The variety of plants on the islands of the Aleutians, and particularly on Unalaska and Amaknak, are amazing during our summers. Starting at the beach and reaching the very tips of the mountains, the absolute green will shock the eye. And, if you take a trek from the beach to the tips of those mountains, you will witness a rich progression of plants, some extremely sturdy, some incredibly delicate, and all obviously well adapted to the environment. Habitats seen are typical of those seen in most coastal zones – coastal beach, meadow, marsh, sea-side cliff, fresh and saltwater lagoon, stream, lake, higher slope and high rocky cliff. Probably one of the most amazing, and by far the easiest methods of discovering the plant life of an Aleutian island, is to simply take a seat in the tundra. You will be astounded with the number of wildflowers, mosses, and grasses within a one-foot square area, completely within the grasp of your hand.
Aside from the simple beauty of the plant life and the importance of plants to the wildlife of the area, plants have always been important to the indigenous people who have inhabited the Aleutians for millennia. Though too numerous to list here as there are hundreds, they include both medicinal and edible plants. Medicinal knowledge of the plants is the one aspect of Unangan healing capabilities that survived the advent of outside contact. Absent today are the advanced surgical abilities of the Unangan/Unangas, as well as the practice of acupuncture. The demise of both was due to the devastation of the population within 60 years of contact with European invaders.
As a part of most indigenous lifestyles, subsistence fishing, hunting, and gathering sustain the lives of large populations in rural Alaska. In the Aleutian area, we have relied upon the traditional harvest of natural resources for thousands of years and have passed this way of life, with its long-established culture and values, or the right way to live as human beings, down through generations. Medicinal knowledge and use of native plants requires precise knowledge of the environment, the seasonal patterns of medicinal plants, where they grow, when to collect them (at their most potent stage), how to prepare them, and how and in what dosages to administer them. In our region of the Aleutians, the Unangan used this knowledge to cure illnesses, alleviate pain, heal burns and bone fractures, and fight infection. Traditional medicine is intrinsically holistic. Conventional medicine is only beginning to conceptualize looking at health, healing, and medicine as a complete circle. So, when I see plants, or simply discuss them, I immediately think of their value, not in terms of simple beauty, but to solve and balance health needs.
Overseeing all the showy plant activity is the beach rye grass, a sentinel of great stature and elegance, which when used by the Unangan/Unangas, showed its traits of great utilitarian strength in the work baskets and mats that were made from the grass. Then it surpassed that strength with the delicate weaving of the smaller, more decorative items, common in the post contact era, such as decorative baskets, wall hangings, and wallets.
Walking from the water, one of the first plants you will encounter is Honckenya peploides, locally known as Scurvy Grass. It was the plant that saved many a Russian explorer from certain death, as it provided huge concentrations of vitamin C needed to cure or keep scurvy at bay. Although it tastes best as a young plant, even the bitter old plants will give you the vitamins that you need. It was also used as a good healer for skin conditions, so was typically made into an ointment. Scurvy Grass is a wonderful beach stabilizer and can be used in gardens for a great ground cover. It will remind you of succulent species seen in typical rock gardens.
Senecio pseudo-arnica, or what we call sunflower, was commonly used to help heal wounds. Its sturdy stems and leaves are important to keep the plant from succumbing to the wild winds coming off the sea. During its blooming stage, it sports bright yellow petals.
The trio of umbels most closely associated on Unalaska Island, Ligusticum scoticum L. ssp. Hultenii, (Beach Lovage), Angelica ludicda L., (St. Paul Putchky), and Heracleum lanatum, (Putchky), each has an edible and medicinal component. Beach Lovage is the plant used as wild parsley, though it is much more exciting than boring old parsley. It has a definite peppery flavor which lends itself extremely well in spicing seafood. We would never think to cook our fish without using lovage. Medicinally, the seeds are used to make a tea for indigestion. Angelica, whose edible qualities are not really used here in Unalaska, is best known in European cultures as a candy. In Unalaska it is prized for its ability at soothing sore muscles and joints, for clearing up infections, and, most surprising, healing the burn of the related Putchky plant. Cow Parsnip, or Putchky as we call it, is a wonderful wild celery. Care must be taken when gathering and eating, as the sap reacts to sunlight and will burn your skin. Roots of the Putchky plant were used as a poultice to help draw out pain.
The many uses of the Achillea borealis (Yarrow), from blood coagulator to blocker of the common cold makes one wonder about the use of plants as medicines and how the uses came about. Many elders remember the fragrance of yarrow tea steeping in their childhood homes and will sometimes just drink a cup without having any ailments. The sweet smell of the blooming Sanguisorba stipulata (Sitka Burnet), and its equally sweet tea from the leaves that is used in the morning as a “pick-me-up” contrasts with the stinky fragrance of Fritillaria camschatcensis (the Chocolate Lily), and its edible roots. Called a wild rice, the roots were collected, boiled, and stored in oil for winter eating. They could also be dried and ground for use as a “flour”.
Wormwood, or Artemisia unalaskensis; A. globularia; A. tilesii, A. arctica, was used extensively for diminishing pain from rheumatism and arthritis. The leaves and stems were used either fresh or dried to switch the skin during a steam bath. The volatile oils from the plant entered the bloodstream through the open pores in the skin, easily passing through the vessel barriers. Oils and salves were also made from the plant for joint and muscles aches, as well as infections and rashes. A tea was made from the plant and taken sparingly, as a cure for chest ailments such as bronchitis and asthma. Its tall, leafy, somewhat silvery appearance is used to fill in flower arrangements.
The absolute beauty of the orchids on Unalaska Island, including Cypripedium guttatum (Lady’s Slipper), Dactylorhiza aristata (Purple Orchid), and the extremely rare Platanthera tipuloides, or Bering Bog Orchid, are not to be missed. The medicinal qualities of certain orchids are no longer remembered. The berries that we gather to eat and store each year have values that go beyond filling the belly and providing us with much needed vitamin C. Outside of the medicinal uses, just the simple act of picking berries is therapeutic to the soul. The berries most commonly harvested include the salmonberry ( good for sore throats and tooth infections), high bush blueberry (used to regulate blood sugar and blood pressure), crowberries(used to cure eye infections), nagoon berry (so good to eat, you wouldn’t think of doing anything else with them), and the bog and mountain cranberries (of course, used for bladder infections, but also for colds and bleeding gums). With the advent of berry season, inevitably come the fall colors as our meadows and mountains take on the task of showing colors from the palest greens, to the yellows, oranges, and brilliant reds.
When you live on an island, you begin to realize the true importance of the environment. Its health represents stability and wellbeing. In the worldview, the entire environment is made up of tiny subsections of local environments which are under each of our local care. The Unangan/Unangas believe, as do most indigenous peoples, we are here to take care of and preserve the environment for those generations not yet seen. Just meandering through our tundra makes this concept a simple one to understand and to promote in your heart as well as your mind.