Tea, medicines and sweets: a workshop teaches the benefits of arctic plants

Tutorial on one of the many free summer activities held at Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park in Iqaluit

Growing up, Caroline Ipeelie didn’t know all the names and uses of plants she would see in Iqaluit until she joined local plant walks and learned on her own.

Now the director of heritage for the Government of Nunavut, Ipeelie passes on the knowledge of arctic plants she has acquired over the years to others.

Ipeelie did exactly that Thursday at Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park in Iqaluit. His workshop was part of Nunavut Parks’ weekly “Learn to…” series offered across the territory this summer.

Ipeelie said it was important to pass on this knowledge so that it can be preserved for future generations.

“Not everyone knows these things,” she said.

“Back then it was hit-or-miss on what worked, what you could eat. The dependence was only on the earth.

Participants in a summer workshop learn about arctic plants at Sylvia Grinnell Park on Thursday with instructor Caroline Ipeelie. High: carolina Ipeelie shows participants how to dig for the Alpine Bistort plant, which has an edible nut at the base of its root; bottom left: the white flowers of Labrador tea, which can be boiled for a strong tasting tea; bottom right: Ipeelie rubs the powder of a puffball mushroom on her hand, which may help heal the skin. (Photos by Madalyn Howitt)

Participants first received a short lesson on the plants that can be found in the park and how they can be used, before being taken on a short walk through nearby rocky cliffs.

Iqaluit is home to several edible berries, and now is the best season to pick many, Ipeelie said. Blackberries and crowberries are best when they reach a deep plum color, and blueberries barely reach their peak flavor as September approaches.

In addition to being delicious to snack on, berries offer antioxidant benefits and can aid digestion, such as red bearberry.

Some of the other plants Ipeelie showed participants on the walk included:

  • Labrador tea, found with white flowers in the tundra, has a strong smell and strong taste when the leaves are boiled (not recommended for people with migraines or epilepsy). It can be eaten fresh or dried, and it acts as a natural mosquito repellent.
  • Arctic willowherb, distinguished by its brilliant purple flowers that dot the tundra, can be used to stop nosebleeds. It is best picked in October when the leaves are dying off and boiled in hot water for at least five minutes to make a tea, and some people also make jam from it.
  • Witch hair is a type of lichen that turns water black when you boil it. Drinking tea can help a person detox and “sweat away illnesses” like fever and strep throat.
  • Fluffy white Willow Cotton was historically used as a flint to light the qulliq. It is best picked in August and can be stored for a long time.
  • Peat moss can be chewed and swallowed to help relieve heartburn, and is sometimes said to be applied to the bellies of people giving birth to relieve pain.
  • Puffball mushroom can be used as a natural dressing to heal cuts on the skin, and the brown, powdery interior can be rubbed into the skin like makeup.
  • The soft arctic heather plant “never gets wet” and makes great mattress padding.
  • Mountain sorrel is a delicacy rich in vitamin C – rub the stalks and eat them for a natural treat. Ipeelie said that when her mother was young, she put the sorrel root in a cloth bag and chewed the sweetness.
  • Seaside Bellflowers, found near Apex, can be made into a tasty salad.
  • If you’re willing to dig, the alpine bistort plant, which sports a distinctive orange-red leaf, has an edible nut at the base of its root. “The bigger the plant, the bigger the nut,” Ipeelie said.

So what is Ipeelie’s favorite plant in Iqaluit?

“Arctic cotton, because bugs don’t like it,” she laughed.

The fluffy white natural insect repellent can be stored for a long time, and it can also be used as a soft insole in shoes, as a cleaning tool and to fill mattresses, she said.

Ipeelie encourages anyone interested in learning more about what plants can do to get out on the ground and pick some themselves.

“It’s time to experiment when things are ripe and ready.”