Tea, medicine and candy: Workshop teaches benefits of Arctic plants

Tutorial one of several free summer activities held at Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park in Iqaluit

Instructor Caroline Ipeelie shows participants examples of some of the many plants and berries that people can find in Iqaluit, and explains what they can be used for. Ipeelie was giving a workshop at Sylvia Grinnell Park on Thursday as part of the “Learn To” series of summer activities across the territory. (Photo by Madalyn Howitt)

By Madalyn Howitt

Growing up, Caroline Ipeelie didn’t know all the names and the uses of the plants she would see in Iqaluit until she joined some local plants walks and learned for herself. 

Now the director of heritage at the Government of Nunavut, Ipeelie is passing on the knowledge of Arctic plants that she has gained over the years to others. 

Ipeelie did just that Thursday at Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park in Iqaluit. Her workshop was part of Nunavut Parks’ weekly “Learn To…” series offered across the territory this summer.

Ipeelie said it’s important to pass down this knowledge so it can be sustained for future generations. 

“It’s not everyone who knows these things,” she said.

“It was hit or miss back then on what worked, what you could eat. Dependence was solely on the land.”

Participants at a summer workshop learn about Arctic plants at Sylvia Grinnell Park on Thursday from instructor Caroline Ipeelie. Top: Caroline Ipeelie shows participants how to dig for the Alpine Bistort plant, which has an edible nut at the base of its root; bottom left: The white flowers of Labrador Tea, which can be boiled for a strong-tasting tea; bottom right: Ipeelie rubs the powder from a puffball mushroom on her hand, which can help to heal skin. (Photos by Madalyn Howitt)

Participants were first given a short lesson on what plants can be found in the park and how they can be used, before being led on a short walk across some rocky cliffs nearby. 

Iqaluit is home to several edible berries, and now is the best season to pick many of them, Ipeelie explained. Cloudberries and crowberries are best when they reach a deep plum colour, and blueberries are just reaching their peak flavour as September approaches. 

On top of being delicious to snack on, berries offer antioxidant benefits and can aid with digestion, like the red bearberry. 

Some of the other plants that Ipeelie showed participants on the walk included: 

  • Labrador tea, found with white flowers on the tundra, has a strong smell and potent taste when the leaves are boiled (not recommended for people with migraines or epilepsy). It can be consumed fresh or dried, and it acts as natural mosquito repellent.
  • Arctic fireweed, distinctive for its bright purple flowers spotting the tundra, can be used to stop nosebleeds. It’s best to pick it in October when the leaves die and boil them in hot water for at least five minutes to make a tea, and some people also make jam with it. 
  • Witch’s hair is a type of lichen that turns water black when you boil it. Drinking the tea can help a person detoxify and “sweat out sickness” like fever and strep throat.
  • The white, fluffy Willow Cotton was historically used as a flint to light the qulliq. It’s best to pick in August and can be stored for a long time.
  • Peat moss can be chewed and swallowed to help relieve heartburn, and would sometimes be applied to the bellies of people giving birth to relieve pain.
  • The puffball mushroom can be used as a natural bandaid to heal cuts on the skin, and the brown, powdery insides can be rubbed on the skin like makeup.
  • The soft Arctic heather plant “never gets wet” and is a good filling for mattresses.
  • Mountain sorrel is a sweet treat high in Vitamin C — rub the stems and eat them for a natural candy. Ipeelie said when her mother was young she would put the sorrel root in a cloth bag and chew the sweetness through. 
  • Seaside bluebells, found in nearby Apex, can be made into a tasty salad. 
  • If you’re up for some digging, the Alpine bistort plant, which sports a distinctive red-orange leaf, has an edible nut at the base of its root. “The bigger the plant the bigger the nut,” Ipeelie said.

So what’s Ipeelie’s favourite plant in Iqaluit?

“Arctic cotton, because bugs don’t like it,” she laughed.

The white and fluffy natural insect repellent can be preserved for a long time, and it can also be used as a soft insole in footwear, a cleaning tool and to fill mattresses, she said. 

Ipeelie encourages anyone interested in learning more about what plants can do to get out on the land and pick some of their own. 

“Now’s the time to experiment when things are ripe and ready.”

Share This Story

(9) Comments:

  1. Posted by iWonder on

    In his book ‘How to Change Your Mind’ (now a Netflix series) Michael Pollan says the Inuit are the only culture in the world that does not use a plant based mind altering substance. In this case specifically I believe he was talking about psychedelic mushrooms. I’d be interested to know if that is true or not? Some Inuit tell me otherwise.

    • Posted by Yup on

      iWonder. hearing stories told by elders. the main mind altering state was starvation, hallucinating from days of starvation. thats just from what i’ve heard. i know there are other ways, but thats what i was told.

      • Posted by Kinakia on

        Igunaq – fermented walrus if too much is consumed it is known to cause hallucinations. Also read someone the red berries leaves boiled down are hallucinogenic.

        • Posted by ᓇᚠᚱ on

          Angakkuit–shamans–certainly used specific circumstances to induce what we would coldly call “hallucinations” (given the neurological basis of perception, though, all “seeing” is hallucinatory in a sense… and perceptual distortions, true or not in relation to material reality, can provoke insight into truths not otherwise perceived). Angakkuit might wander out into the land alone, sit besides graves or visit sacred or taboo sites (compare this to utiseta); they might induce a “frenzied” mindset by beating the qilaut, by singing or by using other practices, such as rubbing stones together; they might use invocations, masks and talismanic tools; and indeed, they might voluntarily bring themselves to starvation and dehydration… practices similar if not identical to those found in other shamanic traditions elsewhere in the world. Igunaq, in spite of its intoxicating effects for some, was *not used by angakkuit for this purpose.

          For the specifically Inuit use of plants as entheogens, myself, I have yet to come across documentation of this; nor have I heard Innait make mention of it… However, there is some documented psychoactive use in the circumpolar world, namely among the Tungusic and Turkic peoples of Siberia and Northeast Asia, and especially among the Sami; probably, too, among the Norse seiðir and maybe the berserkir and ulfheðnar. All of these peoples, interestingly, have had contact with Inuit or their Thule ancestors. There might indeed have been parallels in the long-ago, heathen past of Inuit. But it does indeed seem unlikely.

          • Posted by iWonder on

            Qujannamiik for sharing, this is so interesting.

            • Posted by ᓇᚠᚱ on

              Ilaali. To correct what I wrote by saying “there is some documented psychoactive use”, I omitted that it was the Amanita muscaria or “fly agaric” mushroom that these various peoples, possibly also the Inuit, used. Apparently, it can grow in the tundra–but in all my wanderings, I have never seen its colourful cap out there amongst South Baffin plants and other fungi. This is why it would seem unlikely that Inuit or Thule traditionally used at least this entheogen, common to circumpolar neighbours (even caribou like it, apparently…).

    • Posted by Girl with Kaleidoscope Eyes on

      Funny question. From what some say there are secret plants out there but the elders don’t want to tell the younger generation. If that is true (and who knows if it is) then they will probably be forgotten until some one discovers them again.

      • Posted by This is why oral traditions are broken on

        Knowledge gatekeeping is despicable.

        • Posted by ᓇᚠᚱ on

          Given that “despicable means “deserving to be despised : so worthless or obnoxious as to rouse moral indignation”, I would disagree just based on semantics. Besides, when one reads “from what some say”, we have a thought that is anecdotal at best, incorrect hearsay at worse, but more probably a question, not a statement of fact.

          But I would also disagree even if it *is knowledge gatekeeping that is at work here. There are some processes that are necessary to convey full knowledge, especially when wisdom is involved, and especially when wisdom and knowledge serve functions to an individual whose role has a greater function and responsibility than the merely individual curiosity. If there is anything to learn about Inuit culture, even on the linguistic level (e.g. the work “sila” does not merely mean “weather” or “outside”, or even just “soul”, “…), it is that EVERYTHING has a wider context, and one based on experience (note that the Inuktut word for “becoming wise” is “silaturniq”). So, acquiring knowledge is not just the assimilation of isolated units of truth to be taken as “facts”. It is a holistic act of life, of living, and therefore of relationships. The gatekeeping isn’t to keep people out, but to get people to willingly, willfully seek things beyond the obvious, sometimes even to be called to it; and, once ready, to open the door in the company of one who, as goes the French Canadian saying, “a vu la neige tomber avant d’autres”. In other words, guides. Elders. Teachers.

          Here in Nunavut, there is also some gatekeeping based on taboos, another important aspect of Inuit culture, past but also present. Learning about angakkuit, for example, can be difficult for many reasons, but one is the taboo over even saying certain words (this in pre-Christian and Christian eras). Angakkuit, interestingly, also had their own secret language. Such esoteric methods are like ritual masks–masks that do not hide, but reveal, yet only if the wisdom of their use has been acquired.

          Personally, what I find despicable is our vacuous modern culture of soul-less facts and navel-gazing pseudo-understandings, which do arise from the unfettered avarice of selfish want. Look at entheogens, which are reduced to hedonistic recreation; hunting, which is for too many a rich-man’s hobby; storytelling, which is entertainment and quaint “folk-lore”; etc. The desire for knowledge is often a desire for commodifying the sacred, the essential, the beautiful; and consuming it, we are left with the trivial, the decadent, the dull. Even today, though, there remains some knowledge that is not for consumption, but for transformation–only, it is half-spoken, which only the true-spirited seem to hear. Thank the ijirait that, indeed, there are still not only gate-keepers, but also, gate-seekers…

Comments are closed.