U.S. Forest Service-Sitka Ranger District and Sitka Tribe of Alaska harvest Tlingít potato garden for community

The community is invited to help harvest the U.S. Forest Service-Sitka Ranger District and Sitka Tribe of Alaska Tlingít potato garden at 12:30 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 4. This workday and educational opportunity will be at the Sitka Ranger District office, located at 2108 Halibut Point Road. Staff will provide information on how to care for Tlingít potatoes, their biology, history, and cultural aspects.

Volunteers from the Sitka Tribe’s Traditional Foods Program, the gardening class from Pacific High School, and others from the community planted the potatoes in April in the sunny plot of land the Sitka Ranger District provides to serve as the shared potato garden. School and tribe volunteers assist in the harvest, but community involvement is also needed.

Participants should come prepared for the weather as all activities will occur outdoors. Attendees are asked to wear boots and gardening gloves, and bring hand trowels and buckets of kelp to incorporate into the soil after harvesting.

Potatoes will be dried and prepared for storage. Many of the potatoes harvested will be saved as next year’s seed potatoes. The rest of the harvest will be shared among the volunteers and through the Sitka Tribe’s Traditional Foods Program and Social Services Department.

For the third year in a row, the potato garden will help support food security in Sitka and be an ambassador for heirloom varieties of vegetables throughout Southeast Alaska.

“This year, we shared Maria’s ‘Tlingít’ seed potatoes with Supanika Ordonez and Timothy James Ackerman and their children. Timothy’s grandmother was Maria Ackerman Miller, whom the potatoes were named after,” says Michelle Putz, project coordinator and lead gardener for the Sitka Ranger District. “It’s exciting that our potato project has allowed this historic and delicious food to end up back in the hands —and the dirt—of the ancestors who brought it forward to scientists. Because of Forest Service and Sitka Tribe’s efforts to cultivate and share this potato and information about it, this unassuming potato has gone full circle.”

Supanika and her children (shown in the photos) were thrilled to grow Maria’s potatoes.

“We recently bought a house in Juneau and we were hoping to grow some of Maria’s potatoes with our sons. Last year, we had gotten some [seed potatoes] from Maria’s daughter in Bellingham (Wash.), but they had been cross-bred with a purple potato variety. We had hoped that some were Tlingít potatoes, but the crop was all purple,” Supanika said. “This spring, the Forest Service gave us some Maria’s seed potatoes from the Forest Service/Sitka Tribe potato garden. As they started to pop out of the ground, our 3-year-old would say ‘great-grandma’s potatoes’ every time we walked by. The boys had fun harvesting this week. We got quite a crop, so we have enough to save and plant next year too.”

Sitka District Ranger Perry Edwards, adds, “We could not be happier than to bring this potato back to the family that brought it to us in the first place.”

Tlingít potatoes (sometimes called Maria’s potatoes) have been present in Tlingít gardens for more than 200 years. The potatoes originate from Mexico or Chile* and were a trade item in Southeast Alaska in the early 1800’s.

All are invited to learn and assist in this workday. For more information, contact Michelle Putz at 907-747-2708 or michelle.putz@usda.gov.

*Zhang, Linhai with Charles R. Brown, David Culley, Barbara Baker, Elizabeth Kunibe, Hazel Denney, Cassandra Smith, Neuee Ward, Tia Beavert, Julie Coburn, J. J. Pavek, Nora Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer. Inferred origin of several Native American potatoes from the Pacific Northwest and Southeast Alaska using SSR markers. Euphytica 174:15-29

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The mission of the USDA Forest Service is to sustain the health, diversity and productivity of the nation’s forests and grasslands to meet the needs of present and future generations. The agency manages 193 million acres of public land, provides assistance to state and private landowners and maintains the largest forestry research organization in the world. Public lands the Forest Service manages contribute more than $13 billion to the economy each year through visitor spending alone. Those same lands provide 30 percent of the nation’s surface drinking water to cities and rural communities and approximately 66 million Americans rely on drinking water that originated from the National Forest System. The agency also has either a direct or indirect role in stewardship of about 900 million forested acres within the U.S., of which over 130 million acres are urban forests where most Americans live.

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