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Emily Willis, Part 2

This is the continuation of an interview with Emily Willis on October 4, 2018 by Karen Brewster and Susannah Dowds at Emily's house in Skagway, Alaska. In this second part of a two part interview, Emily leads a walking tour through her garden, stopping along the way to talk about specific plants and their uses, changes she has noticed in plants, her gardening and transplanting techniques, and her successes and failures working with wild and native species in her garden. Karen runs the video camera and Susannah is holding the microphone as they walk on the uneven path through Emily's hillside garden and try to keep up with her as she excitedly talks about plants along the way.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2018-14-01_PT.2

Project: Observing Change in Alaska's National Parks
Date of Interview: Oct 4, 2018
Narrator(s): Emily Willis
Interviewer(s): Karen Brewster, Susannah Dowds
Transcriber: Ruth Sensenig
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Park Service
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
There is no slideshow for this person.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.


Showing split-lip hemp nettle, and leaf damage on highbush cranberry bush

Growing echinacea, and presence of mountain ash in her garden

Using seaweed, fertilizer, mulch, and worms in the garden

Showing skull cap and calendula

Showing collard greens

Saving seeds and replanting

Transplanting devil's club

Experimenting with plant varieties

Observations of environmental change: seaweed, things washing ashore

Showing stinging nettles

Showing leaf spotting on dogwood

Observations of environmental change: currant worms

Transplanting cedar trees

Showing transplanted devil's club

Showing rose bushes and damaged rosehips

Showing wormwood and mullein

Showing wild geranium, watermelon berry, anise hyssop, lily, and bee balm

Showing large rhubarb plant and poppies

Showing comfrey

Creating a successful garden from scratch

Showing ferns, sedum, and goatsbeard

Being careful around stinging nettle, and the importance of paying attention to plants

Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.

After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


EMILY WILLIS: I don’t think I have any that have. So this is a campion. I’m not sure which one, but they bloom in the summer, with the white -- white flower. But they just, I mean, they -- they break off super easy. KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, yeah.

EMILY WILLIS: They just pop up all over. It’s hard to say.

KAREN BREWSTER: And you have chickens. EMILY WILLIS: Yep. We have chickens.

This is actually, I tossed some in, but that’s the split-lip hemp nettle, I believe, and yeah, it’s -- it’s got a square stem, and you can see little hairs -- SUSANNAH DOWDS: Sure. EMILY WILLIS: On that, and purple flowers.

This is a small specimen, but they can get big. They can get really big.

And they -- just, their seeds will just pop. So it’s in here now. I’ll be burning it at some point later.

KAREN BREWSTER: So this is highbush cranberries? EMILY WILLIS: So this is highbush cranberry, and I’m trying to see.

This one I -- doesn’t have as much on it, but that’s kind of an example where like, the leaves, it’s a little hard to tell if that’s a deterioration, but.

Oh, here we go. You’re just getting more spotty. KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, yeah.

EMILY WILLIS: So you see that spot, um, there. And this one’s not too bad. I’ve seen far worse.

But oh, here’s the -- here’s that rose root I was talking about earlier. And that’s kind of gone. And then, the arnica’s in the back.

Echinacea, I got to grow. KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, really? EMILY WILLIS: Uh-huh. I was so excited about that one.

KAREN BREWSTER: Did you have to do something special? EMILY WILLIS: Pray. Because it’s really -- the seeds are really hard to germinate, and then to get them to overwinter. I haven’t even used -- this is the second year for these, or second, yep, second summer season for these, which is pretty exciting.

But then, yeah, you’ll see, I mean, there’s a volunteer, um -- KAREN BREWSTER: Mountain ash? EMILY WILLIS: Mountain ash, right there, you know.

So they -- they really do --and it’s hard because they’re so pretty, but they do sneak up.

And then there’s a difference in the leaves. Like the native mountain ash is a little bit, um, a little narrower, I think. At least it looks like in the picture. And a little bit sharper -- sharper edge leaves or leaf edges there. And then, let’s see. Yeah, what else we got down here?

KAREN BREWSTER: So yeah, you do special fertilizing, I mean, to get these things to grow down here? EMILY WILLIS: I use -- I use seaweed. So I’ll go and gather seaweed from Long Bay, from the -- just from the shoreline, that’s washed up, and bring it home. I don’t even rinse it.

It’s generally there’s enough fresh water that comes in that it’s not too salty. And I’ll use that as a mulch on new plantings.

And then in the fall, I’ll use a lot of cottonwood leaves and use that to just mulch. I mean, I’ll have cottonwood leaves all over this. KAREN BREWSTER: Just to cover this. EMILY WILLIS: Just to cover.

And right where I am here, there’s not a lot of wind, so I don’t need to really worry much about putting something on top to keep the leaves steady and there. And then after that, I’ll work some of those leaves back in in the spring.

Um, I’ll use fish fertilizer on occasion, and Maxicrop, which is a liquid seaweed, on occasion. And when I mean, on occasion, maybe once or twice a year. And then, this area could use it a lot more. Poor, I’m sorry. I know I should have got you again.

Um, and then, let’s see. What else do I use? Oh, worm castings. So I’ll do, like, a worm tea, super basic, where I have red wiggler worms, and I keep them alive by giving them compost and newspaper and what-not, and then I’ll scoop up the -- try not to get too many worms -- but scoop up the poo and that and put it in a strainer, and then run the hose and get like a tea. Like, get the, and it’ll just be a brown liquid, you know.

And it will be aerated. And then I’ll water right away, and so all those little microbes will get into the garden that way. So that’s really easy, and kind of a nice, cheap way to do that. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.

EMILY WILLIS: Um, and then, oh, this is the skull cap. Or not skull cap, mugwort that I was telling you about. Nice and tall.

This is also of the mint family, nice square stem and -- well? God, that doesn’t look very square, does it? Supposed to be. Um, it does happily. It doesn’t seem to be spreading.

And yeah, we can go this way. There's some wild -- strawberries that have jumped out of their bed. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, I feel badly if we step on them. EMILY WILLIS: You know. Well, they don’t really produce a whole lot, so really, I just kind of let them do their thing.

And then, straw flowers that I’ve actually saved seed from this year. I’m super excited about. Lulu marigolds, you can save seed from.

These are calendulas. I just picked these. I’m so bummed, I picked them last night because I was like, "Oh, it’s going to rain tomorrow! I need to get everything!" So that’s what that basket on the freezer is. SUSANNAH DOWDS: Nice. EMILY WILLIS: It’s like last night’s harvest because I’m like, "Oh! Gotta get those in."

These are Johnny Jump-ups. KAREN BREWSTER: Right. EMILY WILLIS: These love to come back.

And then collard greens. Collard greens are actually really great because they, you know, a lot like kale, they’re super nutritious, very versatile, and they go to seed so well. I shoulda showed you because they’re just, I have like this big bunch of collard seeds, that. So in one season --

I start these indoors in March and then transplant out the plants. So you kind of need to get that earlier start. If you started them from seed outside, it probably won’t go to seed in time, you know, before frost. It wouldn’t have time to mature.

But I just cut those off last night, and I’m so excited because I’m going to have sprouting seeds for the whole winter and seeds for collards next year. KAREN BREWSTER: Cool. EMILY WILLIS: So that’s fun.

And calendula you can save the seeds on, um here, really easily.

KAREN BREWSTER: And so these are annuals that you save the seeds, and then re-plant? EMILY WILLIS: Yep. California poppy is another medicinal. Oh, there’s some blooms here. Really like her for anti-anxiety and pain relief, actually, um, like headaches and that. She’s really good for. You use the blooms and the stem, and the seeds are really easy to get.

Calendula’s great for skin. Lulu marigolds are just great fun, and they smell good. They smell like lemons.

And then this is -- can you -- so I got a little -- I always let my -- check out my volunteers, but I got a little devil’s club volunteer growing there.

And then I have some other devil’s club that is naturally, you know, popped up around the property. And then there’s some that, like, when I’m harvesting -- Well, my partner does quite a bit of that harvesting. He does a lot when he goes out to get firewood, and so during that point he’ll come back and some of the roots are just so tight, and I can’t clean it enough.

Or they’re just telling me, like "I need to go back in the ground." And so I’ll plant them. And I’ll show you some transplants I’ve done before.

KAREN BREWSTER: Working with devil’s club is not easy. EMILY WILLIS: No, it’s not! Which is why I have little scrapes right now. But that’s actually from me and the peeler, not the devil’s club. SUSANNAH DOWDS: Oh no!

EMILY WILLIS: All right. So I’ll take you up this way. And this is fun. This is Angelica. Angelica daisy. And so you use the root.

And it’s -- so for me, a lot of times, um, you know, I like to -- I like to grow a plant in my garden so I can observe it and really kind of get to know it a bit more and just be closer to it, so Angelica is -- can be also confused with water hemlock.

And at this point, I definitely know the two. You know, it’s not a -- it’s not an issue with me anymore on that, but it’s just nice to watch her grow and see how it'll bloom.

And you can use the seeds. The seeds are good for digestion, I believe, and so it’s just kind of fun to, you know, to try out something that is -- grows here, and see what you can do. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.

EMILY WILLIS: And so this is actually really moist soil, and they like to be in, like moisture, dirt, you know. They're -- it’s kind of a thing.

These are some random ones that I’ve put in. These are wild columbines that I’ve put in. KAREN BREWSTER: (To Susannah who is holding microphone) You go first. EMILY WILLIS: And I’ve got roses and then another --

And so I planted these wild roses here, and then, you know, you’ll see there’s one that came up there.

So you can see the seaweed. That’s how I, you know, just kind of put it around. I try to do at least one layer of seaweed on all of the gardens.

Oh, there’s one pea. There’s one little guy all the way over here. So, I’m hoping, like, one day this will be a big patch of wild roses. But, they take forever to grow.

KAREN BREWSTER: And the seaweed that you’ve been collecting, do you -- have you noticed any changes in that? We have to wait for that airplane (noise from airplane overhead). EMILY WILLIS: Yep. Um, not really.

No, I’ve been more aware, you know, with the Fukushima radioactive mess. You know, if I find items with strange lettering, you know, or just, it’s -- I haven’t noticed that.

There’s a company and a couple herbalists in Vancouver Island, um, Yarrow Willard and his wife, Angela. They -- she actually does a lot of work with seaweed. And they have -- their testing that they’ve done, they haven’t had issues yet, and so, you know, if they’re still doing it, I’m kind of feeling like I’m still safe enough. KAREN BREWSTER: Right.

EMILY WILLIS: But it’s something that I have in the back of my mind, for sure, you know. It’s not what I want to be putting on my, you know, my gardens.

KAREN BREWSTER: Have you noticed odd things washing up? EMILY WILLIS: Not really, anymore. KAREN BREWSTER: Especially, you mentioned Fukushima, I was wondering. EMILY WILLIS: Yeah. No, I mean, just -- yeah, not really odd things. It’s kind of the normal, everyday garbage. Yeah. Plastic, billed hats, you know. It’s not very exciting.

KAREN BREWSTER: Your stinging nettle patch? EMILY WILLIS: I grow stinging nettles. My partner laughs at me because he’s like, "Only you would grow stinging nettles." I’m like, "No I’m not!"

I think we’ll just like walk up here. You may want to -- you may want to take it off so you can see. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. EMILY WILLIS: Or you can, you can keep filming if you want.

This is baneberry. That has -- It’s actually, you know the berries are quite poisonous, um. But actually, the root has medicinal qualities. I’ve never worked with it. I don’t feel comfortable doing that yet, but you know. It’s still an interesting plant.

But I have noticed that. So that’s more of, spotting, which isn’t something I had noticed, you know, 12-14 years ago. But it’s something that coulda been there, and I just hadn’t noticed it. Now I’m, you know, as you get older, you know, you retain more information, you start to notice more things around you. KAREN BREWSTER: Right.

EMILY WILLIS: So I’m not sure if that’s new, but that is something that’s been happening.

KAREN BREWSTER: And what kind of plant is this? EMILY WILLIS: Oh, I’m sorry. This is a red-twig dogwood, red osier dogwood.

But I mean, these, when they get spotted like this, they don’t turn as pretty color. And like, the other ones are so, they’re so vibrant. This one doesn’t have much sunlight either, which is also a factor.

Um, let’s see. Currant worms are something that have come up, actually, now that I think about it. They affect gooseberries and, like they can get on red currants. Watch your head there. SUSANNAH DOWDS: Oh, thank you.

EMILY WILLIS: And that was at Jewell Gardens, oh, years and years ago, and -- but it’s -- they seem to be, they’re pretty gnarly. I don’t know if they’re spreading northward or not, but --

Hoping to bring back some cedar trees in here. SUSANNAH DOWDS: Oh. EMILY WILLIS: Yeah. Friend of mine brought some back, the --

KAREN BREWSTER: So have they -- they’re native to the area, but they’ve died out? EMILY WILLIS: Further south. I think they were here, and then they did die out.

There’s some at Kalen’s Landing that Barb Kalen put in years ago. I believe they were here, and then the environmental factors changed, and so, um, so I’ve got, like ten that I’ve planted around the property, so.

KAREN BREWSTER: And how are they doing? EMILY WILLIS: They’re doing great. Yeah, this is actually --

It’s funny that I pointed that out because that’s probably the poorest one. It’s not the poorest, but it’s in the worst spot. But I was like, I’m going to create a barrier.

But, yeah, I put in some firs, or ferns and a fir, so I kind of like -- it doesn’t look like this is landscaped, but it’s kind of, it’s getting there.

KAREN BREWSTER: It’s sort of an experimental garden, in some ways. EMILY WILLIS: Right? You know? KAREN BREWSTER: Like, let’s see how this cedar does or how this one does. EMILY WILLIS: Yep.

So this is devil’s club that I’ve transplanted. And these were from maybe, five, six years ago. And they didn’t have any stalks, pretty much. I mean, they didn’t -- like this is -- this stalk is probably, yeah, 5-6 years of growth.

And yeah, they’re doing pretty well. It’s funny, I’ve heard people say that they have difficulty transplanting devil’s club. I haven’t. I mean, not in Alaska. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.

EMILY WILLIS: I mean, unless it’s in the blazing hot sun. You don’t want it in the blazing hot sun. Like to be a little bit cooler, and just a little bit of shade is helpful for them.

But I have one down below that wasn’t transplanted, it was just there, and actually, it gets really good morning sun. And it’s happy as can be. Actually, I have to trim it away from the neighbors.

But um, yeah. And then, so this is a rose. So this is, you’ll see here. You see how there’s -- oops -- it’s just -- it’s just shriveled. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. EMILY WILLIS: You know?

And so, there’s another one that got a little bigger, but it’s shriveled. KAREN BREWSTER: But, they're, yeah, just like they've all dried up. EMILY WILLIS: And I’m -- I’m gonna see.

Ok, so this is what it should look like, this time of year. KAREN BREWSTER: Right. EMILY WILLIS: And I have one-two -- you know, and you can pan up, and that’s, I mean -- KAREN BREWSTER: This is a big bush. EMILY WILLIS: Yeah.

It doesn’t get as much -- it doesn’t get a whole lot of light, so on a bush like this, I mean this is, this is not a big producer compared to, like, one in town. But it’s a nice producer for me right here. I’m very happy with you.

I am a little bummed that -- KAREN BREWSTER: And this is a wild rose, or this is a -- EMILY WILLIS: Um-um. This is a Rugosa rose. They call it the Sitka rose. KAREN BREWSTER: Ok.

EMILY WILLIS: And so, I’ve contemplated, ok, do I need to come and take all of these off and throw them in the garbage so I’m not spreading some. You know, is it fungal? I don’t know, probably. Maybe it’s viral. Like bacterial, virus, I’m not sure.

Um, I haven’t noticed a specific bug on there more than another. Um, yeah. It’s hard to say. Oh, Pepper (calling to the dog), I hear you.

So here’s the native wormwood that I grow. This garden. This is in desperate need of an overhaul.

KAREN BREWSTER: What’s this, this one? EMILY WILLIS: That one’s mullein. So, that one I like to grow for the leaves. The leaves are really soft, really nice for lung complaints, too.

And also good for like, mastitis. You put the leaves on the breasts of moms who, like are just -- like, really swollen, can’t let go or have the letdown reflex happen. So that's actually really useful. I haven’t had the opportunity to use that, but it’s stuck in my brain about "Ok, I gotta remember that one because that’s a good one." KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah.

EMILY WILLIS: And then this is -- this one’s just fun. It’s liatrus, it’s so pretty.

And this over here is fun. In the spring, it’s a wild geranium, um, that -- how’d I get that? That came from West Creek. That was when I was harvesting, um, what was I doing?

But anyway, I saw these two little -- and I was like, I think these are wild geranium. Like, I think it’s Crane's-bill Geranium. And, you know, the whole -- I mean, they were just little. I mean, they were smaller than this. They were little whips of things. And they just love it here. So that’s kind of fun.

And then I have a watermelon berry that popped up, that I let grow, and she was gorgeous. And I have a fern in here, um.

The purple is the anise hyssop I was talking about, and the pink is the bee balm. They do really well here on the hill.

This lily -- and there’s some feverfew, the white. It looks like chamomile, but that’s feverfew. It grows well here. Sometimes overwinter, sometime doesn’t.

The bee balm and the anise hyssop will overwinter, but if mulched, so that’s always good.

And then the valerian’s on the back side there. And got some more stinging nettle in a pot.

KAREN BREWSTER: And big rhubarb. Holy cow! EMILY WILLIS: Yeah. Oh my gosh. You should have seen. Like, the leaves were enormous. I wonder if I can get a big leaf, but -- Look at that! It’s just huge! KAREN BREWSTER: It’s huge! EMILY WILLIS: And this one was even bigger. KAREN BREWSTER: Wow. EMILY WILLIS: Yeah, that’s a fun one.

And this is oregano. This oregano has overwintered for me, like five years. Yeah, and the bees just love -- or you know, the pollinators just love it. They’re so into the flowers. So nice.

Putting poppies with your strawberries. You will -- you will over -- overcrowd your strawberries. KAREN BREWSTER: And the poppies -- EMILY WILLIS: Oh, they're so pretty! Aren’t they pretty. SUSANNAH DOWDS: They are. EMILY WILLIS: They're just, oh -- And they’re easy to save seed from. I just love them. And they just -- they look like ballerinas to me.

But yeah, and then, some more bee balm, some motherwort in the corner.

Oh, and then there’s the other rosebush I was telling you about. And you can see the rosehips on that are really nice and healthy looking.

So I’m, you know, it’s hard to say what’s going on there.

But, oh, and this is comfrey. That does really well. KAREN BREWSTER: (Unintelligible) EMILY WILLIS: Um-hm. That’s the comfrey.

And that, you do want to be careful with. You don’t want to let it go to seed and just let it go. You want to cut it back if you’re -- unless you have a space for it.

KAREN BREWSTER: 'Cause it will take over? EMILY WILLIS: Um, it could. It could just really re-seed and just kinda, yeah, it could take over. It won’t do it super-fast.

I mean, mint is considered one plant that will take over in the Lower 48, but I feel it moves pretty slow here. You know, um.

And there I got a stinging nettle in a pot. And fireweed. So yeah, I like to grow -- I like to grow all sorts of things, kind of together. That’s my --

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, and they all seem to be doing well. EMILY WILLIS: Yeah. Oh my gosh, this garden, like, so this is seven years, and there was nothing here. This was, I grew --

I started everything from the ground up. I mean, I brought in this dirt that -- from my old house, which wasn’t much. And then between the leaves and the seaweed and compost, yeah. It’s -- and, just some time, and the plants have done -- just done amazing.

KAREN BREWSTER: You obviously have the green thumb. EMILY WILLIS: Oh, thanks. It’s funny, my son the other day, or not the other day, but um, he must have been about three. We were on a dog walk, and he’s like, "Mom, if plants were black, you’d have a black thumb." I was like, "Oh, thanks, buddy."

EMILY WILLIS: Native ferns. KAREN BREWSTER: So these are native ferns? EMILY WILLIS: Yeah, and this is. Oh, and this is Autumn Joy sedum.

KAREN BREWSTER: What’s this one? EMILY WILLIS: Autumn Joy sedum. KAREN BREWSTER: It’s pretty. EMILY WILLIS: It is, isn’t it? And it blooms late, so this is the time it blooms, and actually, it'll open up even a little further. In a more sunny location, it would be a little more compact, and probably open at this point.

But this is fun, too. This is like my native -- and it kind of came on accident. There was a gentleman who’s doing -- he was putting in a garden space -- it was Scott Logan. KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, yeah. EMILY WILLIS: And so he wanted an area that -- he had, like, devil’s club and all this stuff, and he's like, "Do you want devil’s club? Come get it!" And I was like, "Ok, sure, you know."

And then I saw these like, this is goatsbeard. And I was like, "I love -- I like goatsbeard." And he had ferns in there. And so I planted them here, and, I mean, this thing, I mean, it’s huge!

This was one plant, like a little bitty thing I planted, like six years ago, and now it’s just, boom.

And, I mean, this is obviously in the autumn time, but in the summer time, she’s just -- and those, these are all white, beautiful, dripping blossoms, um.

And I got some more stinging nettle hidden under there. I like to --

one of my son’s friends was in the truck, and he’s like, "Oh, I’m really itchy." And I looked at it, and he’s got -- he’s just broke all out, and I’m like, "What is wrong with you?" And he's like, "I don’t know!" I'm like, "Are you having an allergic reaction to something?" And he’s like, "I don’t think so." And I’m like, "Ok."

And then he’s like, "Oh. But I did fall in -- I fell into the bushes." And I was like, "Oh! Show me where!" And he had like, just a pretty gnarly nettles sting. But I like it because, I mean, it’s not gonna hurt. You know, it’s not gonna be -- it’s not gonna kill him or anything or leave scars.

But I just -- I like nettle because it’s like, pay attention, you know? It’s the plant that makes you pay attention, much like devil’s club. You know, you need to pay attention. And we do. We need to pay attention to our plants. They teach us a lot. So. Yeah.

KAREN BREWSTER: That’s a good place to end. EMILY WILLIS: I thought so, too.