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Lessons & Units

A database of lessons and units searchable by content and cultural standards, cultural region and grade level. More units will be available soon. You can use Acrobat Reader to look at the PDF version of the Cover Sheet for the Units and Self-Assessment for Cultural Standards in Practice.

Working with Willows


BSSD Unit on SURVIVAL - Edible Plants

Theme: Willows

lesson seven

Title: Whipping up Willows

Gathering, Preparing, Preserving and Sharing Food


Authors: Jenna Anasogak, Jolene Katchatag, Mike Kimber, John Sinnok, Nita Towarak, Cheryl Pratt

Grade Level: 5-8 (can be adapted for lower or higher grade levels)

Subjects: Social Studies, Science,

Context: Springtime, Field Trip

Region: NW Alaska

Materials: pocket knives, small bags or containers, seal oil, journal from Journey with Journals lesson, paper for invitations.


*Alaska Math Standards: B- A student should understand and be able to select and use a variety of problem-solving strategies.

Skills and Knowledge: B-3- formulate mathematical problems that arise from everyday situations.

*Alaska Science Standards: A- A student should understand scientific facts, concepts, principles and theories.

Skills and Knowledge: A-15- use science to understand and describe the local environment.

*Alaska Standards for Culturally Relevant Schools: C- Culturally-knowledgeable students are able to actively participate in various cultural environments. and D- Culturally-knowledgeable students are able to engage effectively in learning activities that are based on traditional ways of knowing and learning.

Skills and Knowledge: C-1 perform subsistence activities in ways that are appropriate to local cultural traditions, and D-6 engage in a realistic self-assessment to identify strengths and needs and make appropriate decisions to enhance life skills.



I. Overview:

In this lesson, students should use the information they were able to discover from elders and community members as a basis for their study. They should have this information recorded within their journals. This lesson leads to a time of sharing with the elders and community members who provided information to the students. Students will collect edible plant parts of the willow and prepare them for sharing. The information from your elders will probably be most accurate for your region although provided below (background) is additional information taken from Nauriat Niginaqtuat, Plants That We Eat, a very valuable resource by Anore Jones and Manillaq Association, 1983.


II. Background and Discussion:

  • Of the 40 species of willows in Alaska, 13 different kinds grow in our region. Of these the two most common willows are also the two kinds best to eat, uqpik and sura.
  • If you haven't learned to enjoy eating willow buds - know that you are a learner. Try some every chance you get. After several springs you will find that you have grown very fond of them.
  • Although no willow is poisonous, some do not taste good. Be sure to learn the best ones - the sura (leaves of Sura Willow) and the natatquq and misruquq (stem and scrape of River Willow).
  • The parts eaten on several types of willows include:
    • 1. very new leaves;
    • 2. the tender, new growing tips of the shoots and roots after they are peeled; and
    • 3. the juicy layer (scrape) between the bark and wood of the shoots or roots.
  • Natatquq - (New stem) Peel and eat the tender, new shoot. Toward the tip it becomes smaller and harder to peel. The other direction peels easily and as the wood increases, chew and suck the juice out without eating the fibers. These new stems will have grown by early July. (Misruq - is the "cambium", or juicy layer between bark and wood.) Peel the brown bark off the willow, scrape off the misrug or juicy cambium. It tastes like watermelon or cucumber. It's more a cool, refreshing taste-treat than a food.
  • As the river is breaking up the new leaf buds swell and burst with tiny green leaves. These leaves taste good when they are very small and smooth, but about the time they get big enough to pick easily they also get tough and fuzzy-felty textured.
  • All these different stages of willow can sometimes be available at the same time near a large snowbank. There the first willows to melt out can have 2-foot long new shoots (natatquq) when pussy willow are still blooming over the disappearing snow.
  • FLOWERS are the pussy-willows, qipmiuraq, qipmiurat meaning little willow puppies". These bloom before breakup, while the snow is still on the ground and before any other leaf or flower. Kids sometimes suck the sweet nectar.
  • YOUNG LEAVES: Leaf-buds can be eaten when they are very young. Inupiat usually only eat sura - the young leaves.
  • Sura - Pick very early in the spring when these leaves are 1/2 inch to 1 1/2 inches long. These are the mildest tasting sura and are best when picked off the stem individually. You may have to watch closely to catch them just right. If you don't watch, they will be too big - they grow fast in the warmth and continual light of springtime. Preserve in seal oil right after you pick them. Sura keeps very well, even all year if stored very cold or frozen. It can be thawed and frozen many times. Eat whenever you have seal oil with meat or fish.
  • The surface of the leaves must be dry before they go into seal oil. Oil can only handle a certain amount of moisture. A 20-gallon barrel of oil will easily handle two quarts of fresh leaves. If you let those leaves dry for a day first, the same amount of oil will handle more leaves. If you put too many leaves into oil their moisture will sink and ferment.
  • They can also be dried and used as tea or in soups. Sura can be canned. It is good in fresh salads. When you get used to the taste you can eat a lot, but don't expect the first taste to be good. It will taste pithy, slightly bitter and astringent. As you chew for a minute or two the taste becomes sweet and refreshing. With sura, it's the aftertaste that counts. It does more than just taste nice, it makes your mouth smell good too.
  • The inner bark can be dried and ground as a flour substitute.
  • Nibble sura leaves as a snack, or add to salads. Leaves also blend well in herbal casseroles.

III. Getting Ready: A Walk in the Willows

1. Have students make decorated invitations to invite elders and community members to join your class for a field trip and/or a time of sharing food. These invitations should be delivered a few days before the field trip. This field trip should take place in the spring near your village where willows can be harvested.

2. Students should review their recorded information within their journals as a guide for what and how to harvest and prepare the edible plant parts of willow.

3. Students need to estimate how much of each part of the willow they will need to gather to provide enough food for sharing. Determine how many leaves could be stored with the amount of seal oil you have. How many leaves will each student or team need to gather? About how many leaves would your family need to gather to have enough sura to last until next spring?

 IV. Doing the Activity:

1. Students should dress appropriately for an outing to an area of willow which are ready for harvesting..

2. Students could work together in teams of two or more and these teams can be assigned to work with an elder or a community member.

3. Have students collect the edible plant parts that have been discussed and researched during previous lessons and reviewed in this lesson

4. When enough food has been gathered, the class should meet together in a location to work toward preserving the parts that will be frozen or stored in seal oil. Once the sura is preserved properly it can be presented as a gift to the elders and community members.

5. After the work is complete there could be a time of sharing willow food together such as Sura (young leaves) in a salad, the sweet nectar of the pussy willows, and the juicy misruq - new cambium from stems or roots. You may be able to share meat or fish with sura leaves or misruq scrapings that have been preserved in seal oil.

6. Students may write "thank you " notes to the elders and community members who participated.



1. Students could write a summary of the unit and how it has helped them to feel more prepared to survive in an emergency situation.

2. Students may need to answer question #4 in this table to complete lesson five, Wind in the Willows.

1. What do we know about willow?


2. What do we want to know about willow?


3. How are we going to find the answers?


4. What did we learn about willows?


3. You may have students record within their journals their experiences from this lesson. They should include anything new which they feel they have learned during these activities and how this experience has helped them to meet the standards for this lesson. You may want students to include further questions that they have pertaining to willows.



  • Nauriat Niginaqtuat, Plants That We Eat, a very valuable resource by Anore Jones and Manillaq Association, 1983
  • Alaska's Wild Plants, A Guide to Alaska'a Edible Harvest, Janice J. Schofield, 1993
  • Community Members - esp. Elders

Lesson One - Where's My Willow - a game to play in the willows

Lesson Two - Journey with Journals - journal construction and activities

Lesson Three - Getting the Green Out - a study of willow growth

Lesson Four - Watching the Willows - a study in plant phenology

Lesson Five - Wind in the Willows - a penpal project

Lesson Six - What's in a Willow - nutritional value and edible plant parts

Lesson Seven - Whipping up Willows - gathering, preparing, preserving and sharing


This thematic unit is part of a larger unit on Survival being developed by members of the Bering Strait School District's Materials Development Team. This sections deals mainly with edible plants in the NW Alaska Region.

Whouy Sze Kuinalth
"Teaching Our Many Grandchildren"
Tauhna Cauyalitahtug
(To Make a Drum)
Math Story Problems
St. Lawrence Island Rain Parka Winds and Weather Willow
Driftwood Snowshoes Moose
Plants of the Tundra Animal Classification for Yup'ik Region Rabbit Snaring
The Right Tool for the Job
Fishing Tools and Technology
Blackfish Family Tree
Medicinal Plants of the Kodiak Alutiiq Archipelago Beaver in Interior Alaska Digging and Preparing Spruce Roots
Moose in Interior Alaska Birds Around the Village  


Handbook for Culturally Responsive Science Curriculum by Sidney Stephens
Excerpt: "The information and insights contained in this document will be of interest to anyone involved in bringing local knowledge to bear in school curriculum. Drawing upon the efforts of many people over a period of several years, Sidney Stephens has managed to distill and synthesize the critical ingredients for making the teaching of science relevant and meaningful in culturally adaptable ways."



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Last modified August 14, 2006