Bull Whip Kelp

by Dino Labiste



While walking along the northern California beaches after a storm, you may encounter what looks like a long, snake-like sea creature with a bulbous head and green blades of hair. This unusual specimen is not the remains of an animal, but a seaweed called Nereocystis luetkeana. It's commonly called the Bull whip kelp or Ribbon kelp. This seaweed is made up of a round, hollow bulb, from which ribbon like blades emerge from the top of the bulb. The air trapped in the bulb pulls the kelp up so that the blades float close to the surface and receive adequate sunlight. Blades of mature plants are shiny and leathery, while younger plants have thinner, shinier brown blades. Attached to the air bladder is a stipe. The stipe is a hollow tube up to 120 feet long. The lower end of the stipe is solid, which the root like structure tenaciously clings to a rock on the bottom sea floor.

The Bull whip kelp grows in large fields or beds far out from shore and far deeper than any tide lays bare. The beds are located in rocky areas in the subtidal zone and to a depth of several fathoms. Individual bull whip kelp are occasionally torn loose and tossed onto the northern California shoreline by the waves or after a storm.

The Bull whip kelp was utilized by the Pacific Northwest Coast Indians for their fishing gear and storage containers. The bulb and parts of the stipe were used to steam bend branches of fir for their bentwood halibut hooks. The fir sticks were shaved to the right thickness and shape, placed in the kelp tubes, water was added and the ends were plugged with a wad of moss. The kelp tubes were buried in hot ashes of a dying fire and left to steam all night. The next morning, the kelp was split open and the steamed fir sticks were bent to shape and pressed into a wooden mold to cool. A lightweight storage container for eulachon oil was also made from the long kelp stems and bulb. The blades were trimmed off and the lower end was cut off to provide an opening in which to fill the long stems with oil. A funnel was made from another kelp bulb to pour the oil into the stem. The open end was plugged with a wooden stopper and tied tightly into place.

The solid part of the stem was used for fish lines after being soaked in fresh water, stretched, and twisted for extra strength. Length of these were joined together with a fisherman's knot to give the Pacific Northwest Coast Indians a long line of great strength.

All coastal First Peoples of British Columbia made fishing lines, nets, ropes, harpoon lines and anchor lines from Bull whip kelp. They dried and cured the long, rope like stalks, then spliced or plaited them together. Nancy J. Turner writes about the various curing methods for the kelp in her book, Plant Technology of First Peoples in British Columbia.

"Curing methods varied: some Coast Salish peoples alternately soaked the kelp in fresh water and dried it over a smoking fire; the Nuu-chah-nulth dried the kelp and soaked it in dogfish or whale oil. Kelp lines were dried for storage, but had to be soaked in water before use, or they were too brittle. After soaking they became strong and flexible once again."

Turner also mentions other aboriginal uses of Bull whip kelp.

"Some Nuu-chah-nulth groups used fresh kelp floats as moulds for deer suet. They poured the melted fat in through the hollow stem, allowed it to harden, then broke the kelp away, leaving a bulb of suet ready for storage. People sometimes made a salve of Cottonwood buds boiled in deer fat. They poured the mixture in a kelp bulb and let it harden: the result was a fragrant ointment for protecting the skin from sunburn and windburn.
. . . . the Straits Salish placed the ends of Yew-wood bows inside lengths of kelp and steamed them to mould and bend to the desired shape. Squamish fisherman used kelp blades to keep fish fresh and moist in the canoe. The Comox used them to line steam pits to flavour the food and help generate steam."

The bulb and stem sections were also pickled and eaten. Young, fresh kelp should be used for consumption. Bend the stem and if it snaps crisply in two, the kelp is fresh. If it bends like soft rubber, it is old. You may also substitute chopped Bull whip kelp stems for fruit or vegetables in chutney, carrot cake, and curry recipes.

Commercial companies use the Bull whip kelp in the preparation of pharmaceutical supplies, dairy products, poultry feeds, and glazing and finishing agents. It is an excellent source of potash salts.


Contemporary musical instruments can also be made from the Bull whip kelp. One of the instruments is a rattle.

Find a small Bull whip kelp.

Cut off the bulbous section and part of the stem. The dried blades make decorative attachments to the rattle.

Fill the cut bulb and stem with sand to retain its shape as the kelp dries.

After the kelp has dried, pour out the sand and shake out any excess sand that may be clinging onto the inside of the bulb.

Fill the dried bulb with any rattle sounding material, like rice, seeds, pebbles, etc. Attach a stick to the open end of your kelp stem and lash it with cordage. You now have a kelp rattle. The finished rattle in the photo has a small gourd with pebbles attached to the other end of the stick.





E-mail your comments to "Dino Labiste" at KahikoArts@yahoo.com

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