Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere

Giant Kelp

Macrocystis integrifolia

By Jeremy Trombley

Giant Kelp is one of the largest marine algae, and is the preferred plant for herring to lay their spawn. This feature is what makes the giant kelp so appealing to indigenous groups on the coastal Northwestern US. However, the endangered status of the herring means that this practice has been discouraged. Furthermore, the harvest of herring for their roe has made it difficult for some groups to find spawn laden kelp.


Giant kelp is a large, brownish-green algae with several stripes attached to a single holdfast. The leaves are broad and with a wavy surface and toothed edge, and are held to the surface by means of a spherical float at their base. The plant is found on rocks in the upper subtidal zone to a depth of about seven meters. Their natural range is from southern Canada, along the coast to Alaska.

Food Uses

Primarily, giant kelp is harvested when it has become laden with herring spawn. Thick layers of spawn are deposited on the leaves of the kelp during the months between March and June. Some indigenous groups would pick the blades before the spawning season and deposit them near river mouths, weighted down with rocks. This increased the chance of their being deposited with spawn. Eggs are allowed to accumulate for a few days before they are harvested. The leaves are then laid out on rocks to dry for a couple of days and then bundled in packs and stored until needed. To prepare the dried kelp, the leaves are soaked overnight, cut into small pieces and boiled until soft. These pieces were then eaten with grease or oil. More recently, the spawn have been preserved by freezing or packing in salt. The blades are sometimes cut into long thin strips that are often used as a snack by children. The strips may also be fried in grease, producing a salty bacon-like dish.


Monterey Bay Aquarium – Giant Kelp

Kuhnlein, Harrie. Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples: Nutrition, Botany and Use. 1st ed. Taylor & Francis, 1991.

Turner, Nancy J. Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples. University of British Columbia Press, 2007.