I Am Monkey Flower
|Outside magazine, July 1997
I Am Monkey Flower
Be the edible plant, urged the Queen Diva of foragers, and my wilderness hikes would yield a bounty of strange-looking, odd-smelling, but altogether damn tasty grub. Gastronomy meets botany, and the Weed Woman is your guide.
“Here, try some of this,” said Janice Schofield, offering me a leaf from an innocuous-looking plant called spoonwort, which grows abundantly along the beaches of southeast Alaska. “It’s in the mustard family and great for salads.”
It was a spectacular day in June, the peak of Alaska’s “green season,” and we were laying in provisions for an overnight mountain-bike trip into the Kenai Mountains. Schofield, a nationally recognized botanical authority and author widely known as Weed Woman, was catering our food. Although we had grabbed a few minimal groceries in Homer before shuttling across Kachemak Bay by water taxi, most of what we would eat over the next 24 hours she would forage herself. Starting at sea level, we’d pedal our way up to an elevation of about 2,000 feet, to the isolated cabin where she and her husband, Ed, had lived off the land for six years when they first came to Alaska. The place was still fully furnished, and we planned to dine there on the day’s pickings.
For Schofield, a sprightly, clear-eyed woman of 45 with long, braided brown hair, this little “adventure grazing” excursion represented a kind of homecoming to the place where she discovered her calling and began work on her magnum opus, Discovering Wild Plants, an encyclopedic illustrated guide to the edible and medicinal plants of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. For me, it was to be a crash course in botany, nutrition, and outdoor cooking. I wanted to get a feel for foraging and to discover whether a weeds-and-wildings diet could satisfy someone perfectly satisfied with cultivated fare.
Spoonwort, the plant that Schofield wanted me to taste — Cochlearia officinalis is its taxonomic name — held part of the answer. While she pointed out its physical characteristics and growing habits, I studied a leaf. It was in fact shaped something like a teaspoon. Typical of edibles that live in saline environments, the leaves were fleshy, succulent, and such a rich source of vitamin C that eighteenth-century seamen dubbed spoonwort “scurvy grass.”
“Taste it,” Schofield said.
I took a nibble. The flavor was similar to that of arugula, though a bit stronger. It had a bitter undertone that I couldn’t place. I took another bite, then a third. All at once the back of my tongue was assaulted by an explosion of astringency — a hot, acrid flavor that suggested rubbing alcohol.
My tastes, I like to think, are quite eclectic. I’ve feasted on boiled plantains with mashed ground-nuts in the jungles of Uganda, blood sausage in the bistros of Buenos Aires, and a fabulous prune-larded tenderloin of feral beef prepared by a gaucho in the wilds of southern Patagonia. I’ve shared a meal of crawdads and cattail hearts foraged by second-generation Okies who grew up on wild food in Oregon’s Cascades. I met my wife-to-be while skiing in the French Alps, over a magnificent yardlong omelet stuffed with wild chives and morels picked and dried the previous spring. Each of these meals evokes a fond memory, but none was adequate preparation for the fulminant tang of these salad greens.
Euell Gibbons, the late, great forager and Grape-Nuts pitchman (“Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible”), confessed to disliking most of the several hundred plants he sampled in researching Stalking the Wild Asparagus, a book that popularized wild edibles perhaps more than any other. “Tastes differ,” wrote Gibbons, “but give each plant an honest trial before passing judgment.” According to the National Academy of Sciences, there are about 30,000 species of edible plants, perhaps only 4,000 of which have ever been exploited by humans. Alaska’s edible flora, Schofield estimates, consists of about 370 plants. After an honest trial, I passed judgment on one of them.
“This is fabulous stuff, Jan, really delicious,” I gasped, turning to spit out a wad of green pulp.
One down, 369 to go.
“The history of plant collecting is the history of humankind,” Schofield was saying. “People think of herbalism as something New Age. It’s Old Age, as old as you can get.”
We were sitting in one of several gardens Schofield tends on her lush eight-acre property near Homer, discussing plant identification, a critical skill for any neo-hunter-gatherer. As we talked, the resident cow moose and her calf tromped by. Schofield treats these gardens and wild meadows as both a sanctuary and a classroom. She conducts plant identification seminars here when she’s not teaching at the University of Alaska in Anchorage or off on speaking tours across the state. She and Ed bought the land after her budding career as the much-in-demand Weed Woman forced them to migrate back to the Homer side of Kachemak Bay in 1987. They’ve built a snug post-and-beam house here, its kitchen nowadays crowded with mason jars filled with grains and desiccated herbs, each container bearing a label generated on her computer. One of the back rooms is dominated by a a pair of commercial food dryers that stand waist high.
Schofield’s involvement in foraging began in 1982, after a particularly horrendous rainstorm up in the Kenai Mountains. The deluge began the day she and Ed finished the roof on their little mountain cabin, and it continued, Genesis-fashion, for 40 days. The access road to their property washed out. Restocking the cabin’s larder required hiking eight miles to the roadhead and then driving 20 miles to the nearest town. So Schofield started shopping a little closer to home — in the immediate woods and meadows. At first she harvested only plants she knew to be safe, but as her confidence grew, so did her kitchen repertoire. A dinner might start with a salad of saxifrage, fiddlehead ferns, and the leaves of dandelions, move on to pasta with wild herbs and stinging nettle pesto, and end with a dessert of serviceberry-rhubarb crepes. They ate char from the Rocky River, which flowed past their front door, king salmon and halibut from the bay, shellfish and “sea vegetables” (her euphemism for kelp and seaweeds) from the tidal flats.
At length she set about writing the 354-page Discovering Wild Plants, first published in 1989 by Alaska Northwest Books. The book is now in its third printing and has sold more than 25,000 copies. Schofield is also the author of a pocket-size field guide to Alaska’s edible plants, and she’s now working on a third book, due out next year. Along with “Wildman” Steve Brill, the celebrated forager who works the fringes of Manhattan’s Central Park, Schofield has become one of the gurus of a small but burgeoning national movement that’s estimated to involve some 100,000 serious wilderness plant gatherers from coast to weedy coast.
For Schofield, every walk in the woods is an opportunity to forage, and she never ventures anywhere without a few paper sacks. “If I go a day or two without gathering plants,” she says, “I feel as though I’ve missed a workout. I go through withdrawal and feel out of sorts. It’s like fishing or hunting for some people: It gives me a reason to be out.”
And as she’s discovered in her wide travels, from New Zealand to the Mediterranean to the Lower 48, foraging is an eminently portable skill. “Many of the most foragable plants are what we refer to as weeds, and they’re found all over the world,” Schofield explains. “Coming across a plant that I recognize in a new environment is like finding an old friend. When I found nettles in Greece, I did a little jig and cried, ‘Our friends!’ Ed practically had to hold me down. It can be embarrassing for people traveling with me.”
As we strolled through Schofield’s gardens, she began to show me the “guided imagery exercises” she uses in her classes. She led me over to a clump of shooting stars, pretty pink wildflowers whose leaves we had devoured for lunch, and asked me to breathe deeply from the belly, with my eyes shut. “Feel your feet growing down into the earth like roots,” Schofield said. “Imagine the leaves as your arms.” We continued in this fashion as we ambled about the property, “becoming” a giant old-growth spruce, “becoming” a shrubby wormwood plant (“feel yourself being drunk as a medicinal tea, entering the bodies of people all over Alaska”), and so on.
Schofield said exercises of this type are meant to engage all the senses in identifying a plant. As her course syllabus explains, “In nature plants exist free of names, independent of our labels and categorizations. By slowing down and opening our senses, we can become intimate with their properties in the same manner as our forebears.”
Pinning the wrong name on a plant might seem trifling, but from little misnomers can come dire consequences. Schofield told a story from a couple of years ago about three Alaskan hikers whose Inuit guide gave them what he thought was wild celery, a common name for a lovage. In fact it was poison hemlock, one of the deadliest plants in the Alaskan flora. Later, at their hotel, the hikers began having hallucinations and felt too weak to stand. “It was about five hours before they could get up and walk around,” Schofield said.
Finally, we came to a patch of monkey flower, and Schofield suggested that we try to imagine the plant’s thoughts and then take down dictation as fast as we could, starting with the words, “I am monkey flower.” After two minutes of furious stenography, we compared notes: “To hikers I bring joy,” I had written at one point, and Schofield’s flower had uttered something almost identical: “I bring joy to your heart and spirit.” She seemed pleased by the coincidence, but not at all surprised.
A few years ago, this same dictation exercise provoked dramatic objections from two of Schofield’s students. They were fundamentalist Christians, as it turned out, and they worried that holding a conversation with a plant suggested the occult. “They thought it was dangerously close to satanism,” she said, giggling.
For our bike trip up to Schofield’s cabin, we were bringing along a spartan kit of groceries: Extra-virgin olive oil, rice vinegar, wild rice, marinated Greek olives, cream cheese, butter, and bagels. Nature would provide the rest. At the end of the Homer Spit, we hopped a water taxi piloted by Marsha Million, a colorful Alaska hand and cooking buddy of Schofield’s. The plan was to bivouac at her house and set out for the cabin early the next morning. We plunged across the bay with our bikes and packs lashed amidships. Million dropped us off in a sheltered lagoon near her house to forage for dinner. Schofield thought our prospects looked good. “When the tide is out,” she trilled, hopping onto the rocky beach, “the table is set.”
Squishing around the margins of the lagoon, Schofield stooped to gather stuff I never dreamed was edible. Streamers of brown ribbon kelp — wahame to the Japanese — looked, well, like seaweed. The most repulsive-looking part, the swollen, fingerlike reproductive organs, or sporophylls, are considered a delicacy in Japan. She left the sporophylls and clipped only the leafy blades, which she would blanch and marinate as a chilled salad. She also harvested nori, another kelp that the Japanese convert by countless tons into dried, paperlike sushi wrappers. The Welsh also eat nori, for breakfast, dipped in oatmeal and fried.
Schofield was in paradise. She favors the seacoast above all other foraging habitats. Besides the algae we were finding, one could harvest everything from beach greens to king crabs to wild strawberries within a hundred yards. To her the coast meant limpet p‚t‰, oysters Rockefeller, mussels steamed over bladderwrack. It meant crabmeat omelettes and crispy wedges of fried dulse, which taste vaguely like potato chips.
That night, Million’s husband, Tom Hopkins, a charter-boat captain, brought home a cooler of fresh halibut, whose meaty fillets I grilled in foil over coals and seasoned with wild parsley. Schofield’s ribbon kelp was too seaweedy for my taste, but her faux French-cut green beans were a big hit. She’d peeled the bulb kelp’s hollow stem, or stipe, the part that looks like surgical tubing, and sliced it lengthwise and then on the diagonal into beanlike strips. These turned green in boiling water. Served with butter and shaved almonds, they were sensational.
What really turned my head, though, was the goosetongue she had picked in a salt marsh behind the house. Blanched and buttered, it could have passed for baby string beans. The crunchy texture and seashore tang was a perfect complement to the flaky, delicate halibut. After dinner Million broke out a selection of her high-test wild berry liqueurs and told us about the bad old days of grocery shopping in Alaska back in the 1970s, of Over-the-Hill brand carrots and tainted beef. “The produce and meat that came up from the Lower 48 was awful,” she said. “You learned to buy in bulk and supplement with foraging. Up here, our food is a form of security. It’s like money in the bank: Every fish you catch or plant you put up is a dollar you don’t have to spend.”
In the early seventies, Million lived in a Yupik village, in a house made of hand-hewn driftwood logs. She bought only rice, coffee, and milk; otherwise she ate what the natives did. She came to relish the gelatinous heads and livers of lushfish. Ice-fishing with an Eskimo codger at 45 below zero one day, she complained of the bitter cold. He reached into his sealskin poke and handed her a fish he called nenemiauq. “It was a herring that was too fat to dry,” she said. “They put them in seal oil for about eight months and let them rot. When I ate it, my whole body suddenly flushed and began sweating.” She described the sensation as a deep satisfaction, a euphoria. “I loved the flavor,” she said. “Nothing I’ve eaten before or since ever gave me that feeling.”
It occurred to me, sitting there in a pleasant haze of cloudberry liqueur with a bellyful of halibut and goosetongue, that nearly all of our tastes are cultivated tastes. I could learn to love ribbon kelp if spinach and kale were not available, and I was already quite fond of Schofield’s surrogates for green beans. As for nenemiauq, I had my doubts. Cultivation can only be stretched so far.
In the morning Schofield whipped up a batch of buckwheat waffles studded with freshly picked elderberry flowers. She produced a jar of spruce-mint syrup, and Million broke out the blueberry syrup that she and Hopkins had made from the berries that grow thick around their house. Mingled together, the fresh flavors of spruce, mint, and blueberry were like the distilled essence of Alaska itself poured on top of the hot waffles. We washed them down with pots of fresh coffee laced with heavy cream and at ten o’clock puttered off in Million’s boat, Harlequin, to face the day.
From Spoonwort Beach, we followed a gravel logging road that meandered through the salt flats and then started uphill. A wall of alders bordering the road opened up now and then to reveal meadows filled with what I once would have regarded as weeds; now I saw in them the prospect of a meal. We pushed on, however, as most of the climbing was ahead of us and it was nearly noon.
For lunch, Schofield had planned to stop at a cabin built by a former neighbor of hers. We ditched our bikes in a streamside alder thicket and walked a half-mile through a buggy stand of Sitka spruces, tramping along a boardwalk of rough-sawn planks spanning the bogs. Along the way Schofield paused to pick wild violets to flavor the rice vinegar she’d brought.
The cabin was perched on a bluff overlooking a green pond whose surface mirrored the snowy apex of Jakolof Peak. The owner was not about, but in accordance with bush custom, he’d left the cabin unlocked with instructions on how to operate the stove.
We ate on the sunny deck. Schofield had prepared open-face bagels, one half slathered with nettle pesto and topped with goosetongue and dandelion petals, the other paved with leftover halibut and sprinkled with violets. We were ravenous after our morning’s workout. Like W. C. Fields mixing martinis in his mouth, I alternated bites of the bagel halves to get the full effect.
We hit the road again, our load now lighter by a couple of pounds. By midafternoon Schofield’s collecting bag was again bulging with greens. She had stopped for every roadside attraction. A patch of twisted stalks growing by a brook tasted refreshingly of cucumber, only more intense. On a side trip to a high valley above the treeline, she found tasty wildflowers known as spring beauty.
Late in the day we dropped back below treeline and turned up the Rocky River drainage. The access road to Schofield’s old cabin was still demolished at every stream crossing. Fording one boulder-choked torrent, Schofield boldly stripped off her boots and pants and safely carried our food across — and only then went back for her bike.
It was 10 p.m. but still light outside when we reached the cabin, a simple, one-room structure with a loft made of peeled spruce logs that had been felled and skidded from the surrounding meadow. Nearby, the river ran swiftly through a dim grove of old-growth spruces whose limbs were festooned with batts of green moss. A small streamside cabin in the grove doubled as a guesthouse and sauna. We fired up its stove and returned to the main cabin to begin organizing the day’s pickings for our banquet.
The Schofields had sold the property to friends, who in turn had hired a couple to look after the place. These young caretakers soon arrived on their bikes with two panting yellow Labrador retrievers and introduced themselves as Jeff Eisenbeiss and Alicia Hill, certified organic farmers from Virginia. Fresh-faced and just out of college, they’d come to spend the summer in Alaska and had found part-time work tending gardens in Seldovia.
My one regret about this trip was in not having time to fish for king salmon, which were just starting their world-famous run in the bay. Providentially, Eisenbeiss and Hill had caught several beauties, which they’d hung in the smoker outside over cottonwood chips. Thus our menu was made complete:
The sun was still up at 11 o’clock when Schofield served the mussels, but I lit a candle on the table anyway, for the sake of festivity. With the young couple’s dogs snoring at our feet, we sat down at Schofield’s old spruce table, joined hands, and gave thanks for the bounty of the bush.
Michael McRae most recently wrote for Outside about Maury Kravitz’s search for the tomb of Genghis Khan (July 1996).
Illustrations by Roxanna Bikadoroff