Alaska - Freshmen biology students got a mix of plant know-how and
culture (not the kind in a petri dish) this week.
High School biology teacher Henry Hopkins teaches an extensive plant
project, and as part of that he invited Tlingit Native Helen Watkins
to share her extensive local plant knowledge with his students.
are dozens of plants in Southeast Alaska that either produce foods
or have parts that can be eaten. Some plants, and trees, have medicinal,
recreational and storage value as well.
of the more versatile plants is the devil's club. It has big roots
and an ointment can be made from the plant. Watkins said she went
to a fish camp and was filleting a lot of salmon and remembers her
arm hurting badly. She put some devil's club ointment on and the
pain was gone. Watkins said some people make beads out of the portion
of devil's club that's above ground.
more mysterious plant is cow parsnip.
get anxious to eat it and I get it when it's really small,"
Watkins told the students. "It's a good idea to take an elder
with you, someone who knows the plant. This plant can also cause
burns on your skin. The juice is what causes it and you could end
up with a really big blister."
the most mysterious part about the plant is once you eat it, you
become immune to the component that causes the blisters, she said.
said there are several kinds of cow parsnip and all taste different.
She said there is one that tastes peppery, but her favorite is another
that's soft and has white fuzz on it.
told the class he's researched the immunity element of cow parsnip
and could find no scientific study of it.
a piece of Tlingit local knowledge that hasn't made it to the scientific
community," he said. "That would be a great science fair
project or research project."
spruce tree is another plant that has healing elements. Watkins
said the sap from spruce trees is highly recommended for cuts, bruises
and scratches. When she was young, she was cutting alder wood and
ended up breaking her thumbnail in half. She stuck sap from the
spruce tree on it, put on a bandage and it mended without infection.
Baskets can also be made from spruce tree roots.
are made out of cottonwood trees because they're the biggest.
are prominent in the area, including salmon berries, high bush and
low bush blueberries, huckleberries, fingerberries, raspberries,
currants - gray and red, smiling berries, cloudberries, strawberries,
two kinds of gooseberries, high bush cranberries, black blueberries
asparagus is gathered in June. Watkins said it's a favorite to use
in a food demonstration - adding a sliced onion, tomato and mayonnaise
for a salad.
a lot of food to be gathered from the beach," she said.
includes red sea ribbon, black seaweed and others.
food comes from the chocolate lily.
chocolate lily smells horrible, but it's beautiful," Watkins
said. "Underneath that stalk is rice."
said before people used bananas to mix in with berries, chocolate
lily rice was used.
went through other trees, plants and animal foods and creations
and let the students sample some salmon spread and seaweed. She
also described more family traditions and shared Tlingit names for
some of the plants. Some of the Tlingit plant names, Hopkins said,
will be on their next test.
Alexa Adelmeyer and Tori Fogg enjoyed the presentation.
was really cool learning about the Native culture," Adelmeyer
said she'd keep an eye out for the different plants they were shown.
most surprising to them was the devil's club and it's pain relieving
talk a lot about chemicals, plant chemical properties in science,"
Hopkins said. "So we talk about secondary metabolites like
tannins and the Tlingit local knowledge provides us with real life
uses for the scientific knowledge. Much of what we study and discover
in science is already well-known to the local native community and
is passed on in the form of vocal knowledge."
said the goal is to get students to understand there are no preservatives
in Native foods and also the variety available in Alaska.
lot of people don't know how many things are available here,"
she said. "But I grew up with it."
said she is one of 10 children in her family and while growing up,
her mother would always call her. She asked her mother why: "Because
I want you to learn," was the response.
wanted to get that point to the young adults," she said. "When
your mother or father calls you, they want you to continue your
learning. By looking at all the knowledge that all the elders know,
I think they would be more compatible if people would talk about
their culture because everybody has something to share."