The garden in the courtyard at the Alaska Native Medical Center doesn’t have many flowers, mostly greenery that fades into the backdrop. But take a closer look. 

It may be a relatively small garden, but if you become acquainted with the plants that grow there, a big world opens-up – a world we explore this week on Frontiers. 

Each bed has been carefully cultivated to replicate different climates in the state. There’s one for vegetation that grows in birch forests, another for tundra, as well as Alaska’s rocky shores – a great jumping off point for a conversation about how Alaska Natives used wild plants for both food and medicine.

Here are highlights from this week’s show:

  • Food as medicine: Chef Amy Foote, who oversees the kitchens at the Alaska Native Medical Center (ANMC), shows us how to incorporate sour dock into akutaq, a mixture of berries and fat, also known as “Eskimo ice cream.” Sour dock is a wild cousin of rhubarb with a bit of a kick to it. Look below for the recipe. 
  • Plants as medicine: Dana Diehl, the Wellness Director at ANMC, shares her knowledge about the healing properties of plants, gleaned from elders in Aniak. As a child, Dana learned to make teas and salves from the leaves of plants that grew around her. She also introduces us to a plant you can rub on your skin to ward off mosquitos.
  • A healing instrument: One might not think of the wood from a violin as a plant used as medicine. But in Southeast Alaska, a handmade violin, presented at a potluck in Metlakatla, helped to heal old hurts for children in two different families. It’s a familiar story – how siblings, as adults, discover they have brothers and sisters they didn’t know about. Special thanks to Amy Modig, who contributed footage and photos for this story.

This is one of those with a lot of what I like to call, “Ah ha!” moments – where what seemed so ordinary, becomes extraordinary. I hope after this show, a walk in the woods, the beach or the tundra, will never be quite the same again.




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