Students get mix of plants, culture in Biology

Posted: Sunday, October 17, 2010

Freshmen biology students got a mix of plant know-how and culture (not the kind in a petri dish) this week.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Juneau-Douglas 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.

There 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.

One 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.

A more mysterious plant is cow parsnip.

"I 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."

Perhaps the most mysterious part about the plant is once you eat it, you become immune to the component that causes the blisters, she said.

Watkins 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.

Hopkins told the class he's researched the immunity element of cow parsnip and could find no scientific study of it.

"That's 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."

The 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.

Canoes are made out of cottonwood trees because they're the biggest.

Berries 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 and others.

Beach 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.

"There's a lot of food to be gathered from the beach," she said.

That includes red sea ribbon, black seaweed and others.

Another food comes from the chocolate lily.

"The chocolate lily smells horrible, but it's beautiful," Watkins said. "Underneath that stalk is rice."

She said before people used bananas to mix in with berries, chocolate lily rice was used.

Watkins 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.

Students Alexa Adelmeyer and Tori Fogg enjoyed the presentation.

"It was really cool learning about the Native culture," Adelmeyer said.

Fogg said she'd keep an eye out for the different plants they were shown.

The most surprising to them was the devil's club and it's pain relieving qualities.

"We 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."

Watkins said the goal is to get students to understand there are no preservatives in Native foods and also the variety available in Alaska.

"A lot of people don't know how many things are available here," she said. "But I grew up with it."

Watkins 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.

"I 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."

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.



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