Highlighting the Health-protective Properties of Alaskan Berries (your Elders already knew)

Written by Dr. Mary Ann Lila, Plants for Human Health Institute director, for the EPA’s Greenversations blog (November 19, 2014). November is Native American Heritage month.


I was ecstatic when the EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Program put out the request for applications for the study of tribal resources and climate change. My office mate was a rural sociologist, so we put our heads together and wrote up a plan for research that we’d been hoping to tackle for years: wild Alaskan berries.

Dr. Mary Ann Lila wildcrafting – harvesting plants from their natural, or “wild” habitat, for food or medicinal purposes – with Alaskan elders.

Regions of the Alaskan arctic tundra are considered to be on the ‘front lines’ of climate change. The dramatic consequences of climate-related shifts are most evident around coastal areas. For example, the retreating glaciers, and the shrinking sea ice that diminishes hunting territory for walrus and polar bears.

But in the arctic, the climate also exerts a decisive impact on terrestrial plants, including the wild indigenous berries that thrive even above the tree line, the most hostile environments throughout the state. Frequently these berries (mossberries, salmonberries, bog blueberries and more) also proliferate around Alaska Native communities, where they are one of the only wild edible resources from the land (most other foods are obtained from the sea or as shipped-in commodities).

Berries that have adapted to flourish in the arctic are able to survive environmental insults by accumulating a cornucopia of defensive, natural plant chemicals.  The chemicals help to buffer the berries against the ravages of climate extremes, but once ingested, these same chemicals can be healthy. They help Alaskan natives resist many insults of chronic diseases, including the power of the berry to inhibit diabetes symptoms.

Will climate change have an effect on this revered native resource? On the one hand, moderating temperatures may allow berry harvests to occur more routinely. On the other hand, the moderating climate may lead to competing species invading berry habitat.  And perhaps most importantly, will the berries fail to accumulate protective plant chemicals at such high concentrations? The answers aren’t immediately clear, and only long-term, sustained studies will begin to unravel the true impacts of climate change on the berry resources.

In our work, the Tribal communities around Point Hope, Akutan (in the Aleutian Islands) and Seldovia have been gracious hosts to the analyses, and have been receptive to learning more about how science tests demonstrate the power of the berries against disease targets.

Not only have the Elders joined in the science based studies, but they’ve gladly contributed the background traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) about how berries have been historically valued and used in their communities, as a control of blood glucose and a healthy metabolism. Elders have been happy to show the youth in the Tribal communities, with their own eyes, that modern science agrees with, and validates TEK.

About the Author: Mary Ann Lila is the Director of the Plants for Human Health Institute at North Carolina State University. Her research team has worked for nearly a decade in Alaska with the berries and other native wild plants, which she considers to be the prime example of how plants’ adaptations to harsh environments ultimately protect human consumers of that plant.