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Seaweed guru Mandy Lindgren’s job at NOAA takes her around the state to study the flora and fauna of our intertidal areas.
Gathering Alaska: The wild and wonderful world of seaweed 032217 AE 1 For the Capital City Weekly Seaweed guru Mandy Lindgren’s job at NOAA takes her around the state to study the flora and fauna of our intertidal areas.

Seaweeds, sea stars and sea urchins cling to rocks at low tide. When you harvest seaweed, leave its holdfast intact. Photo by Corinne Conlon.


A seaweed clings to a rock. Like many plants, the taste of seaweed changes as it ages. Photo by Corinne Conlon.


Exposed seaweeds cling to rocks in a Southeast Alaska harbor. Photo by Corinne Conlon.


Sugar kelp stubs cling to rocks after a legion of sea urchins grazed on them. Photo by Corinne Conlon.

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Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Story last updated at 3/21/2017 - 4:08 pm

Gathering Alaska: The wild and wonderful world of seaweed

Seaweed guru Mandy Lindgren’s job at NOAA takes her around the state to study the flora and fauna of our intertidal areas. Her book, “Field Guide to Seaweeds of Alaska,” co-authored with Sandra Lindstrom, is a fantastic overview. However, just as you begin to use any field guide, there is an overwhelming amount of information. What you know is often less than what you don’t know. When I spoke with her, I ended up starting our conversation by telling her how confusing I found seaweeds.

Luckily, she nodded her head in agreement. Mandy said she uses the scientific names because the common names vary and what is considered black seaweed could be one of 20 species of Porphyra. Not that any of this had any substantive meaning, but I found it reassuring.

She went on to say that what we call black seaweed is actually a red type, that nori has three stages of development and that for a long time researchers weren’t even sure it was the same plant, and the seaweed salad (Goma wakame) you purchase in the grocer is really a brown seaweed dyed bright green. Then she added that the green flakes in my furikake are really nori bits, just another type of red seaweed.

Before my head exploded, she began breaking it down for me. In the water, you can usually get a sense of what is meant by red, green, and brown seaweeds. Red is the most nutritious and found in the area we encounter at very low tides. Green seaweed is good for soups and something to nibble. Browns are good for seasoning or to make the ubiquitous Alaskan kelp pickles.

In the same way that leaves develop bitter or off-tasting flavors as they mature, seaweeds’ taste changes. Just as you taste blueberries as you pick to make sure they are ripe, nibble on seaweed to find out if it is palatable. Of course, you want to make sure it’s safe. Except for witch’s hair, an acidic kelp that releases sulfuric acid when stressed, seaweeds are edible, but not all of them taste good.

In general, the best time to hit the newer seaweeds falls between April and June. You don’t need an extreme low tide, though the seaweed you find washed up on shore has already begun its decomposition.

Look for a cobbled or boulder-strewn beach to forage. Don’t pull off the holdfast, but clip off the growing part after nibbling it to see if it tastes good. We’re lucky to have such bounty to harvest, but we need to respect that pulling seaweed out by its holdfast, which is comparable to roots, means we decrease our future harvests.

Be cautious about where you collect. Kelp acts as a huge sponge for heavy metals. In fact, it’s used in parts of Asia as a way to clean up toxic areas. Green seaweed loves phosphates and tends to bloom near run-off areas.

Seaweed is one of the most nutritious foods we harvest here in Southeast. Many kids already know it as a great snack. Mandy told me she couldn’t help resist taking a photo of the packaged seaweed at Costco when it first came to Juneau. She knew it had made it to the big league when she saw it in a box store.

The next “Foraging Alaska” will focus on seaweed varieties and some easy uses to add it to dishes.