Long before there were physicians and pharmacies, Alaska Natives combed the hillsides in search of plants to treat or prevent illnesses.

In fact, each region of the state has its own remedies — but you don’t have to travel far to learn about some of the important ones.

The healing garden at the Alaska Native Medical Center has plant beds designed to simulate different environments — like the bog garden which features beach lovage.

“It’s a green that grows in wet rocky areas,” says Dana Diehl, Director of the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s wellness and prevention program.

Lovage, which is common in the Kenai Peninsula, is a member of the parsley family. It tastes like celery and is enjoyed in soups, but the Alutiiq also used the leaves in teas to treat kidney ailments.

Lovage found in the Alaska Native Medical Center's healing garden.

While the lovage seems to flourish in leafy abandon in the ANMC courtyard, the Labrador tea struggles. It typically thrives in the wetness of the tundra. Its leaves, when steeped in hot water, give off a pleasant, aromatic flavor. The plant normally grows into a bush, but you can only find a few sprigs in the garden.

“We’re just testing things out to see what will grow in this space,” said Diehl, who hopes the Labrador tea will eventually be coaxed into establishing itself.

“Labrador tea is a plant that is really familiar to our Native people, because we use it, not only for tea, but some people use it for spiritual practices,” Diehl said.

In general, you’ll find a reverence for plants in Alaska Native culture. Traditional healers were known to ask a plant’s permission, before they would pick so much as a leaf. They believed that all things have a spirit, and that include plants.

Diehl grew up in Aniak among the birch trees of Interior Alaska, where she has memories of elders tapping birch trees for their water.

“People will drink the birch water to prevent colds and things like that,” said Diehl, who recalls the close relationship elders had with plants around them.
Wormwood was one of those.

“People call it stinkweed, but I don’t like to call it stinkweed. I think it smells really wonderful,” Dana said.

The Yup’ik name for wormwood is “chythlook.”

“My mom used it to prevent colds,” Diehl said. “And she used it in the steam bath as well, to promote respiratory health.”

“I think it’s really special. Some people even call it Native medicine, because it’s so powerful,” said Diehl, who was taught that the plant must be used with caution. She dries the leaves dry to make tea and sips it when she feels a cold coming on.

Yarrow is another favorite of Diehl’s.

“You can use it as an insect repellent, and just kind of rub it on your skin,” Diehl said, laughing as she crushed a leaf and rubbed it on her arm.
She prefers to mix yarrow with olive oil and beeswax to make a salve, which she uses to treat cuts and stop bleeding.

“Yarrow is really prolific in Alaska. You’ll see it in almost every region of the state,” Diehl said.

Yarrow, a medicinal plant found in Alaska, can be used as an insect repellent.

For more about traditional Native medicine, watch KTVA’s Frontiers program, which aired on Sept. 8. It features Dr. Gary Ferguson and Dr. Allison Kelliher. The two physicians talk about some of their favorite plants and how to use them safely. 

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