Bladderwrack: Gift from the Sea

This past week my family and I got away for one last beach get-away to Maine. I love the languid and liminal days of late summer on the coast when the Rose Hips start to ripen and the ocean-side Goldenrod is in bloom- it’s my favorite time to visit. So subsequently it’s when I tend to harvest my seaweed! That being said, many folks prefer to harvest Bladderwrack (Fucus vesiculosus) in the spring and early summer, however, it’s definitely possible to harvest this seaweed well into August.

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Bladderwrack: Identification, Habitat & Range

Look for this seaweed growing on rocks in the inter-tidal zone, the area of the shore effected by the tides. Here on the eastern coast of the US it’s found south to about North Carolina and north all the way up the Canadian coast. It grows on the coast of the British Isles, the Atlantic coast of Europe, Iceland, southern Greenland, and the northern coasts of Norway, Finland, and Russia as well. On the west coast of the US a related species, Fucus gardneri, is used. Our local Bladderwrack (F. vesiculosus) is easily identified by the air bladders ranging in size from a pea to a marble found in pairs along the mid-rib of the thallus (the entire vegetative body of a seaweed). There can be some variation, however. Occasionally the bladders are not found in pairs, and their amount will vary based on the turgidity of the water- the more active the wave action the fewer bladders will be found. It grows along with other Fucus spp seaweeds but is the only one with the air bladders present. The fronds tend to be dichotomously branched and can grow to be about 35 in long and 1.0 in wide and have mucilage-rich vesicles at their tips. It’s a perennial macroalgae that tends to live 4-5 years.

Bladderwrack  (F. vesiculosis) . Note the air bladders along the mid-rib and the swollen vesicles at the tips on the fronds

Bladderwrack (F. vesiculosis). Note the air bladders along the mid-rib and the swollen vesicles at the tips on the fronds

Sustainably Harvesting Bladderwrack

Bladderwrack is best harvested in the spring and early summer when the vesicles are nice and plump. However, if need or circumstances be, it can be harvested well into late summer. As it reaches maturity the vesicles will elongate, so the more long and pointed the vesicles the older the seaweed. The bottom-line though is that as long as the thallus is vibrant-looking (see the pictures above and below for an idea of what I mean by vibrant), it’s fine to harvest if that’s when you’re by the sea!

Bladderwrack growing on a cliff edge with Rockweed  (Ascophyllum nodosum)

Bladderwrack growing on a cliff edge with Rockweed (Ascophyllum nodosum)

Waiting for low tide will give you the best access to Bladderwrack, which grows on rocks and along coves, generally mixed with other seaweeds such as Spiralwrack (Fucus spiralis ) and Rockweed (Ascophyllum nodosum) . When harvesting this-or any seaweed- it’s important that you never pull the holdfast, which is where it attaches to the rock, since this will completely kill the organism. Rather, you want to give it a gentle haircut with scissors or garden clippers, taking about 1/2 of the thallus, which will allow it to grow back. I like to harvest into a basket or even a brown paper bag. Give it all a good rinse in the seawater to remove any excess sand and also to wash off any organisms, like snails, from the seaweed. DO NOT wash in fresh water as this will cause it to begin to breakdown! Then, if you’re going to stay at the beach for a bit, you can lay it in a thin layer on a towel or blanket in the sun to begin to dry it.

Never take all the Bladderwrack from a rock, wall or area, remembering that good harvesting practices mean it was never even obvious that you harvested at all! Think of yourself like a browsing deer wandering through a meadow, taking a little bit from here, a little bit from there, and so on. Take care if you are walking on seaweed-covered slippery walks while harvesting. And never take more that you need! In Maine harvest for personal use is permitted and commercial harvest requires a permit. Always be sure you are harvesting in an area free of industrial waste and pollution and harvesting far from urban centers is strongly recommended.

Bladderwrack and other intertidal zone seaweeds growing on rocks at low tide

Bladderwrack and other intertidal zone seaweeds growing on rocks at low tide

Drying & Storage

It’s traditional to hang seaweed in the sun on a line to dry. In warm, dry climates it can dry in this way in a day but here in the northeast not so much! While it’s true that seaweed left out on a line will absorb some moisture from the morning dew, it’s not enough to cause any worry and a few days dried in the sun in this way tends to be enough. If it’s cloudy and overcast, then it will take longer and if rain is projected then it should be brought inside and re-hung after the rain. On my most recent trip to Maine we were camping so I hung it on a line to dry. It wasn’t completely dried by the time I got home so I opted to spread it in a thin layer in some large baskets and put it in my hoophouse, which is warm and dry and sheltered from the rain. At least once a day I tossed the Bladderwrack around a bit in the basket, since the parts more exposed to air dry quicker, and this allowed it to evenly dry. It finished drying in a just a few days in this manner. While it’s true that the least amount of time it takes to dry, the better for the final quality of your seaweed, it’s important to remember that anything your harvest yourself will be so incredibly fresh and superior to most herbs sold in the herbal industry. So don’t worry if it take a little while to dry!

Bladderwrack hung to dry on the line

Bladderwrack hung to dry on the line

Once it’s dry enough to snap when you try to break the fronds it’s ready to be stored. You can cut it into small pieces and store it in glass jars away from high heat and strong direct light. It can also be stored in durable plastic bags, like ziplocks. Since Bladderwrack is very oily in nature it has a shelf-life of about 6 months, after which it runs the risk of going rancid. To avoid this tragedy, simply store it in the freezer once you hit the 6 month mark and use as-needed.

Medicinal Use

Bladderwrack is in the family of Brown Seaweeds, which also includes Kelp, Wakame, and Kombu, and shares many of the same medicinal properties as these other seaweeds. It has a long history of medicinal use, being written about in all the old herbal texts. Due to it’s high Iodine content Bladderwrack is best known for its benefit for goiter and low/hypothyroid. In addition to Iodine it’s also rich in many minerals and trace minerals, including potassium, sodium, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, nitrogen, iron, zinc, boron, copper, manganese, chromium, selenium, bromine, vanadium, and nickel. It’s also extremely high in antioxidants and contains many of the B-complex vitamins, K, E, A, and D. Due to its super high mineral content Bladderwrack can be though of as a low-dose medicinal and food as medicine, since an excess of certain minerals can be harmful, and it’s also important to note it should not be taken during pregnancy or nursing.

Bladderwrack drying

Bladderwrack drying

Traditional dosage is about 3-6 grams/day. For a frame of reference, 1 tsp of the powder or a small handful of the fronds equates to about 3-4 g. In addition to being a superior nutrative, Bladderwrack  is rich in the polysaccharides fucoidan and algin, which have been widely studied and seem to be anti-cancer, anti-estrogenic, immune-boosting and strongly detoxifying. Studies link a diet that contains brown seaweed to strongly support cardiovascular health and lower rates of cancer. Bladderwrack also supports the muskuloskeletal system and has a history of helping folks with arthritis and injury, particularly when taken in a bath. Add ½-1 cup of the powder into a bath along with some epsom salts for a wonderfully relaxing and anti-inflammatory bath. For an idea on making your own inspired bath salts check-out my recipe and post on Mermaid Bath Salts! It’s also a nice soothing demulcent for irritations in the bladder, kidneys, and urinary system. In addition to taking the powder one can take the tincture (30-40 drops 2-4x/day), add it to a tea, make a cold infusion, and also use it in the kitchen. Bladderwrack can be added to broths and stocks, soups and stews (although it can take a while to cook until it’s tender), and the dried flakes can be sprinkled directly onto your food, added to traditional spice blends such as gomasio, furikake, togarishi, and so on!

Happy harvesting all!


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Spring 'Kraut

Nettles (Urtica dioica)

Nettles (Urtica dioica)

When spring finally comes here in the northeast it can sometimes feel like a race against time. After waiting months for the return of the green, the plants seemingly pop-up all at once, with wonderful exuberance, and at a pace that few of us can keep up with. Harvesting spring greens- if you let it- could easily be a full-time job! And there’s not only the challenge of collecting all your favorites during their prime harvest windows, there’s also the challenge of preserving the spring harvest because it’s simply not always possible to eat all the greens at once!

Enter fermentation, a form of food preservation that was developed and utilized by our ancestors for just this situation. What I love about fermentation is that it’s living medicine, and while I love making wild salad, pesto, frittata, soup, vinegar, and more with the wild spring abundance, there’s something special about knowing that the food you’ve prepared is probiotic and teeming with beneficial microbes that we enter into a reciprocal relationship with when we take them into our bodies. Symbiosis is a beautiful thing! You can read more about the benefits of probiotic foods in my recipe for New England-Style Kimchi, and read-on for my recipe for preserving some of my favorite spring greens in a seasonal-inspired sauerkraut.


Spring ‘Kraut

9 cups cabbage, thinly shredded (about 1 medium-sized cabbage)
3 cups Nettles leaves and stems (Urtica dioica), coarsely chopped
3/4 cup Chives (Allium schoenoprasum), chopped
1/2 cup Garlic Mustard leaves and stems (Alliaria petiolata), coarsely chopped
4 tsp sea salt
other nice additions: Dandelion lvs, Wild Garlic (Allium vineale), Chickweed, Violet lvs, Yellow Dock lvs, Garlic lvs

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First-off, this recipe is meant to be played around with. If you don’t have access to one of the greens in the recipe it’s ok to leave it out or substitute it for something you have an abundance of! Start by chopping your cabbage. Pile it into a big bowl and sprinkle with about 2 tsp of the salt and begin massaging it with your hands. The cabbage will begin to breakdown, releasing its juices which becomes the brine. Once the cabbage is thoroughly massaged start adding the Nettles bit by bit, along with the remaining salt, and keep massaging. You can wear gloves for this part if you’re worried about the sting (which will be rendered harmless by the fermentation process). Once you’ve added all the Nettles, add the Garlic Mustard and Chives and mix and massage thoroughly.

Next choose your vessel- a fermentation crock or widemouth mason jar will work. Pack the ‘kraut into your vessel and press in with your hands or use a sauerkraut stamper (also called a pounder or tamper) until the brine covers the ‘kraut. Use a heavy lid or small plate with a sterilized rock on it for the crock or mason jar to keep the brine levels over the veggies, or another good trick for this if you don’t have a small lid is to fill a ziplock bag with water and use that to keep ‘kraut below the brine level. Lastly, you can always make brine to top-off the sauerkraut by mixing 1 1/2 tbsp sea salt with 1 quart water. The bottom-line is that the brine level needs to be over the veggies. Now you sit back and let it ferment! Fermentation time will vary based on the weather, but start checking it after a few days to track its progression. It’s ready when it tastes sour, crunchy, and still salty, but not nearly as salty as it tasted when it first started fermenting. Then put it into a jar with a lid and keep in the fridge or your root cellar, if you’re lucky enough to have one! Enjoy as a condiment, with sandwiches, with breakfast, with a heavy meal, as a base for salad dressing, on a picnic, or even as a simple snack. Happy spring and happy fermenting!

And for any of you wanting to learn more about working with our locally abundant medicinal and edible plants, the summer and fall sessions of our bioregional herbalism series, From the Roots Up, is OPEN for registration! This hands-on course meets outside and in the field and focuses on field botany and plant ID, medicine-making, gaining intimacy with our local plants, reading the herbal landscape, materia medica, and so much more!

Learn More Here


Looking for online herbal learning? Or just want to say “thanks” and help support this blog? In addition to our in-person classes, we also offer online learning through our Patreon Community! Membership starts at just $5/month and there are offerings like monthly online classes, monthly herbal study groups, and more. And if you’ve got enough content in your life it’s also just a great way to say “thanks” if you enjoy the blog!


Maitake & Burdock Immune-Boosting Soup

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Lately, this soup has been saving my life! So much so that I just had to share the recipe. During seasonal transitions, especially our current one from late summer to fall (and the on-coming fall to winter), our immune systems need some extra support. And it seems like just about everyone I know is either navigating through or has already dealt with their first cold of the season, myself included! Twice over the past two weeks I’ve caught a small cold. Both times I made a big pot of this soup, had 2-3 hearty-sized bowls of it in the afternoon and evening, and woke-up the following morning with my cold completely gone. Like magic. Only its not magic, it’s food as medicine at its finest! Soups lend themselves incredibly well to healing spices, nourishing roots, regenerative seaweeds, and immune-modulating mushrooms. Read-on for my recipe for the perfect fall soup to nourish your immune system and tend to your health during this seasonal transition.


Maitake, Burdock & Daikon Soup

1 lb (3-4 cups) Maitake Mushroom/Hen of the Woods* (Grifola frondosa), shredded into bite-sized pieces (*use Shiitake if Maitake aren’t available!)
1 c Burdock Rt (also known as Gobo), chopped
1 1/2 c Daikon Radish, chopped into 1-inch cubes
1 Onion, chopped
3 tbsp fresh Ginger, grated
4 cloves Garlic
3 tbsp Tamari
8 cups water, chicken broth, bone broth, or veggie broth
6 inch strip Kombu or Kelp
1 bunch Scallions
Sea Salt and Black Pepper (to taste)
Lemon (optional)

NOTE: If some of these ingredients are new to you don't worry! They are available at most co-ops, health food stores, and grocery stores with good produce sections. Burdock is also often readily available at many Asian food stores under the name Gobo. Maitake is often available dried and you can use this form of it- simply re-hydrate by soaking in water for about 1/2 hr and then cook it as specified in the directions. And you can also use dried burdock for this recipe, just cook it longer than the directions specify to be sure it's nice and soft when you eat it, and use 1/4 cup dried instead of a full cup of fresh!

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Directions
Start by sauteing the garlic, onion, ginger, and maitake in olive oil or ghee until soft.  Next add the burdock, daikon, tamari, kombu or kelp, and water and/or broth. Bring to a low simmer and cook about 10 minutes until the daikon and burdock are cooked. Garnish with 2-3 tbsp of chopped scallions. This soup has a rich, earthy flavor and the addition of a squeeze of lemon will brighten it up a bit, if desired, but it's not necessary. For folks who don't like to eat mushrooms, simply simmer the maitake whole in the broth and remove before serving (best to cook it all for longer-30-45 minutes). It doesn't make the broth "mushroomy," just rich and delicious!

Medicinal Use
This soup is building and supportive to your immune system. Turn to it when you feel like you're coming down with something or when you're already sick and need some strong immune support. I also love making it when I'm at the tail-end of a cold or flu and want a strong final boost to my immune system to really get the remnants of that virus or bacteria totally out of my system. It can also be relied on as a powerful preventative during the fall and winter months to keep the immune system ready and primed. Try making it once a week for this use.  Maitake mushroom has a long tradition of use as an immune-stimulating and modulating herb, and has even been shown to have some cancer-fighting effects. Burdock Rt (Arcticum lappa) is another "food as medicine" from herbalism that can be eaten or taken in the tea to help support all the eliminatory pathways in the body, especially the liver, kidneys, and skin. It’s also extremely nourishing, rich in iron, calcium, magnesium, and many trace minerals. Daikon radish is pungent in nature, aiding digestion, and is also extremely rich in vitamin c, providing still more of an immune system boost! Garlic, onions, and ginger add immune-boosting essential oils, anti-bacterial and anti-viral support, and in combination this soup makes a delicious and medicinal brew. Enjoy!


Looking for online herbal learning? Or just want to say “thanks” and help support this blog? In addition to our in-person classes, we also offer online learning through our Patreon Community! Membership starts at just $5/month and there are offerings like monthly online classes, monthly herbal study groups, and more. And if you’ve got enough content in your life it’s also just a great way to say “thanks” if you enjoy the blog!