OPINION: Celebrating Alaska’s wild, native plants

For as long as I can remember, I have celebrated wild, native plants. As a boy growing up in Connecticut, such celebrations primarily took the form of joyful explorations with friends through “the woods” behind my family’s yard, that New England forest being both refuge and playground.

My appreciation for native flora expanded as my life took me west across the continent and I discovered the beauty and diversity of Southwest deserts, old-growth rainforests and other plant communities.

But it wasn’t until after I settled in Alaska in the early 1980s that my relationship with native plants deepened in ways I had never imagined. Here I’ve become a forager of sorts, first a berry picker and then also a gatherer of wild edible greens; both are now important seasonal activities that nourish me both physically and spiritually.

Through my research and writings, I’ve come to understand the importance of native plants as traditional medicines, particularly for Alaska’s Indigenous peoples. At the same time, I’ve come to better appreciate the importance of wild, native plants to Alaska’s many and diverse forms of wildlife, from insects to birds and our largest land mammals, both as food and protective cover and for some, nesting materials.

Over the past two decades or so, I’ve even become something of a student of the plant kingdom, especially as manifested in our state. In doing so I’ve come to pay greater attention to the surprising diversity of our flora — Alaska is home to more than 2,500 native species — and been drawn into the beauty and mystery of plants that not so long ago I didn’t notice.

One of the great joys of my summer hikes into the mountains is to spend time in high alpine meadows, surrounded by gloriously beautiful — and amazingly hardy — wildflowers. And one of my primary springtime delights is to discover the first sprouting plants and blooming wildflowers, the landscape once more “coming alive” after winter’s dormancy.

All of the above and more are reasons to celebrate our state’s native plants. And we Alaskans can now collectively do so in a formal or “official” way, because May has officially been proclaimed Alaska Native Plant Month.


Though Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued the proclamation, the groundwork for this statewide celebration was led by the Alaska Native Plant Society (AKNPS), with the support of several other groups. A full list of participating groups (which have grown in number) and some individuals is given on the Alaska Native Plant Month website, which can be reached through the link bit.ly/AKnativeplantmonth. That site also includes a calendar of events, a K-12 curriculum guide, information on self-guided plant walks, and more.

The governor’s proclamation has a long list of “whereas” statements that lay out the many reasons such special recognition is deserved, but here I will simply mention the final one: “It is vital to encourage public awareness about the benefits of Alaska’s native plants and to recognize their importance to our traditional ways of life, to our rich heritage, to our pollinators and other wildlife, to our economy, and to the health and sustainability of Alaska’s vibrant ecosystems.”

That pretty much says it all.

The process leading to the official designation of Alaska Native Plant Month began with an email from Nancy Linz, who contacted the AKNPS on behalf of the Garden Club of North America, part of a nationwide project to get native plant months established in all 50 states (a goal that reportedly is now close to being met).

Society president Elizabeth Bluemink presented the proposal to the AKNPS board, which enthusiastically endorsed the idea, and she then reached out to a wide range of other organizations. Eventually seven groups co-signed the proclamation request.

“By working together, we were able to provide a proclamation that covered more ground,” Bluemink noted. “The proclamation talks about things that are uniquely important to Alaskans. Unlike some states, we have very little access to native plants for landscaping, and this proclamation addresses the opportunity to begin changing that. Our native plants are also part of rich cultural traditions and the Alaska Native subsistence way of life that need to be protected. It’s important to encourage people to plant native plants in their gardens to help insects and other wildlife, etc., but it isn’t enough.”

Among the month’s organized activities (some of which have already occurred) are plant walks; webinars on the invasive chokecherry tree, landscaping with native plants, and landscaping for birds; a “wildflower garden work party” at the Campbell Creek Science Center; and a white spruce seedling giveaway, to offset the loss of many native spruces to the spruce bark beetle infestation.

Those interested in participating are advised to check the Alaska Native Plant Month website for more information and to sign up for the events.

It seems perfectly appropriate to collectively celebrate and raise awareness of Alaska’s native plants in May. Here in Anchorage and much of the state, this is the month when many wildflowers and other plants reveal themselves; it’s when “green up” happens; and it’s when many people begin to gather local “wild greens” to add to their meals. It’s the time for rebirth and renewal, for reconnection to the native plants essential to life in Alaska.

Anchorage nature writer wildlands and wildlife advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.”

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Bill Sherwonit

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Alaska's Bears" and "Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska's Wildlife."