November 28, 2012 · 7:13 pm
Lacy mounds of flat, greenish-brown leaves stand out in the cacophony of intertidal life. This is rockweed (Fucus gardneri), another brown alga that is widespread from Alaska to California. The mature tips puff up and act as a float–and as the nursery where sperm and eggs develop before being released to find one another in the water. These tips are edible, and were called “Indian popcorn” by settler because local tribes liked to eat them dried. Other sources recommend eating them young (either fresh or blanched); but always in moderation.
Other names for rockweed include bladderwrack and popweed. It has several lookalikes (F. spiralis, Hesperophycus californicus and Pelvetiopsis limitata), but rockweed can be identified by the central midrib running down each hairless, mitten-shaped leaf.
November 25, 2012 · 12:17 pm
Sea lettuce looks exactly like its name: ruffled, brilliant green leaves that grow in tufts from shallow rocks. It’s usually found in calm waters. There are many species of sea lettuce in the Ulva genus, and as of right now I have no idea how to tell them apart–but from what I’ve read, that’s because they are all quite similar in looks and habit.
Sea lettuce is a green alga, and is edible though sometimes a little tough and bland. Some enjoy it for salads. One warning if you are planning to eat some Ulva is that it grows particularly profusely in water that’s been “enriched” by sewage or other pollution. So if you see a dense patch of the stuff, take a close & skeptical look at the nearby landscape before you harvest it…
November 24, 2012 · 3:29 pm
Long, thick pieces of brownish-green hose have washed up on a steep and rocky beach. As any beachgoer knows, this is bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkeana)–a seaweed that can grow up to 60 feet long. When I was a kid, my friends and I would pretend we were cowboys, using the long “ropes” for lassoes. In Alaska, Native Americans used them as lines for deep sea fishing.
Bull kelp looks very plantlike, but it is actually a brown algae and in an entirely different kingdom. In the deep water where it grows, it anchors itself to the bottom with a root-like “holdfast” while the rest of the plant stretches toward the surface, buoyed by an air-filled pocket that grows at its upper end. Sometimes you’ll find the holdfast still gripping tightly to a rock that has washed up along with the plant. More often, you find the upper part–a rubbery length of stem topped by the bulbous float (which looks a lot like a turkey baster…)
This huge algae is an annual, meaning it grows from a tiny spore and lives its entire life span in only one year. Sometimes it can grow up to 10 inches in a single day! Otters, fish, sea urchins, crabs and other sea creatures live in the long ribbon-like leaves that grow from the top of the plant. You can buy edible bull kelp dried at the health food store or hop in a boat to harvest your own (it’s better fresh than after it’s been uprooted and washed up ashore). The leaves are eaten dried, and once washed and peeled the rubbery stalk can be pickled, or used in relish in the same way as cucumbers or tomatoes.