Dwarf dogwood is a common wild flower found around Dawson and throughout many parts of the North. It is also known as bunchberry. In the summer there is a single white flower in the middle of this low-laying plant. Around mid-August the flower disappears and is replaced by a cluster of small orange berries.
The berries are not unpleasant, and have a small seed that is easily chewed, but the taste overall is rather bland. However, they are very high in pectin and can be used as a thickener if added to low-pectin fruits when making jam. Suzanne is gathering the berries and freezing them, and will test them out in preserves this winter.
Recently we wrote about Suzanne’s investigation of coltsfoot as an alternative source of salt, which Suzanne needs for flavouring and preserving over the next year. Well, Suzanne tried it. It was like magic!
If you taste a fresh or a dried coltsfoot leaf, it really doesn’t have much taste — perhaps a fine hint of celery flavour. But if you burn it, the resulting ash tastes salty! Admittedly it’s a smoked salt taste, but definitely salty.
Suzanne tried mixing the burnt coltsfoot in with foods during preparation and unfortunately the salt taste didn’t really transfer, but when sprinkled on top it works – as long as the coltsfoot ash touches your tongue. So it looks like Suzanne’s family will be shaking on the coltsfoot ash this year!
The experiment with mineral salt licks is also in the works, so we’ll be reporting back on that soon as well.
Soapberries (Shepherdia canadensis), also known as Buffalo Berries, are a culturally important food and medicine to many Indigenous Peoples in Canada. The berries have been an important trade item for many generations and this practice still continues today. In places where soapberry does not grow people still trade for these highly valued berries.
The berries are bitter in flavor due to the presence of a chemical compound called saponins which causes the soapy consistency of the crushed berries. Saponins have many potential health benefits to humans. They can help to reduce cholesterol, reduce the likelihood of certain cancers, they are high in antioxidants and help to boost immunity.
Food Uses: The berries are edible fresh but are quite bitter and get sweeter after a frost. The saponins contained in the berries cause them to foam up when whipped with water. Preparing the berries in this way and adding sugar makes a desert that is often called “Indian Ice Cream” that aids in digestion and has a unique flavor. Soapberries can be made into a medicinal jelly as well. Traditionally the whipped berries would be sweetened with other sweeter berries.
Medicinal Preparations: The berries, juice, leaves and stems can be used medicinally. The berries can help lower blood pressure and juice from the berries can be used to treat digestive ailments. A decoction of the stems and leaves can be prepared by simmering them in water and drinking. This decoction can then be taken as a stomach tonic or for treatment for constipation or high blood pressure. Elders have also shared that there is a soothing property to the juice when applied to eczema and other skin irritations.
Harvest Time: Mid-late summer/early autumn. The berries are sweeter after the first frost.
Storage: Soapberries can be frozen, canned (hot water bath), dried or smoked. They can also be juiced the juice can be canned (hot water bath) or frozen.
Recipe for Soapberry Whip
2 Cups soapberries
2 Cups water
Optional sweetener (sugar or other sweet berries)
Using a clean metal bowl, crush the berries up and add water (and sweetener) then whisk the mixture until it froths up and becomes pink and fluffy like whipped cream. Enjoy!
** Using an oily bowl will prevent frothing of soapberries.
Suzanne has been given a very special gift to start her journey of a year of eating local — fish eggs from the first King Salmon harvested by the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in in many years. Mähsi cho to Angie Joseph-Rear and all the elders, youth and adults involved in First Fish Culture Camp at Moosehide Village.
First Fish Culture Camp is an opportunity to pass on knowledge to youth regarding the fishing, cleaning, processing and smoking of salmon. It takes place over 5 days at Moosehide Village. Chum salmon has generally been the salmon processed at First Fish. With the decline of the King Salmon population and the moratorium on commercial King Salmon Fishing in the Yukon, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in voluntarily stopped harvesting King Salmon for subsistence fishing approximately 5 years ago in order to aid in the re-growth of the King Salmon population in the Yukon River. And there is evidence that the King Salmon population is increasing.
First Fish Culture Camp teaches youth traditional methods for fishing, cleaning, processing and smoking of salmon. Photos by Suzanne Crocker.
On Tuesday, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Elders Committee made the decision to allow a 48-hour window of King Salmon harvesting for the purpose of this year’s First Fish Culture Camp. So yesterday, for the first time in many years, the fish nets were set for King Salmon. And that evening, under the watchful eye of a boat of elders and another boat of youth and Hän singers singing ‘Luk Cho’ (which means big fish in the Hän language), the first net was checked and two beautiful King Salmon were harvested. A special day for the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and First Fish Culture Camp, and a very generous and special gift to start Suzanne’s journey of eating local.
Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in elder Victor Henry has taught Suzanne to see with new eyes.
Victor generously agreed to show Suzanne and ethnobotanist Leigh Joseph how to harvest wild rhubarb around Dawson. It seems like Victor can spot wild rhubarb a mile away! In the process, Suzanne also learned to look at her environment in a new way. She can now spot these plants easily (maybe not quite a mile away) and since has noticed wild rhubarb in many of her foraging locations — even in her own yard!
When Victor was a kid living at Moosehide (just down river from Dawson) he and his friends used to pick wild rhubarb and then sneak some sugar from the house to dip it in.
Victor suggests picking wild rhubarb before it flowers, when the stalks are young (late May to early June around Dawson), not hollow, and when they are juicy when cut and squeezed. Peel back the leaves and eat wild rhubarb fresh, or chop it and freeze it for later.
You can use wild rhubarb the same way you use domestic rhubarb. Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in elder Angie Joseph-Rear, especially loves wild rhubarb relish with moose meat. You can find some great recipes for rhubarb stalks (wild or domestic) at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks website.
The young leaves can be eaten as well, either raw or cooked. (Note: only wild rhubarb leaves should be eaten, as domestic rhubarb leaves contain too much oxalic acid and are not edible.) To store the leaves, blanche and freeze them using a similar technique as with stinging nettle.
This “Traditional Raspberry Pemmican” recipe comes from the show and blog “Wild Kitchen”. Wild Kitchen is a project based in the Canadian sub-arctic about people who harvest wild food. 100% of the cast and crew are from the Northwest Territories and they work with what is available on the land to prepare nutritious recipes with a distinct wild flavor.
You can watch Wild Kitchen episodes here and on their website you can find their awesome recipes.
Suzanne is looking for ways to keep her ever-hungry 17-year-old son, Sam, full next year. Sam suggested that pemmican might be a reasonable locally-sourced snack food that will help him get through the year, especially since he spends lots of time doing physical activity. After all, Canada was practically built on pemmican. Trading posts would seek this high-protein and high-energy food from the natives, and it was used to sustain the voyageurs, especially in winter, as they traveled long distances.
The Caribou cookbook has arrived! Learn how to use all parts of the caribou. Traditional recipes such as ch’itsuh (pemmican), head cheese, and Caribou Bone Broth combined with new recipes such as Caribou Wonton Soup and Mushroom and Caribou Brain Ravioli.
Listen to the “Yu-kon Grow It” episode in which Sandi Coleman talked to authors Kelly Milner, Miche Genest, and Cathie Archbould about their new cookbook: “Vadzaih: Cooking Caribou from Antler to Hoof.”
On April 18th, Dawson City based ethnobotanist Leigh Josephhosted a community information session at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre . It was a great chance for Dawsonites to learn about the area’s traditional plant foods and medicines, as well as an opportunity to take part in the conversation.