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
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 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.”