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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’.

Sour dock has a tall inflorescence (stem of flower clusters) of reddish-brown flowers. The long narrow leaves at the base of the plant are gathered, boiled and preserved by the Yup’ik.

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.

Cecilia awaits our put-in in Jackie’s little boat.

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.

Sour dock is but one food Jackie and her grandmother gather. Here, king salmon harvested from the Kanektok River dries in the sun beside Jackie’s grandmother’s smokehouse.

Jackie recently cut salmon strips from their smoked fish to eat during the winter months.

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).

Me standing among the riparian vegetation with gathering bag in hand. Tall red sour dock plants in flower are visible in the foreground.

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.

A Grizzly bear track in the mud along the river bank.

Together, Cecilia and I gathered three overflowing bags of sour dock leaves.

Beautiful Cecilia takes a break from collecting. A tributary of the river is visible in the background.

The typical vegetation of the wetter sites along the river. The yellow flowered plant with rounded leaves is marsh marigold (Caltha palustris).

A bouquet of handsome flowers from the wintergreen plant (Pyrola asarifolia).
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2 Responses »

  1. I just went out and picked salmon berries and sour dock yesterday afternoon in Chefornak. Figure I can cut down my food bill. I only picked enough to try… I’ve had them in akutaq once, but I intend to try them more as spinach.

  2. I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you down the road!