Baneberry (Actaea rubra)
Baneberry grows in forested environments, and can reach two to three feet in height. A member of the buttercup family, it produces a central cluster of small white flowers in May or June, and red berries in the fall. The berries are deadly poisonous. Baneberry can grow in the same general area as highbush cranberry - another red berry on a tall plant - so berry pickers should be careful.
Photo courtesy of www.skookumchuck.com.
Black Spruce (Picea mariana)
The black spruce is typically a scrawny looking tree, sometimes with a pom-pom top. Black spruce may appear unhealthy, but in actuality they are fairly durable trees and very well adapted to the cold environment in which they live.
It is frequently found in cold, poorly drained areas, such as swamps and lowland tundra. Black spruce needles are dark green, and unlike the white spruce, the twigs appear hairy. The seed cones are small and purplish. The old cones hang on the tree for several years.
Blueberry (Vaccinium uliginosum)
The blueberry is probably the most sought-after plant in the park. Blueberry bushes have small pink blossoms in the spring, the leaves are small and oval shaped, and the stems are woody. In late summer small, purplish-blue berries ripen. A "highbush" variety of blueberry is found in lowland areas, and a "lowbush" variety favors alpine tundra.
Wild blueberries are smaller than commercial varieties, but many people find them more flavorful. Blueberries are great in pies, jams, and with ice cream. Alaska Natives use the berries in their own kind of ice cream, what Dena'ina Athabascans call nivagee, traditionally made of bear fat, sugar, fish, and berries.
Bog Star, or Grass of Parnasus (Parnassia palustris)
A member of the saxifrage family, this small white star-shaped flower grows in wet meadows, roadside ditches, and along lake margins. The perennial plant grows in a small clump with small, nearly heart-shaped, yellowish-green leaves at the base. Flower stems are long with one smaller modified leaf and one 5-petaled flower per stem.
Caribou Moss, or Reindeer Lichen (Cladonia rangifernia)
Lichens are unusual plants in that they are composed of both algae and fungi cells. Caribou moss is a light-colored, fruticose lichen that grows in well-drained, open environments. As the common names suggest, the lichen is important food for caribou.
The Dena'ina Athabascan people use reindeer lichen for food by smashing the dry plant and then boiling it or soaking it in hot water until it is soft. It can be eaten plain, or preferably, mixed with berries, fish eggs, or grease. The Dena'ina also boil caribou moss and drink the juice as a medicine for diarrhea. Due to acids in the plants, lichens may cause upset stomach, especially if not well cooked.
Crowberry (Empertrum nigrum)
The crowberry or blackberry is a small evergreen shrub with needle-like leaves. It produces black fruit that is smaller, but somewhat more flavorful than the alpine bearberry. It is common in tundra and muskeg but is also found in spruce forests.
The berries are usually collected in the fall of the year but if not picked they may persist on the plant and can be picked in the spring. The raw berries are mealy and tasteless, but cooking enhances the flavor. They can be mixed with blueberries to "bulk up" a batch of pie filling or jam.
Dena'ina Athabascan people traditionally harvest these berries for winter use because they keep well in a cool place without any special preparation. The leaves and stems are Dena'ina medicine for diarrhea and stomach problems, and some say the juice is good for kidney trouble and eye infections.
In this image, the black berries with bristly leaves are crowberries, and the red berries with ovoid leaves are lowbush cranberries.
Dwarf Dogwood (Cornus canadensis)
This low shrub has one small pair of leaves near the base and whorl of leaves at the top with prominent arched veins. The white flowers bloom in the spring, then a bunch of orange or reddish berries appear in August and September. The edibility of these berries is questionable - some who have eaten them complain of stomach pain - and it's probably best not to try them.
Dwarf (or Bunchberry) Dogwood with flowers and with berries.
K.Jalone/NPS (top photo) and E.Wasserman/NPS (bottom photo)
Fireweed (Epilobium angustifolium)
Fireweed is a perennial that grows to 1 1/2 - 8 feet high. Fireweed flowers grow on a stalk, with the closest to the ground blooming first. In Alaskan lore, winter is six weeks away when the top-most flowers have bloomed and are going to seed. The young shoots can be collected in the spring and mixed with other greens. As the plant matures the leaves become tough and somewhat bitter. When properly prepared soon after picking they are a good source of vitamin C and pro-vitamin A. The young flower buds can be cooked down and made into jelly.
The Dena'ina Athabascan people of the Lake Clark area eat the young stems and leaves raw or boiled, sometimes with fish eggs. Some people peel the stems before eating them. The plant is also said to have healing properties.
Dwarf Fireweed (Epilobium latifolium) is also commonly seen in Lake Clark.
Highbush cranberry (Viburnum edule)
Highbush cranberry can stand more than 4 feet tall. The leaves are variable, toothed, and oval to rounded. In the spring it has very small white to pinkish flowers, which ripen into berries in August and September. The berries are translucent red with a large flat seed inside.The berries are sour, but when mixed with plenty of sugar make a tasty jelly or syrup. High in vitamin C, highbush cranberry tea is a traditional cold remedy.
Highbush cranberry often grows near Baneberry, a plant with a similar, but deadly poisonous, berry. The two plants can be distinguished by the location of the berries: the berries on a highbush cranberry plant are found singly or in clusters above the leaves. There will be multiple berry clusters per bush. Baneberries grow on a single central stalk in only one location on the plant, much like flowers on tall fireweed. If you are unsure of the difference, don't take chances.
Labrador Tea (Ledum palustre)
This small, aromatic shrub has narrow, leathery leaves that are shiny green on top and reddish-brown with hairs below. The strongly aromatic leaves can be used to make a very palatable tea. Some people prefer the older darker leaves, believing that they make the tastiest tea. Old timers in Alaska advise that it not be used in too large quantities otherwise it may be cathartic and cause intestinal disturbances.
Besides being a popular beverage tea, Dena'ina Athabascan people report that this shrub is especially effective for weak blood, colds, and tuberculosis. It can also be used for arthritis, dizziness, stomach problems, and heartburn.
The Dena'ina use Labrador tea as a spice for meat. They boil the leaves and branches in water and then soak the meat in the tea until it tastes just right. The meat may also be boiled directly in the water with the stems and leaves. This spice is said to be especially good for strong-tasting meat, such as brown bear meat that has a fishy taste. Some people chew the raw leaves of Labrador tea because they like the taste.
Lowbush Cranberry or Lingonberry (Vaccinium vitis idaea)
Lowbush cranberry is a small evergreen plant up to 6 inches tall, more or less reclining on the ground. It's often found with crowberries, bearberries, and blueberries in tundra environments. The leaves are leathery, green and shiny above, pale and spotted beneath. The small, bell-like pink flowers bloom in the spring, and unripe green berries appear mid-summer.
The deep red, ripe berries are usually available in quantity in the fall, and should be picked preferably after the first frost. The berries persist on the plant throughout the winter. Because the berries are acidic, they are best cooked as a sauce or can be mixed with rose hip pulp and sugar to make a nutritious jam. The berries can be kept without preserving by storing in a cool place.
Lupine (Lupinus arcticus)
Lupine, a common sight along roadsides and in meadows in Alaska, are a perennial plant 10 to 16" tall with many large, full flower stalks. The distinctive palmate leaves consist of several oval, pointed leaflets and have long stems. The stout flower stalks look wooly in bud due to the hairy calyx lobes. The flowers are blue to dark-blue and very showy.
Monkshood (Aconitum dephinifolium)
This beautiful flower, a member of the buttercup family, is deadly poisonous. It was once called wolfbane because it was used in bait for killing wolves. In some areas of Alaska, spear points for whale hunting were rubbed with monkshood poison. The flower can be dried for use in decorative arrangements by hanging upside-down.
Mountain Harebell (Campanula lasiocarpa)
This lovely member of the bluebell family grows on rocky alpine slopes and ridges. A very small alpine plant, 2 to 4", it blooms in July and August. Mountain harebell has small, oblong, toothed leaves at base becoming narrow up the stem. Flowers are violet-blue, upright bells, usually singular, and very large for the size of the plant.
Northern Red Currant (Ribes triste)
Northern red currant, a member of the saxifrage family, produces delicious bright red berries without the hairs that some currants have. The plant is also characterized by small, purplish flowers and heart-shaped leaves. It is a low, spreading shrub that grows primarily in forests.
Dena'ina Athabascan people call the berries nunazk'et'i ("that which hangs down") or jeghdenghult'ila ("ear it's tied onto"). It is said that the latter name indicates that the hanging fruit resembles earrings. Among the currants that grow in their country, the Dena'ina favor the northern red currant for food. Red currant tea was also used as a wash for sore eyes.
Salmon Berry (Rubus chamaemorus)
Also known as cloudberry, this diminutive plant has white flowers and veined and toothed leaves. The berries resemble hard raspberries when unripe, but ripen to a light orange color and very soft texture. The ripe berries resemble clusters of salmon eggs.
The cloudberry is a different plant than the bushy shrub also commonly called salmon berry in southeast and southcentral Alaska.
White Birch (Betula papyrifera)
This small tree has reddish-brown bark that becomes white as the tree matures. The leaves have finely toothed edges and appear to have a tail. Dena'ina Athabascan people use birch bark for baskets and fire-starters.
Girgensohn's Peat Moss (Sphagnum girgensohnii)
Girgensohn's Peat Moss is a soft, bright green peat moss that grows in bogs and some other wet environments. It can be differentiated from other mosses by its very bright acid-green color and white, clean-looking roots.
Sphagnum moss holds up to 27 times its weight in water. The moss is also acidic, which retards the growth of fungus. Dried moss was used to bandage wounds in World War I because of its absorbant and "naturally sterile" properties. For the same reasons, it remains a favorite wilderness "TP."
Dena'ina Athabascan people, like many other Native Americans, used moss for baby diapers. The moss was placed in the bottom of a baby bag made of skin or in a birchbark cradle. The moss is easy to dispose of, and is said to inhibit diaper rash.
Girgensohn's peat moss is also sometimes used as a camp mattress and as insulation in buildings, as are some of the other green terrestrial mosses. It is also common to use for chinking in log cabins.
White Spruce (Picea glauca)
The white spruce is a larger tree than the black spruce. The needle are bluish-green, and the twigs do not appear hairy. The cones are long, developing in the spring and falling off the following spring.
Unlike black spruce, white spruce are quite vulnerable to the spruce bark beetle. This forest pest has had a devastating impact in some areas of Alaska, but so far Lake Clark National Park and Preserve has been spared.
Wild Chive (Allium schoenoprasum)
Wild Chive, also known as wild onion or wild garlic, is a tasty herb that can grow to 2 1/2 feet tall. It has a small pink flower, fleshy lance shaped leaves, and one or more small bulbs. Dena'ina Athabascan people use the leaves and bulbs in soups and stews. Chives can be stored for winter by drying or freezing them or packing them with rock salt.
Wild chive before and after blooming.
Wild Iris (Iris setosa)
Also known as the blue flag, this floral beauty has long, flat, linear-shaped leaves and bright purplish blue flowers. Iris grows in bogs or meadows across Alaska. Some people make a tea from the dried seeds, but this should be approached with caution as most parts of the plant are highly poisonous.