Alaska Ethnobotany

Alaska Gardens

Bringing people and plants closer together – a multi-site collaborative project proposal dedicated to cultivating, promoting and enjoying plants for Alaska Native peoples’ cuisines by USDA NIFA ANNH co-applicants and outside partners.


The Alaska Gardens project aims to foster food security and food sovereignty in rural Alaska by researching, trialing and promoting the cultivation of selected plant species that are relevant in the context of Alaska Native Peoples’ cuisines and that are traditionally harvested. “Alaska Native and Indigenous people have a long history of cultivating the natural spaces to improve access or abundance to plants valued for food, medicine, ceremonies, textiles, tools and implements for successful living. This project will assist in “awakening a deep and integral relationship that has been asleep.” (DeWitt). The framework of the interdisciplinary project will be collaborative, community-based and participatory. The current (and still growing) list of project partners include Indigenous food specialists, Alaska Native Elders, community gardens, an agricultural experimental station, a botanical garden, and three university programs housed in rural campuses of the University of Alaska Fairbanks system that are dedicated to the wider field of sustainability, wild food plants, subsistence and food security.

The project responds to a raised interest in gardening and sourcing locally-produced food. Its goal is to provide better access to culturally-relevant food while teaching younger generations about all pertinent and contemporary aspects and processes involved. If successful, the proposed project will allow Indigenous people who don’t have the time, means or environment to source their preferred plant-based food items to practice, reinvigorate and enjoy the delicacies of their own cultural heritage. Growing, nurturing and harvesting plants together with preparing and sharing food will certainly contribute to the emotional, cultural and physical well-being of everyone involved. The results of the plant trials suggested in this project will support interested entities (e.g. schools) by providing a tested list of plants with instructions for their cultivation and have the potential to create economic opportunities for local, sustainability-oriented businesses.

Goals (list)

  • Develop a list of plants to be trialed.
  • Trial species and varieties of plants relevant for AK Native cuisines to:
    • Come to a selection of relatively reliable and easy to cultivate plants and
    • Create recommendations for their cultivation (e.g step-by-step, detailed instructions, booklet, website, videos).
  • Build on existing expertise, partnerships and networks (e.g. existing demonstration garden by Meda DeWitt at Alaska Pacific University (APU); the process and partnerships created through using the space to teach; sharing plants for seeding Traditional Gardens at the Alaska Native Medical Center (ANMC) courtyard and the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage; use in cultural summer camps, cooking demonstrations, and medicine making classes.
  • Design local trial plots or gardens (or integrate into existing gardens) to also serve as demonstration gardens.
  • Raise awareness and curiosity, teach people from all age groups about edible plants, involve volunteers in fun and healthy activities;
  • Research and develop culturally meaningful documentation of the plants to foster relationships to their ‘plant relatives’, e.g. search for stories and artwork reflecting the past interactions to the plant world, plan for publications in local Native languages;
  • In semi-public or public events, prepare and enjoy the harvest from the gardens.
  • Collect data on the culinary quality of harvested plants to inform the cultivating methods and plant species and varieties to be planted in the following season.
  • Document all steps of the process – planting, growing, harvesting and processing of plants.
  • Work towards creating a plant list and basic cultivation instructions of food plants that are relevant in the context of Alaska Native cuisines to …
    • Encourage and support commercial growers and local initiatives to cultivate these plants to cater to interested entities (e.g. nursing homes).
    • Provide schools and other public organizations with readily applicable growing instructions for culturally relevant plants.

Steps of the project

  1. Work with communities to identify the existing Traditional Ecological Knowledge and its application to this project.
  2. Each participating garden conducts research, and discusses possible plants to include with the communities they serve, e.g. through focus groups;
  3. Create a list of plants to include in trials. Collaborative decision on which plants to include in the multi-site trial (the single gardens can still grow the entire list of suggestions from their communities).
  4. Create clear guidelines for how to grow and document so the results will be as comparable as possible.
  5. Sourcing of seeds and plant material, arrange for timely shipment and planting (AK Plant Materials Center is a great resource.)
  6. Preparation of the garden for planting
  7. Plant, label, grow, harvest (involve community and document!)
  8. Regular communication / exchange between gardens
  9. Plan for harvesting and processing of the harvest, extensive documentation, also in Native languages (research for older ways of processing, e.g. fermentation)
  10. Ideally, have a community cook-off where knowledge-holders can assess the quality of the harvest to inform the selection of plants and their cultivation for the next round of planting.
  11. As a culturally responsive practice, ensure that a share back with communities occurs that includes the processed results and documentation. Present information and request permission to publish.
  12. With granted permission from community participants, create and publish guidelines that includes TEK for cultivation and preparation of a selection of the plants cultivated and harvested by the project partners. If permissions are not granted, publication may still occur without the inclusion the respective knowledge provided by the specific partner community
  13. Explore additional funding opportunities to expand on the goals of the project to include cultural advisors as principal investigators.

Documentation that we will ask the growers for:

Photos of plants and gardeners (with model releases)

Species / varieties planted

Preliminary species and varieties list

    • K’únts, Tlingit potato, Solanum tuberosum
    • Sorrel (Rumex acetosa and R. scutatus) (trial if culturally acceptable replacement for sour dock, R. arcticus)
    • Wild rhubarb, Aconogonum alaskanum (formerly Polygonum alaskanum)
    • Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) – single ‘wild relative’ of commonly cultivated plants naturally occurring in AK; point out the potential confusion with death camas.
    • Wild Celery, Angelica, Angelica lucida – currently popular – cultivate local strains; also good to familiarize people with it so they’ll be able to tell it apart from water hemlock
    • Puchki, cow parsnip – Heracleum sphondylium sp. montanum (formerly H. lanatum)
    • Masu, Eskimo potato/Indian potato, Hedysarum alpinum; other mouse food plants (cotton grass, edible sedges.)
    • Stinkweed, Artemisia tilesii – will certainly grow well; however, as it is an important medicinal plant, there might be understandable opposition to the publication of its applications. To be discussed with Indigenous project partners.
    • Rock Sage. There are seven sages in Alaska. These should be regionally appropriate.
    • Kóox, Rice-root lily, Fritillaria camschatcensis
    • Beach Green 1, Beach lovage, Ligusticum scoticum, tukkaayuk (coastal Inupiaq dialect)
    • Beach green 2, Honckenya peploides
    • Cloudberries, Rubus chamaemorus (test for cultivation, absolutely needed in any show garden!)
    • Serviceberry, Amelanchier alnifolia
    • Silverweed, Argentina sp.
    • Fireweed, Chamerion angustifolium
    • Nagoonberry, Rubus arcticus
    • Thimbleberry, Rubus parviflorus
    • Elderberry, Sambucus racemosa
  • Blite Strawberry, Chenopodium capitatum
  • Bog Blueberry, Vaccinium uliginosum
  • Lingonberry, Vaccinium vitis-idaea

Goals and measurable outcomes

Goal Short-term (year 1) Mid-term (2-5 years) Long-term (5+ years)
1. Create a plant list and basic cultivation instructions of food plants that are relevant in the context of Alaska Native peoples’ cuisines Goal: Research literature and solicit community input for plants to be included. Goal: Trial plants listed, request feedback from stakeholders (growers, community members), refine list; develop cultivation guidelines Goal: Publish list of proven plants and best-practices for their cultivation
Product: List of suggested plants, including documentation of process. Product: Documentation of trials and assessment of plant food produced by community members; documentation of community involvement Product: Publication and dissemination
2. Small-scale (garden) trialing of selected plant species

(The small-scale and large-scale trialing (below) are meant to a) complement each other and b) to provide tested recommendations for small-scale gardens as well as professional growers)

Goal: Develop protocol for trials. Goal: collect data and start analyzing, provide feedback for future cultivation Goal: collect data, analyze, publish
Product: Protocol for small-scale plant trials. (small-scale and large-scale trialing (below) protocols will need to be harmonized) Product: Revised protocol, first results of trials Product: Results of trials to be shared as recommendations for small-scale cultivation with the gardens’ communities, other stakeholders and professional community
3. Trialing for large-scale cultivation of selected plant species (in Experimental Farm, Botanical Gardens)

(The small-scale and large-scale trialing (below) are meant to a) complement each other and b) to provide tested recommendations for small-scale gardens as well as professional growers)

Goal: Develop protocol for trials Goal: collect data and start analyzing, provide feedback for future cultivation Goal: collect data, analyze, publish
Product: Protocol for plant trials for commercial production Product: Revised protocol, first results of trials Product: Results of trials to be shared as recommendations for agricultural cultivation with communities, other stakeholders and professional community
4. Create local trial gardens (ideally integrated into existing gardens) Goal: Find a physical location for plant trials Goal: Create a thriving garden for trial plants Goal: Continue as trial garden or transform into / merge with existing demonstration garden
Product: Location for trial garden that also serves as a show garden Product: Trial garden that also serves as a show garden Product: Representation of food plants relevant in Alaska Native cultures in public gardens
5. Garden to plate Goal: Identify plants that are relevant in AK Native peoples’ cuisines, research ways of preparing them Goal: Invite Native food specialists and community members to prepare, share and enjoy the foods prepared; solicit feedback, document Goal: Community harvesting and processing of plants, sharing of foods created with Elders; document and share
Product: List of possible recipes and plants required for their preparations Product: Feedback from people involved in harvesting, processing and tasting the foods prepared, documentation of event Product: Community event, documentation and publication of selected recipes through social media and written report
6. Connect people to their (plant) roots

Create meaningful documentation, dialog and opportunities for learning and immersion to support and increase food security and food sovereignty for AK Native community

Goal: Work closely with community members to investigate efficient strategies to create meaningful and relevant outcomes Goal: Actively involve community members in dissemination strategy of the project and its results, prepare Indigenous language editions. Goal: Create outreach materials in English and Indigenous languages and share with communities
Product: Strategy for dissemination of project results as well as community involvement Product: Documentation of outreach in English and Native languages Product: Meaningful, interactive and culturally outreach materials that are widely distributed and shared

Project partners:

  • Haa Jooní: Meda DeWitt, MA., Traditional Healer and Ethnoherbalist
  • Traditions in Healing: Jennifer Andrulli, Yupik Traditional Healer and Ethnoherbalist
  • Intertribal Agriculture Council: Tikaan Galbreath
  • Alaska Native Heritage Center: Emily Edenshaw
  • Georgeson Botanical Garden, Fairbanks: Katie DiCristina
  • UAF KuC Ethnobotany Program: Dr. Rose Meier, Lisa Strecker
  • UAF BBC Sustainable Energy: Eric Goddard
  • UAF CC Food Security and Sustainability Project: Stacey Glaser, Pete Pinney
  • Palmer Experimental Station: Jodie Anderson
  • Bethel community garden and 4H

Potential future project partners:

  • 4H: Ann Kowenstrot
  • USDA NIFA ANNH partners in Hawai’i.
  • Heidi Rader with FRTEP. She is the faculty lead for tribal extension work on ag/hort.
  • Cooperative Extension Services (CES): Glenna Gannon
  • UAF Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station: Glenna Gannon

Potential future trajectories

  • Create AK Berries Garden

Project coordinators

KuC Ethnobotany Program (Lisa Strecker), Alaska Native Cultural advisors: Meda DeWitt, MA., TH., Jennifer Andrulli B.S., LMT, TH.