Botanical garden opens at northernmost tip of North America

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - At 71 degrees North -- the approximate latitude of Utqiagvik, Alaska -- it is too cold and windy for any species of berries to fruit. The growing season gives just a few short weeks for the knee high willows to add a few millimeters of new wood to their mangled branches, and the wildflowers bloom briefly before fading back into the ruddy tones of the tundra.

Opening day at the Tundra Heritage Garden(Photo courtesy of John Bergman/Ilisagvik College)

So why did the community of Utqiagvik decide to build a botanical garden in a barren patch of permafrost? It turns out that a lot of the plants that are native to the tundra have a rich tradition of culinary use, but one that’s been largely forgotten.

“Elders told us was that they really liked going out on the land, and they liked harvesting plants,” said Diana Solenberger of Ilisagvik College, a partner in the project since its inception four years ago, “but they didn't have a Honda, or they didn't have transportation to get out there anymore. And so the idea was to bring the plants to the elders, bring the plants to the community.”

But picturing the typical botanical garden of the Lower-48 doesn’t quite explain the project. In fact, Lorene Lynn, a restoration ecologist who led the construction of the garden says the word “garden” itself is problematic, since it doesn’t reflect any Inupiaq understanding of the project she was trying to create. It's officially called the Heritage Tundra Garden, but in fact, no language can encapsulate what it is meant to represent.

“This is to provide people an avenue to learn and share and communicate about the plants, build their relationship with the plants, and introduce their children to it,” she said.

The garden, which sits in half-acre area of tundra behind the senior center, centers on several 40 to 50 foot mounds that was pushed to the edge of the field by earth-moving equipment. Then, high school student workers painstakingly ferried hundreds of loads of dirt in wheel barrows across the bumpy narrow walkways.

One of the mounds midway through the planting process (Photo courtesy of Lorene Lynn)

Then the mounds were covered using a special technique.

“We cut the sod out of the ground and this is in the traditional method that was used for making sod houses long ago. I learned that technique in the oil fields,” said Lynn, who often spends summers restoring damaged tundra for North Slope oil companies. “It was taught to somebody in the oil fields by someone who was originally from Utqiagvik, so it was kind of a fun full circle of knowledge gift.”

Student workers remove sod before the garden mounds are put in place (photo courtesy of Lorene Lynn)

Together, the three mounds house about 60 different species of plants and moss that were collected from the area. While two are made of dirt, a third is made up of sand, where some wild, edible beach plants were placed. Those plants require some special attention to recreate their natural environment.

“About twice a year, we go out with a couple buckets of seawater and pretend that there's a storm and water those plants with that,” said Lynn.

This year, the finishing touches were put into the garden, including informational placards that identify the plants, as well as four large interpretive signs. The garden officially opened this weekend to a crowd of more than fifty curious locals, but its impact has been growing for years.

Lynn remembers a specific moment when she felt that the project was finally coming together in the summer of 2018. She had just covered a patch of the mound with mountain sorrel, a small but tasty leaf known to Inupiaq speakers as “qunullig.” Just then, two kids walked through the garden.

“I let them try a few leaves and their eyes got big and they looked at me and they said 'Geeze, just like blueberries!’” recounted Lynn. “They were so excited I had to hold them back from harvesting it all and asked them to ask their grandmother to take them out to harvest because they suddenly realized that there are delicious plants out on the tundra.”

For now, the garden is open to locals and visitors, but Lynn and Solenberger hope to continue to develop programming that is as unique as the ecosystem of the North Slope. So far, that has included plant walks and a salve-making class taught by a local healer. Most importantly, the community hopes to restore the traditional understanding and role of plants in a community that is better known for harvesting bowhead whales.

Nodding bladder-campion (Photo courtesy of Lorene Lynn)

“The animal portion is subsistence diet is very much alive and well, in Utqiagvik, but the plant portion isn’t,” said Lynn.

If all goes as planned, that subsistence interest in plants may grow in the coming years.

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