In Pusuit of Sour Dock
QUINHAGAK, ALASKA– After my final ethnobotany lecture, I offered to help Cecilia, a co-teacher and Yup’ik elder, collect sour dock leaves. Sour dock (Rumex arcticus) is a perennial herb native to Alaska. It is related to rhubarb in the Polygonaceae, or buckwheat family. The leaves are high in vitamin C and have a sharp sour-lemon flavor. As the plant matures, the leaves become more and more sour as the acidity within the plant increases.
The young leaves are eaten in salads or cooked like spinach and frozen to eat in the winter months. The leaves are also chopped and cooked with a base of lard and sugar to make a dessert called ‘Eskimo ice cream’.
The Yup’ik believe the leaves, or the vegetative part, of the sour dock plant are female. In contrast, the inflorescences, or reproductive structures, are male. Our aim was to collect young green leaves: female sour dock.
To do so, we traveled up the Kanektok River with Gloria and Jackie, two students in the class. The Kanektok River flows about ninety miles from its headwaters through the nearby Ahklun Mountains. It joins the Bering Sea at the village of Quinhagak.
Jackie is a native of the village and we were grateful to have her as our guide. Both her and her grandmother collect sour dock along the river in mid-summer.
Armed with our plastic grocery bags for collecting, we journeyed up the river. We were fortunate to find two places where sour dock was abundant among the riparian vegetation (plants by the river).
Cecilia and I vigorously collected leaves at the first area until we came upon a very recent (and tremendous!) grizzly bear track. We swiftly joined the other two and convinced them to set out on the river to collect elsewhere.
Together, Cecilia and I gathered three overflowing bags of sour dock leaves.