Nelly Hand forages fireweed flowers out the road.
Nelly Hand forages fireweed flowers out the road. Photo by Kinsey Brown for The Cordova Times

As the summer comes to an end on the central Alaskan coast, wild food foragers in Cordova are getting outside to collect a variety of seasonal treats.  

The last few days of August often mark the beginning of the transition between summer and fall in the region, a change that is evident out the road as fireweed begins to go to seed and mushrooms arrive. At the edge of each season an abundance of wild plants and fungi are able to be gathered and enjoyed as food, tea, medicine and crafting material. Some recognizable edibles locals are finding this week include hedgehog mushrooms, nagoon berries, blueberries, fireweed flowers, chanterelle mushrooms, and the last remaining salmon berries.   

Fireweed plants, with their noticeable tall stalks and pink flowers, appeared in late May this year and bloomed throughout the summer despite heavy rains. Fireweed has a variety of uses at all stages of the plant’s growth. Young shoots may be steamed, pickled or enjoyed raw on salads. The leaves provide a rich tea for those knowledgeable in preparation methods and the flowers produce bright pink syrups and jellies.  

Nelly Hand is a Cordova resident who enjoys harvesting flowers, berries and mushrooms out the road, and runs a gillnet operation fishing for salmon. She finds that getting outside to forage on the days between fishing breaks up the long season and helps her enjoy the fruits of summer far into the year.  

“Adding foraged goods to my pantry and freezer brings a little of these August delights into the winter,” she said. “The delta here in Cordova holds so many flavors.” 

For many Cordovans, creating meals that incorporate wild plants is much more than a culinary pursuit. It is a part of a year-round diet and lifestyle.  

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Raven Cunningham, a Chugach-Eyak Alaska Native and lifelong Cordova resident, believes that access to these wild subsistence foods is crucial to year-round food security.  

“Foraging is a fancy term that city people use, or for people who don’t subsist,” she said. “The residents of Cordova live a subsistence lifestyle. We, the people who live in Cordova year round, rely on these wild resources to sustain us through the winter months, especially at times when the quality of store bought food is low and cost is high.”  

Cunningham said that her favorite foods during this season to look for include nagoon berries, highbush cranberries, and varieties of mushrooms. She said she enjoys that many of these also grow in areas where she likes to hunt for deer on the islands in Prince William Sound. While there are no strict rules or regulations on the amount of plant and fungus material that can be harvested, Cunningham feels that being mindful of good wild harvesting practices is essential to ensuring future generations can continue these same practices.  

“I think it is important to educate yourself on what you are harvesting, first and foremost,” she said. “Remember to respect the land and respect the other people and creatures that harvest alongside you. We all utilize these resources and it’s extremely important to respect the land and only take what you need.”  

Properly identifying species is important when harvesting and sourcing wild plants and fungus for the purpose of eating. Some species have look-alikes that can cause stomach upset or severe reactions.  

For people who are interested in incorporating wild food into their diet, the upcoming Cordova Fungus Festival from Sept. 8 to Sept. 10 is a good place to begin learning about identification and usage of local fungus varieties. Registration in the festival includes participation in identification workshops and a guided fungus foray with knowledgeable leaders.  

Outside of Fungus Festival, resources for learning to harvest wild foods can be found at the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) building or at the Native Village of Eyak’s (NVE) new weekly Foraging Club. Contact the USFS and NVE for more information on wild plant programming.  

Nelly Hand processes wild fireweed syrup in her kitchen. Photo by Kinsey Brown   

Recipe for fireweed jelly  

Shared by Nelly Hand  

  • 8 cups of fireweed flowers, rinsed  
  • 4 cups of water  
  • 2 tbs lemon juice  
  • 1 tsp butter  
  • 5 cups white sugar  
  • 2 packages of pectin  

Simmer the rinsed fireweed flowers lightly on the stove until the flowers turn a light grayish brown. Strain the flowers out. Liquid should be a dark purple or pink. Discard flowers and return liquid to the stove. Add lemon juice and butter and boil for one minute. Add the sugar and stir continuously until dissolved. Remove any foam on the top with a spoon. Add in the pectin packets and stir well. Let boil for one minute. Remove from heat and pour into sanitized jars. Top with clean lids and place in a hot water bath for 10 minutes. Let the jelly set overnight.  

Do you have a favorite Alaskan recipe you want to share with The Cordova Times? Email it to [email protected] for a chance to see it in print. 

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