The islands of western Alaska look emerald green from the boat, rising from the water like knees and elbows covered in velvety tundra. Bering sea swell hits the jagged cliffs in surfy foam at their feet and large volcanic peaks stay frosty deep into the summer above. When we stop fishing and go anchor up in a bay where the sweet offshore wind surprises our salty senses, I start to see a patchwork of colors - purples, pinks, yellows, of the Aleutian wildflowers. This summer we have been exploring Unimak Island; it feels so good to get off the boat, stretch our legs and roam the hills through fields of lupine and artemisia. For my birthday, my sister gave me Suzi Golodoff’s book “Wildflowers of Unalaska Island,” a guide with lovely original drawings and photos of over 160 species of flowering plants native to the Aleutians. I’ve loved solidifying my knowledge of the flowers I grew up with by name, edible qualities and the traditional uses by Native cultures of the region. Knowing my flower neighbors make me feel more connected to the land that has nurtured me since I was a little girl. I can’t stop picking bouquets for the galley table and drawing them in my sketchbook. Here are some favorites I’ve found this summer, with handy info from my flower guidebook.
Found near False Pass. Wild Geranium (cranesbill). In Unungan: chunusix: an awl or tool for stabbing, also a pricker, sculpin spine, mosquito mouth, or fish spear (in reference to the flower’s long style). Medical teas were made from both the leaves and roots. A tea made with the leaves was used as a gargle to smooth sore throats, or when cooled and strained, for washing wounds to help dry infection.
Lady’s Slipper, found near Dora Harbor. The single, delicate flower can be described as having a pouch below, a hood above, and two ears. Usually creamy white and mottled with purplish brown. Locals love to go searching for them early each summer. Unfortunately the ground squirrels can’t wait for them either, so often you will spot the familiar leaves, slender stem, but no flower. I found a whole hillside growing with these rare blooms!
Lupine, or ahnix in Uningan. The land’s nail or spike. Lupines grow in stands on dry slopes, in gravel or in sandy places, and along cliffs and coastal areas. Color variation occurs within the species, and in among a stand of deep blue lupine, one occasionally finds plants with white, pink, or violet flowers. After a rain the palmate leaves hold prismatic water droplets at their centers. Nice to drink from if you’re out on a hike.
Beach Pea, Sweet Pea, Vetch. Chugum aahmaagii in Unungan (sand flower). Found in Otter Cove. These blossoms bejewel the sandy shores and dunes where it thrives. One of my favorite Aleutian flowers.
Dwarf Fireweed, River Beauty. Flowers are large and showy, borne at the tips of elongate ovaries, with four broad, rose-pink petals between the narrow dark red sepals. The long filaments at the center of the flower bear a stunning turquoise pollen. Dried leaves make a wonderful tea.
Yarrow has strongly scented, lacy green leaves and white flowers. Rubbed in the hands and breathed in, they are the scent of summer. Worldwide, yarrow has been long known for its medicinal qualities, and Unungan used it for such purposes as well. Its crushed leaves act as a coagulant, and when held to a wound or cut will stem the bleeding. A tea steeped from the leaves will reduce fever and help relieve chest colds and stomach pains. Gargling a warm tea soothe a sore throat. The root is said to have anesthetic properties.
Artemisia, Wormwood. Leaves are aromatic and silvery green. A hardy plant, often shoulder high, grows in stands from sea level upwards. The leaves have wonderful strong scent and we’re widely used medicinally by Alaska Native people’s. In traditional Unungan steam baths, the leafy stems are gently slapped against the skin. The steamed leaves can be used as a hot pack to relieve aches and pains. A tea steeped fr the leaves can ease cold sores, sore throats, and stomachaches. Most wonderful smell.
Pyrola, Wintergreen. A delicate bloom of meadows, fields and hillsides, often growing among ferns and fleabane. In the fall the flowering stems turn dry and brittle, but the leaves stay green all through the winter snows. These wintergreen leaves begin photosynthesis early in the spring, and only after the plant forms new leaves to the old ones finally wither.
Bluebell, Mountain Harebell. Found in Ikatan Bay, and also scattered on rocky ledges and dry tundra.
Coastal Paintbrush, Honey Flower. Found near King Cove. Bumble bee’s sugar or favorite food. Plucked from the center of the paintbrush, the innermost flowers have a sweet-tasting base, hence the local name honey flower or honeysuckle.
Creeping Buttercup, found in False Pass. Flowers have bright, shiny yellow petals and dark green leaves with stems covered in soft hairs. This species grows wild around Aleutian communities but is believed to be an introduced species native to Europe.
Fireweed. Two to size feet tall, rose pink to magenta blossoms. Working with its partner the bumblebee, the fireweed has adapted a fascinating way of assuring cross-pollination and other plants. The flowers at the bottom of the fireweed spike open and mature first, while the buds at the top are still closed. By the time the topmost flowers are open and bearing their pollen, the ones at the bottom have already shed their pollen and have opened their stigmas, ready to receive pollen from another flower. Here the bumblebee comes in, whose habit is to start at the bottom of the fireweed spike and climb its way up. Flying off from the top of one spike, dusted with pollen, it lands at the bottom of the next, where he flowers are ready to receive it.
The young shoots can be eaten raw or steamed, and the blossoms make a ruby magenta jelly. The dried leaves make a wonderful tea. For tea, cut the stems before the flowers bloom and hand them upside down to dry. Once dry, the leaves emit a distinctive, berry like fragrance.
Go out and see what flowers grow wild around you! Alaska has an incredible variety of wildflowers, and you’ll get a different bouquet depending on the day, as the summer turns to fall. Try a fireweed tea or jelly, and be sure to consult a book or reference guide before eating anything you pick. We recommend picking up a copy of Janet Schofield’s Plants of Alaska and pressing a few of your favorites inside.