The Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary of English says that the term “weed” means “a plant of no value and usually of rank growth” and “one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable plants.” And so when we talk about “seaweeds,” maybe we are using the wrong term. The Japanese refer to these aquatic plants as “sea vegetables.”
In fact, many of these plants are of great value both for the ecological system in which they live and for human consumption. I suspect that many people do not know that the chemicals from aquatic plants are found in toothpaste, shampoo, beer and many other products. In some places in the United States “seaweeds” are the basis of some very productive industries.
The Japanese use about 20 different types of sea vegetables in their diet. In the Asian food section of stores around the world people can find “nori”, “wakami” and even “konbu” as cooking ingredients.* In Japan, a very expensive delicacy is “herring eggs on seaweed.”
The Tlingit and other Native Alaskan people also discovered the value of some of these plants. For example, some Tlingit calendars have a period called the time when “plants that grow in the water month.” They used what is today called “black seaweed,” and “sea ribbon.” Both plants have great nutritional value. In fact, a home economist and dietitian once said to me, “If you could just get kids to eat salmon and black seaweed and berries, it would be almost a perfect diet.”
Some of these plants can and have been cultivated. One evening in Japan, a man who cultivated mushrooms on land and sea vegetables, simply said, “We are farmers, and we farm under water too.”
When one speaks of the “wisdom of the elders,” they may not have known about galaxies in the universe, genes in DNA, or sub-particles of atoms, but they certainly had a vast knowledge of the resources available in their local areas.
As spring comes to Southeast Alaska, for those who would like to expand their knowledge of the plants and resources around us and how to include them in one’s diet, the U.S. Forest Service in 2005 published a third edition of a 1984 publication that is a great source of information. The English title is “Our Food Is Our Tlingit Way of Life ; Excerpts from Oral Interviews by Richard G. Newton and Madonna Moss.”
• For more information on nutritional value of these plants, see “Seaweed Cultivation in Minamikaybe, Hokkaido, Japan: Potential for Similar Mariculture in Southeastern Alaska.” by Wallace M. Olson, Marine Advisory Bulletin # 27, University of Alaska, Alaska Sea Grant College Program. January, 1987.
• Wally Olson is an Auke Bay resident.