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Drink to your health

Native plants, even devil's club, can be used to make teas and other tasty and healthful edibles, drinks and concoctions

Posted: February 24, 2013 - 1:06am
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Libby Watanabe talks about traditional gathering and use of native plants during the Edible Art of Place lecture at the University of Alaska Southeast on Friday.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Libby Watanabe talks about traditional gathering and use of native plants during the Edible Art of Place lecture at the University of Alaska Southeast on Friday.

It’s not spring yet in Juneau — that may have made the spread of devil’s club stalks on the table at the front of the Glacier View room at the University significantly less intimidating. Each stalk was the color of dried glass and densely covered with delicate but sharp spines. Libby Watanabe, an Alaska Native dietician who now works in healthcare administration at SEARHC, expected everyone to get hands-on with the devil’s club. Less intimidating was a glass jar with a couple sprays of hemlock and of a plant known locally as either Hudson Bay Tea or Labrador Tea — but it was the devil’s club she’d really be focusing on.

The presentations so far have proven to be more than a lecture by the slated speaker, but a collaboration with other knowledgeable audience members. Elders like Helen Watkins can be spotted in the audience. Watanabe also introduced her mother, Gerry Williams, sitting toward the back — she and Watkins will be presenting at the April Art of Place. And several others were acknowledged with greetings in Tlingit, Eagle and Raven moieties and various clan houses.

“I owe 100 percent of what I know about local and traditional food gathering and preservation to her. And it was her influence and love for our land and gathering … that really inspired me to become a registered and licensed dietician.”

In brief, Hudson Bay Tea or Labrador tea makes a tasty brew, but it doesn’t have the medicinal properties of devil’s club, “As far as I know, just caffeine,” Watanabe said.

Watkins, seated in the front row, sampled some of the dried, ground leaves and offered some further advice.

“It’s very good when you feel like you’re catching a cold. And when the tea(pot) is empty, you can add more water and you’ll have a second pot, and fill it halfway and you’ll probably get a third pot — a handful goes a long way for the tea.”

While preparation is good to know, perhaps the most valuable information was shared after Watkins talked about harvesting a lookalike.

“I saw a big field at the end of … North Douglas. You go to the end of the road and it’s just filled with tea. And I gathered some, but it’s not, it looks like tea but it doesn’t have the aroma of tea, so I threw a gallon away because it’s not the right Hudson Bay Tea.”

Watanabe expounded on the importance of properly identifying plants for use. Labrador or Hudson Bay Tea has been confused with poisonous bog laurel before, she said, prompting her to share a pocket-size and waterproof book, “Wild, Edible and Medicinal Plants,” written by Carol Biggs, with some help from Marie Olson, and featuring vibrant photographs of useful plants.

In addition to being certain one prepares a plant properly and that one has the correct plant, a woman suggested not drinking too much Labrador Tea as it might have certain laxative qualities.

But devil’s club — S’axt — is the wonder of the plant world, and possibly a wonder of the medical world. It was certainly the star of the show. Watanabe had a list on the board of the many uses of the prickly plant, from tea to oil to ointment.

There was tea to share, it was lightly flavored and had a sheen of a light oil, and, a member of the ginseng family, it is said to lower blood sugar levels — Watanabe recommended only taking a small serving to avoid lightheadedness among the inexperienced devil’s club tea drinkers (Watanabe also mentioned that devil’s club tea can be mixed with mint tea for a more pleasant flavor, though it was quite mild and not at all offensive).

“I think the most amazing plant in Alaska, to me, is S’axt. The reason I say that is because it is such a powerful plant that it has many different ways that you can utilize it. You can pick it year round. It grows practically everywhere.” Watanabe said.

But this wonderful plant is also a bit mysterious, she pointed out, “A lot of the scientific journals and publications and technically advanced labs could not identify the active properties in S’axt, and to me that’s amazing.”

“Our people truly cherish the plant as more than just the plant but a spiritual meaning because of the strength and power and very simple properties that it holds.”

Devil’s club can make a tea, as previously mentioned, and a jelly, which most attendees received as a gift for attending, as well as oils, ointments and lip balms. Most of these recipes and methods for harvest and preparation are contained in a book, available at Sealaska Watanabe said, by Pauline Duncan, called “Tlingit Recipes of Today and Long Ago.” Watanabe said Duncan has been extremely generous in sharing all she knows.

“People use the tea and cool it off and serve it cool to strengthen and purify, so you’ll see it used in traditional ceremonies.”

For harvesting, Watanabe has a favorite time of year, though the availability of S’axt is probably another perk.

“In early spring is the best time if you want to avoid the super-sharp thorns that will easily pierce your skin, and I’m speaking from personal knowledge of that … but you can pick it year round.”

Watanabe also recommended picking away from roads and residential or industrial waste. She picked the stalks on the table off a trail near where she lives, urging people to “Make sure that what you pick is as fresh and pure as possibly can be.”

Audience members were then invited to head to the front to learn to prepare devil’s club for tea. The necessary tools are a tough work glove and a knife.

With the glove on the non-dominant hand, grasp the stalk, hopefully one won’t get poked too much, and with the dull side of the blade, begin scraping the spines from the bark, but don’t get overzealous, the bark of the plant is what is used for the tea.

Once the devil’s club has been de-weaponized, the sharp side of the blade is used to scrape the dried-grass colored bark, down to the green, from the stalk. (In other seasons it is probably all green)

The scrapings will be dried fully and then ground, and they can be put a teaspoon at a time into teabags to make things simple. Or it can be prepared as loose leaf tea would be.

While there may not be scientific research backing up all the claims of the wonders of devil’s club, a few audience members had stories to share of the healing properties of the plant. Watkins said she made devil’s club tea part of her daily regiment after being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1985 and had a mastectomy. She said she’s been clear ever since and that she sends tea to any friends or relatives dealing with cancer.

Another woman in the audience shared about an infection that went to the bone in her toe. She said she was told she would lose the toe, but started drinking devil’s club tea and amazed herself and the doctor when the infection healed.

Both women acknowledged the use of modern medicines in addition to the devil’s club tea, but are confident the plant’s medicinal properties aided in recovery and maintaining better health.

So, instead of cursing the spiny stalks while hiking, consider harvesting S’axt and learning to appreciate it as a gift from the land with terrible packaging.

• Contact Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at melissa.griffiths@juneauempire.com.

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