaves-edible, but too old, tough, and bitter to enjoy.

Tukkaayuk, -yuuk, -yuich Sea lovage

Ligusticum scoticum L. ssp. hultenii (Fern.) Calder and Taylor

Parsley Family (Umbelliferae)

Grows in gravelly soil along the coast, among the beach grasses and/or along the edges of saltwater lagoons. It reaches 2 feet high.

Flowers have tiny petals that are white or pinkish. Several flowers grow from the end of every ray, 7 to 11 rays in each umbel.

Leaves are glossy and smooth with veins. They are dark green and have a pungent smell and taste.

Stem-leaves are smaller and often violet-colored.

Stem is smooth, reddish violet at the base and hollow. Each full leaf, growing from the base of the plant, has three clusters of three leaflets, 1 to 3 inches long.

Roots are thick and yellow.


Pick the earliest, half-grown leaves. They are sweet, mild, tender, and easy to pick before other leaves and grasses grow around them. Although early leaves are best, you can pick any that are young, soft, and green, even all summer long. To pick from a full-grown plant, sit down beside it, part the older leaves, and pick the young ones in the center. For cooking, pick both leaves and stem; for storing in oil, pick only leaf clusters.

Eat tukkaayuk raw in seal oil any time you eat oil, for example, with dried meat or boiled fish. This is the only Iñupiaq way to eat them. Fresh, they have a pungent, spicy flavor stronger than both celery and parsley together. Both cooking and storing tukkaayuk in oil makes them sweeter and milder flavored.

The first new leaves in spring are the best and easiest to pick.

Pinch each leaf cluster off to store in oil. This eliminates most of the succulent stem but includes enough to hold the three leaf clusters.

Hook made from peeled willow

Then you can hook them out of the seal-oil barrel. Otherwise, they become lost on the bottom.

Nontraditional uses. Other ways to fix tukkaayuk that have not been used traditionally in this region are raw in salads and boiled up as a hot green to eat with butter. Aleuts and Indians boil a lot with meat and especially fish. (This is one of my favorite ways.) The spicy flavor goes into the fish as the leaves cook, making both taste better. The leaves and fish are drained and eaten together, hot or cold, with seal oil. Some people find the leaves too sweet when fixed this way. Some people put tukkaayuk and a little water in a plastic bag, freeze, then cook it later with fish. The leaves also dry well for use in soups and as an herb or a spice.

Preserve tukkaayuke in seal oil, where the leaves will stay bright green and become sweet during the first few weeks. They taste delicious this way-children love them. As they are stored into the summer, they gradually turn dull green and lose their spicy flavor and sweetness. The color and flavor seem to go into the seal oil, because the vitamins A, D, and E go into the oil, too. Tukkaayuk keep very well in oil-all summer in the sigluaq and all winter frozen. They can be frozen and thawed many times and never become mushy.

Nutritionally, the fresh leaves are a good source of vitamins A and C. Oil-stored leaves retain their vitamins throughout the winter (Rodahl 1952). Tukkaayuk also provide roughage and a touch of color to brighten up a winter meal of meat.

Some people recognize plants only at the young stage, when they are proper to eat. Later, when flowers appear, people see them as different plants, which (in one way) they are-they are no longer the young, edible plants.

Ikuusuk, -suuk, -suich Wild Celery

Angelica lucida L.

Parsley Family (Umbelliferae)

Grows along the coast both in moist places and among the dryer beach grasses. It usually reaches only 2 to 3 feet in our area but may grow 1 to 4 feet tall.

Flowers are tiny, greenish white, and strong smelling.

Umbrell has 20 to 40 rays.

Leaves are thick, coarse, and medium to dark green. They grow 1 to 3 inches long, have no hairs, and are wrinkled.

Each leaf is made up of three groups of leaflets. Thin but broad and enlarged leaf stems surround the main stem.

Stem is thick, hollow, and green, becoming somewhat woody with age. It lasts through the winter as a dried pale yellow or tan stalk.

Roots are hollow inside and not eaten locally.

This drawing is of a full-grown plant, too old to eat.

Old stalks from last year mark where the new ones, which are good to eat, will come up.

To eat, peel the stalk as you would peel tough garden celery.

Stalk with leaves removed.

SAFE TO EAT Wild Celery Angelica lucida Strong celery smell

Flower umbel dense, stiff, and mostly flat-topped

Leaf wide. veins of leaf go to tip of serrations. robust, stiff plant.

Greatly enlarged base of leaf stem clasps main stem. Edges are wavy. Distinctively ribbed stalk.

Root bulbous with hollow inside. Sometimes hollow has chambers.

DEADLY Poison Water Hemlock Cicuta mackenzieana Strong smell; waxy yellow resin.

Flower umbel loose, airy

Veins of leaf go to notch of serrations. Slender stems and leaves.

Base of leaf stem slightly enlarged and clasping main stem. Stalk smooth or faintly ribbed.

Roots thick, tuberous, strong-smelling and usually with distinct chambers.


Excerpted from PLANTS THAT WE EAT by Anore Jones Copyright © 2010 by University of Alaska Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface to the Second Edition ix

Preface to the First Edition xiii

Acknowledgment xv

Introduction xvii

Part I Green Leaves

Chapter 1 Leaves Used with Seal Oil 2

Uqpik (River Willow) 6

Sura (Diamond-leaf Willow) 9

Tukkaayuk (Sea Lovage) 12

Ikuusuk (Wild Celery) 16

Ippiq (Bistort) 21

Asriatchiaq (Brook Saxifrage or Salad Greens) 23

Pamiuqtaq (Fireweed) 25

Pautnaq (Dwarf Fireweed) 27

Paatitaaq (Wild Chive) 29

Part II Leaves: Cooked, Raw, and Fermented

Chapter 2 Cooked Leaves 34

Quagaq (Sourdock) 39

Atchaaqluk (Beach Greens) 49

Qusrimmaq (Wild Rhubarb) 54

Chapter 3 Raw and Fermented Leaves 64

Iviaqtuk (Roseioot) 66

Qutliutraq (Woolly Lousewort) 69

Part III Berries

Chapter 4 Most Important Berries 80

Aqpik (Salmonberry) 81

Asriavik (Bog or Alpine Blueberry) 88

Kikmiññaq (Lowbush Cranberry) 103

Paungaq (Blackberry) 113

Chapter 5 Less Used Berries 121

Tinnik (Kinnikinnick) 122

Igrurnnaq (Rosehip) 125

Aqpinnaq (Raspberry) 128

Qunmun sanmiruq (Bog Cranberry) 129

Nivinnaqutaq (Northern Red Currant) 130

Uqpinñaq (Highbush Cranberry) 131

American Red Raspberry 132

Kavlaq (Black Alpine Bearberry) 133

Anutvak (Red-Fruited Bearberry) 134

Soapberry, Btiffaloberry 135

Dwarf Dogwood, Bunchberry 137

Part IV Roots and Other Underground Parts

Chapter 6 Masru, Pifniq, Asaichak, and Aigaq 140

Masru (Eskimo Potato) 141

Pikniq (Tall Cottongrass) 148

Asiatchiaq (lie "little berry", from the horsetail plant) 150

Aigaq (Yellow Oxytrope) 152

Part V Tea and Medicinal Plants

Chapter 7 Tea and Medicinal Plants 156

Tilaaqqiuq (Labrador Tea) 157

Sargiq (Stinkweed) 159

Tulukkam asriaq (Common Mountain Juniper) 162

Milukataqpaq (Coltsfoot) 164

Napaaqtuq (White Spruce) 166

Napaaqtuq (Black Spruce) 170

Urgiiliq (Paper Birch) 171

Dwarf Birch 174

Nin$$$uq (Cottonwood Tree) 175

Teas and Medicines From Previously Listed Plants 176


A Storage Places for Leaves and Berries 182

B Containers for Storing Berries and Cooked or Fermented Leaves 184

C Akutuq (Eskimo ice Cream) 188

D Let the Animals Gather Your Food 194

E Nutritional Tables and Comments 199

F Warnings-Pollution, Mold, and Milk 202

G Poisonous Plants 206

Kigvaluich niginich (Poison Water Hemlock) 208

Death. Camas 211

Monkshood 213

Wild Flag, Iris 214

Wild Beach Pea 215

Wild Sweet Pea 216

Lupine 219

Argaigñaq (Mushrooms) 220

Glossary of Iñupiaq Words 221

Bibliography 227

Index 229

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