Fruit and fungi: What to forage on the Kenai Peninsula this fall
The constant barrage of rain has come at the chagrin of a lot of Alaskans in Southcentral this summer.
But Jenni Trissel, of Homer, said it’s been awesome for Alaskans harvesting berries and mushrooms.
“It’s been great. The ferns are happier. The trees are happier," she said. "Everything has been soaking it up this year in the wild.”
Trissel has been foraging since her family moved to Alaska when she was a teenager. She said it’s something that’s brought her a lot of joy — especially at times when she struggled to make ends meet.
“I fell in love with the fact that I had resources at my hands, no matter what my circumstances were," she said.
Today, she incorporates her wild harvests into her soaps, salves and teas as Kachemak Naturals — formerly called Sip & Soak, when she lived in Sterling and founded the company five years ago.
This year was Trissel’s first teaching foraging classes. She said she saw a mismatch between the food insecurity in Alaska and the bounty the state has to offer.
“If we’re able to bring it back down to that simple, basic level, there’s no reason for there to be as much food insecurity in this state as we have," Trissel said.
She’s already wrapped up her last classes of the summer. But she said there’s still plenty to harvest on the Kenai Peninsula come fall.
“Even come this time of year, when everything looks like it’s dying, we have berries," Trissel said. "We have high-bush cranberries, we have rosehips. We have lingonberries and we have crowberries.”
Many berries become sweeter after the first frost.
Trissel said the best place to search for high-bush cranberries is among old-growth birch. Right now, their leaves are bright red and are easier to spot.
Low-bush cranberries, or lingonberries, prefer acidic soils, in deeper mosses around spruce trees.
“And they make the most beautiful Thanksgiving cranberry sauce ever. I haven’t bought cranberry sauce in so many years," Trissel said.
Crowberries often grow near lingonberries and can be found in larger patches up high, like in Turnagain Pass, Trissel said. She said some berry leaves also make good teas, as do barks, like cramp bark — found on high-bush plants.
“We can honestly even find greens this time of year, especially around maintained lawns and such because things regrow more often," Trissel said. 'You can harvest your dandelion greens and your plantain greens and blanch them and freeze them just like you would a spinach.”
Trissel said she’s also been picking pounds of mushrooms, like late-season oyster mushrooms and turkey tails.
Turkey tails grow on decomposing trees, like dead birch, and have immune-boosting properties. Trissel dries hers and uses them in teas, as well.
She does a lot of dehydrating.
“When it comes to foods, you want to use a dehydrator because our lovely, moist summer — especially this year — contributes to molds and other issues," Trissel said.
Trissel's pantry is full of dehydrated mushrooms. She uses a dehydrator but she said you can also use an oven, turned to a low setting over the course of several hours.
She also cans a lot of her harvest. She’ll freeze berries and rhubarb now and then can the plants later on, when the busy season has wound down, for use in syrups or jellies
Freezing fruit can add flavor.
“The freezer will sweeten things up for you," Trissel said.
And the harvest doesn’t stop when the cold sets in. Some medicinal plants like chaga mushrooms and usnea are ideally plucked in the winter. And springtime is best for fiddlehead ferns and fireweed shoots.
Tia Holley with Indigenous Herbals said local barks can be repurposed, too. Wormwood can be found on the shoreline, along the beach in Nikiski. She said people will dry it and use it in teas, or turn it into salves, like she does.
She said there are also over 20 types of willow bark in the area. Willow can be used to reduce inflammation and treat pain.
Regardless of the harvest, and of the season, Trissel said she tries to take no more than a third of what she finds.
“That way, it stays sustainable," she said. "And you can always go back and have a healthy patch every year.”
The University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service also has pamphlets on foraging available on its website, here.
Tanaina Plantlore by Prescilla Russell Kari also catalogs the ways in which Dena’ina people have been foraging in the area for generations. A free copy of that book is available online.