Sitka Tribe, U.S. Forest Service plant Tlingít potato garden for community

(Photo courtesy of Klas Stolpe/Juneau Empire) Bill Ehlers, assistant gardener at the Jensen-Olson Arboretum in Juneau, holds a Tlingít potato next to some of the potato plant’s flowers.

The U.S. Forest Service-Sitka Ranger District and Sitka Tribe of Alaska will join forces again on Friday, April 20, to create an educational opportunity and traditional food source for community members. Forest Service staff and the tribe will share how to grow Tlingít (sometimes called Maria’s) potatoes, and share the biology, history, and cultural aspects of these interesting potatoes.

Since 2017, the Sitka Ranger District has provided a sunny plot of land to serve as the shared potato garden and provided the seed potatoes to plant the garden. The Sitka Tribe’s Traditional Foods Program and the gardening class from Pacific High School assisted on the project, and will again this year. But community involvement is also needed. Volunteers are asked to bring boots, gardening gloves, and shovels. Five gallon buckets of kelp to incorporate into the soil would be beneficial as well. Members of the community who help tend the shared garden may receive more than gratitude as their reward.

“Last fall we shared the harvest among those helping out and through the Sitka Tribe’s Traditional Foods Program. We’ve been growing and naturally enhancing our soil this spring, so this year we hope the crop is even larger,” District Ranger Perry Edwards said. “This project teaches people how to grow and sustain a traditional food, while supporting the need for food security among Sitka families. It’s also a fun and very sustainable way to celebrate Earth Day.”

Tlingit potatoes have been present in Tlingit gardens for over 200 years. The potatoes originate from Mexico or Chile* and were a trade item in Southeast Alaska in the early 1800’s.

The first work day and educational opportunity will be from 9:30-11:30 a.m. on Friday, April 20, at the Sitka Ranger District office, located at 2108 Halibut Point Road. For more information, contact Michelle Putz at 907-747-2708 or mputz@fs.fed.us.

*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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Sitka Ranger District, Sitka Tribe to harvest Tlingit community potato garden

(Photo courtesy of Klas Stolpe/Juneau Empire) Bill Ehlers, assistant gardener at the Jensen-Olson Arboretum in Juneau, holds a Tlingít potato next to some of the potato plant’s flowers.

The community is invited to help harvest the Sitka Ranger District/Sitka Tribe of Alaska Tlingit potato garden and learn scientific and cultural information about the unique crop at 3 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 25, at the USDA Forest Service Sitka Ranger District office, 2108 Halibut Point Road.

Leading Tlingit potato researcher Elizabeth Kunibe will join the group to present information on the biology, history, and cultural aspects Tlingit potatoes. Topics will include harvesting potatoes, learning to store potatoes for seed and for food, preparation for next year’s garden, and the cultural aspects of Tlingit potatoes and native gardening.

The Sitka Ranger District provided the sunny plot of land for the shared potato garden and tended the garden over the summer after 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.

Community involvement is needed for the harvest. Participants should come prepared for the weather as all activities will occur outdoors. All of the attendees are asked to wear boots, gardening gloves, and bring hand trowels or shovels. Bringing buckets of kelp to incorporate into the soil after harvesting would be beneficial.

The potatoes will need to be dried and prepared for storage. Many of the potatoes harvested will be saved for next year’s seed potatoes, Depending on the size of the harvest, the group hopes to share the harvest among the volunteers and through the Sitka Tribe’s Traditional Foods Program and Social Services.

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

This work day and educational opportunity will be at the Sitka Ranger District office, located at 2108 Halibut Point Road. For more information, contact Michelle Putz at 907-747-2708 or mputz@fs.fed.us. For interviews and information to be used for publication, contactthe Tongass Public Affairs Officer Paul Robbins at 907-228-6201 or paulrobbins@fs.fed.us.

Tlingít potato garden being readied for community of Sitka

(Photo courtesy of Klas Stolpe/Juneau Empire) Bill Ehlers, assistant gardener at the Jensen-Olson Arboretum in Juneau, holds a Tlingít potato next to some of the potato plant’s flowers.

The U.S. Forest Service-Sitka Ranger District and Sitka Tribe of Alaska have joined forces to help create an educational opportunity and traditional food source for community members.

The two groups will show how to grow Tlingít potatoes, and tell about their biology, history and cultural aspects.

The Sitka Ranger District is providing a plot of land to serve as the shared potato garden. The Sitka Tribe’s Traditional Foods Program and the gardening class from Pacific High School will assist on the project, but community involvement also is needed.

Attendees should bring boots, gardening gloves and shovels, and (if possible) five-gallon buckets of kelp to incorporate into the soil. The first work day and educational opportunity is scheduled for 12:30 p.m. on Friday, April 14, at the Sitka Ranger District office, 2108 Halibut Point Road.

Organizers said that members of the community who help tend the shared garden may receive more than gratitude as their reward.

“We hope to share the harvest among those helping out, and possibly share potatoes through the Sitka Tribe’s Traditional Foods Program and Social Services,” Sitka District Ranger Perry Edwards said. “This project will teach people how to grow and sustain a traditional food, while supporting the growing need for food security among Sitka families.”

K’únts’ — 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 1800s.

For more information, contact Michelle Putz at 747-2708 or mputz@fs.fed.us.

• Tlingít potato makes a comeback in Juneau

(Photo courtesy of Klas Stolpe/Juneau Empire) Bill Ehlers, assistant gardener at the Jensen-Olson Arboretum in Juneau, holds a Tlingít potato next to some borage plant flowers.
(Photo courtesy of Klas Stolpe/Juneau Empire) Bill Ehlers, assistant gardener at the Jensen-Olson Arboretum in Juneau, holds a Tlingít potato next to some borage plant flowers.

There was an interesting article in Wednesday’s edition of the Juneau Empire about the revival of a Tlingít potato that was a staple in Tlingít gardens for hundreds of years (Click here to read the Juneau Empire article by Kimberly Marquis).

Tlingít and Haida gardeners grew their own vegetables more than 200 years ago, and potatoes were one of their most important crops. In an article in the Winter 2008/2009 newsletter for Alaska EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research), University of Alaska Southeast social science/anthropology student Elizabeth Kunibe said residents of many Southeast Alaska villages planted gardens of root vegetables — such as potatoes, rutabagas and parsnips — on neighboring islands in the spring while they headed to their fish camps. They harvested them when they returned home in the fall (Click here to read the article on Pages 4-5).

Kunibe said many of these gardens disappeared over the past century, especially as the U.S. Forest Service parceled out some islands for homesteads or fox farms. She said Tlingíts in Sitka lost their island gardens in World War II when the government forbade private water travel. The increasing availability of imported food and other disruptions, such as tuberculosis outbreaks, also sped up the demise of the individual and community gardens found in many Native villages. Kunibe said in 1952 they grew 4,000 pounds of potatoes in Angoon, but the gardens disappeared and Angoon was without a garden until the last year or two when there was a movement to start a community garden.

The Tlingít potato is a fingerling potato with a yellowish skin and somewhat lumpy shape. They do not do well mashed or fried, but taste great in soups or roasted, said Merrill Jensen, manager of the Jensen-Olson Arboretum in Juneau where they expect to harvest about 1,500 pounds of the potatoes next month. The Tlingít potato also is known as “Maria’s Potato” in honor of the late Maria (Ackerman) Miller, the Haines woman who in 1994 gave Juneau’s Richard and Nora Dauenhauer their first seed potatoes. Miller, who died in 1995, told the Dauenhauers the potatoes had been in her family for more than 100 years.

According to Kunibe, who sent samples to a plant geneticist for DNA testing, the Tlingít potato is a distinct variety among potatoes, but they are very similar to two other varieties of Native American potatoes — the Ozette or Makah potato from Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula and the Haida potato from Kasaan on Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island. In a June 7, 2007, article in the Chilkat Valley News (click here to read it), Kunibe said potatoes arrived in Southeast Alaska aboard Spanish ships as early as 1765. She said the three Native American varieties are closely related to potatoes grown in Mexico and the Chilean coastal areas. (Most modern domestic potatoes are descended from species native to the Peruvian Andes.) The Tlingít potato grows well in our rainy climate and keeps a long time in a root cellar. Kunibe said the potatoes became a prime Southeast Alaska commerce item in the early 1800s and the Russian fleets contracted with the Tlingít and Haida tribes to grow them.

Bob Gorman, a master gardener who works with the Sitka office of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Cooperative Extension Service, said off the top of his head he didn’t know of anybody growing the potato in Sitka right now, though he did suggest several longtime gardeners who might know if people grew them in the past. Maybelle Filler, a master gardener who works with the SEARHC Diabetes Program, said they are looking to bring some seed potatoes to give to Sitka gardeners, but she had been told the potatoes can’t be sold at local markets (though they can be given away).

(Photo courtesy of Klas Stolpe/Juneau Empire) Bill Ehlers, assistant gardener of the Jensen-Olson Arboretum in Juneau, tends to a Tlingít potato plant on July 27, 2009. The potatoes will be used as seed stock to be distrbuted to people interested in growing the variety.
(Photo courtesy of Klas Stolpe/Juneau Empire) Bill Ehlers, assistant gardener of the Jensen-Olson Arboretum in Juneau, tends to a Tlingít potato plant on July 27, 2009. The potatoes will be used as seed stock to be distrbuted to people interested in growing the variety.