As much as I love edible weeds and wild plants, I couldn’t have been any more thrilled by the bounty of seaweeds and sea vegetables that I was introduced to and became better acquainted with on a recent trip to the Northwest Coast.
Karen Sherwood of Earthwalk Northwest was the guide and instructor on this seaweed and coastal foraging expedition into the low tides and reefs just off of Lopez Island in Washington State. The days were full of hiking, kayaking, foraging, and fascinating studies on the identification, collection, preparation, and preservation of a variety of sea vegetables.
Letting Your Taste Buds be Your Guide to the World of Seaweeds
The first surprise was how freely we were able to sample the sea vegetables on the beaches we visited. Karen assured us that there were “no seaweeds growing in the local waters that could harm us” and that we were free to “let your taste buds be your guides.”
Even the Desmarestia ligulata seaweed (a.k.a. acid kelp), which generally isn’t recommended for eating because it contains high levels of sulfuric acid, is indeed perfectly edible in small quantities, and is also considered by many to be one of the best tasting seaweeds.
Hmmm, it’s almost as if you could sample first and identify later, that’s a big switch from the precautions required when foraging land based wild plants. It turns out that the major safeguards in consuming the sea vegetables around Washington State’s San Juan Islands is to ensure that the waters that they are growing in are unpolluted, have a good exchange ratio, and that the area is clear of any Red Tide warnings.
Despite the reduced risk, I still feel compelled to issue the usual warnings regarding any type of foraging: know what you’re doing when consuming any wild plant, learn from an experienced guide, be aware of the surroundings where you do your collecting, and look out for signs of food sensitivities or allergic reactions!
A Friendly Introduction to the Interesting Clans of Sea Vegetables
Alaria, Desmarestia, Egregia, Fucus, Laminaria, Nereocystis, Palmeria, Porphyra, and Ulva were the official names of a few seaweeds that are more commonly known as Winged Kelp, Color Changer or Acid Kelp, Feather Boa or Boa Kelp, Bladderwrack or Stirfry Weed, Kombu, Bullwhip Kelp, Dulse, Nori or Laver, and Sea Lettuce.
I resisted using those botanical names initially, but I have to admit that the formal titles do have a pleasing melody once you get the pronunciation down, and they also inspire the feelings as though you’re on a familiar, first name basis with these mysterious and new ocean dwelling plants.
We had two options for a rendezvous with our friendly seaweeds; wandering the reefs for a couple of hours at low-tide, or taking to kayaks and paddling out to gather the booty. I’d say walking out at low tide was the more productive option as there was no need to maneuver against the winds and currents while reaching and leaning to harvest and load seaweeds into a kayak in the deep waters of a supposedly calm bay!
The reefs had a few perils of their own though, just try walking out onto sharp rocks covered with slick seaweeds and you will be stepping gingerly for sure. Wading too far out in knee deep waters could also quickly land you in an unexpected and sudden drop off. Then there was the need to maintain your awareness in spite of the excitement of filling baskets full of sea vegetables and shellfish, lest you discover that the tide had crept in behind to leave you marooned in sea lion territory!
It was an incredible sight to see the variety and quantities of seaweeds that were exposed as the tide receded. It was also interesting to note how the various species of plants hung out together, with each variety of seaweed preferring to grow at a particular depth and under varying degrees of exposure to the waves and ocean currents.
In some ways it looked like a collage of sea vegetables strewn about everywhere that you looked, but there really was a definite order to it all. The seaweeds also seemed so helpless as they lay stranded in exposed heaps or were barely suspended in a few inches of the slack tide. Who knows, maybe these aquatic plants actually enjoy the brief rest from the constant dancing and activity that the ocean currents usually force upon them.
Legally and Sustainably Harvesting Seaweeds from the Ocean
With the required State of Washington Shellfish and Seaweed Harvesting Licenses in hand, our group of about a dozen foragers went about the task of sampling and gathering our share of the sea vegetables that we would cook, dry, eat, and study over the course of the coastal foraging class.
We were instructed in ways of sustainable harvesting to ensure the continued growth and survival of all the wild plants that we were collecting. Not that we put even a small dent in the seaweed population of the shoreline that we had all to ourselves. It did seem a little odd that the members of our group were the only ones taking advantage of this perfect window of opportunity to gather seaweeds.
The Native Americans cherished, harvested, and enjoyed these precious gifts of the ocean and probably hiked the same trails and explored the same reefs that we stood on during our foraging class. I guess I shouldn’t complain, but it is a shame that sea vegetables aren’t better known for the benefits and blessings that they offer to us.
I have long appreciated and enjoyed the edible weeds and wild plants that grow on land, but now I recognize that many more of them are hidden from sight and can be found growing just beyond the coasts and shores of the U.S. and other countries.
Next time I’ll share some interesting ways for using sea vegetables, both in the kitchen and outside in the organic garden. In the meantime here’s a link if you’d like to take a look at more sea vegetable photos from the expedition to the San Juan Islands and Earthwalk Northwest’s Seaweeds and Coastal Foraging Class.
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