By Sonoe Nakasone, Field Book Project
|Entry for Ledum palustre in William J. Fisher's botanical field notes from Kodiak, Alaska, 1899. Department of Botany, National Museum of Natural History.|
What would an anthropological view of biodiversity look like? Perhaps one answer is the botanical field notes of William J. Fisher (1830- 1903) from Kodiak, Alaska, 1899.
William Fisher worked as a Tidal Recorder in Alaska, but it seems his real interest was collecting biological specimens and ethnographic artifacts. In 1879, Fisher began collecting specimens for the Smithsonian in his spare time. Although Fisher collected birds, plants, fish, and other natural history specimens, his ethnographic collections eventually dominated his focus.
Fisher’s botanical field notes from 1899 take an ethnobotanical approach, perhaps reflecting his interest in Kodiak culture. Fisher examined the relationship between the Alutiiq (Aleut) and their plants by recording medicinal and food uses for 48 specimens. Additionally, for many of these specimens Fisher includes Russian and Sugpiat/Alutiiq (Aleut) names, distribution information, and a note if the plant is introduced.
The natural remedies and culinary descriptions Fisher recorded sparked many questions: how accurate were Fisher’s notes; how much more knowledge about our environment can we obtain from other cultures? For this post, I attempted to answer only the first of these questions. Conducting light internet research, I compared Fisher’s notes to published sources for some of the known medicinal properties and general or Alutiiq food uses of these plants. This was challenging as most of the phonetically spelled Russian and Sugpiat/Alutiiq names listed in Fisher’s notes yielded no internet search results. Luckily, Fisher included scientific names for two of his specimens: Fritillaria camschatcensis and Ledum palustre Eventually, I also found results on two other specimens using their Russian names “brussnika [sic]” (brusnika) and “kalina”.
Fisher provides medicinal uses for two of the four plants I researched. For one of these specimens, Ledum palustre (wild rosemary), Fisher makes the following note:
“[U]sed […]: 1) as a tea […for] alleviating the hacking cough of consumptives; 2) as a gargle for sore throat; 3) […] as a tea […for] asthmatic complaints. […] The leaves are chewed also and give relief in asthmatic complaints.”
Fisher’s notes align with the medical benefits listed for Ledum palustre on Plants for a Future (PFAF). This entry, however, also notes several serious hazards to Ledum palustre that Fisher does not.
Another medicinal plant from Fisher’s notes is “Kalina” (Viburnum edule; Highbush cranberry):
The entry for “Kalina” in Plant Lore of An Alaskan Island: Foraging in the Kodiak Archepelago [sic] (Kelso, 2011) contains a similar description of the medical benefits of this plant, but offers more details.
Fisher’s notes include information on food, but not medicinal uses for the following two specimens. According to Fisher’s notes, Fritillaria camschatcensis (Kamchatka fritillary), in the Lily family, was used as a preserve:
“[T]he bulbs are boiled, mashed, and after a liberal supply of seal or whale oil has been thoroughly mixed therewith, it is put away for winter’s use.”
Similarly, both the PFAF database entry for Kamchatka fritillary and Kelso's book mention the edible bulbs of the fritillary, descriptions on how to prepare this plant differ greatly from Fisher’s.
Different from the Highbush Cranberry mentioned earlier, Fisher’s notes record another type of cranberry that is used for preserves. These are referred to as “brussnika [sic]” (brusnika) in Russian. Fisher’s notes explain how these cranberries are “[M]ixed with seal or whale oil and salmon spawn for winter’s preserves.” By contrast, the entry for “brusnika” in Kelso's book has no record of seal, whale, or fish parts being used in the making cranberry preserves and also includes medicinal information absent from Fisher’s notes.
From my brief research on the four plants above, I found some overlap between Fisher’s notes and the information found in PFAF and Kelso's book, particularly with the medicinal information Fisher was able to capture. There were, however, many striking differences. These differences highlight the importance of the folk knowledge that can be gleaned from various cultures and communities world-wide.
So, where are you from? Are there plants special to your region? Does your community or region have unique traditions using those plant materials? We invite you to share some of your botanical traditions in the comments. Let us know your story and we may invite you to guest blog.
Crowell, A. L. 1992. Postcontact Koniag Ceremonialism on Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula: Evidence from the Fisher Collection. Arctic Anthropology, vol. 29(1), pp. 18-37.
Kelso, F. (2011). Plant Lore of an Alaskan Island: Foraging in the Kodiak Archepelago. AuthorHouse: Bloomington, Indiana.