Along the New England coastline, Irish Moss (Chondrus crispus), a common type of red algae, occupies the mid-to-lower intertidal and shallow sub-tidal zone. Species like Knotted Wrack and Bladder Wrack generally occur in higher zones, whereas Kelps (including Atlantic Kombu) typically grow in lower zones. Irish Moss is hidden at high tide (unless you count detached pieces in the wrack-line), but is revealed as low tide approaches. This small species is usually reddish/purple, but can show a range of colors from yellow to green to brown. Sun-dried samples found washed up on beaches may be light pink or white. Living specimens are edible and can be used to thicken soups, drinks, and other culinary creations. (To see the following photos in full-size, click here.)
On the beaches I frequent in southern Maine, I occasionally find clumps of Atlantic Dulse (Palmaria palmata) standing in color-contrast to the majority of wave-tossed algae. Much more commonly, I find pieces of Knotted Wrack, Bladder Wrack, Irish Moss, and various Kelps -- none of which have the rich red color of Atlantic Dulse. The blades of this alga can be eaten fresh (when found alive), and dried pieces can be lightly toasted for a fine, salty treat.
Fucus is a genus of brown algae whose members inhabit rocky coastlines throughout much of the world. Perhaps the most well-known type is Bladder Wrack (F. vesiculosus), a species whose branching, flattened fronds have obvious midribs and, often, but not always, feature distinctive paired air bladders (pictured below). All Fucus species are edible and are rich sources of iodine. In his book Seaweeds: Edible, available, & sustainable (2013, p. 85), Ole Mouritsen describes the fresh young growth of Bladder Wrack as "extremely tasty." (For more edibility info, see Green Deane's Bladderwrack profile.) Bladder Wrack commonly shares rocks with Knotted Wrack in the mid-to-upper intertidal zones.
Atlantic Kombu (Laminaria digitata) is one of the species of seaweed who I routinely add to the pot when I make soup stock. I value the wide array of minerals and vitamins and the brininess that this ocean-growing entity lends to my meals. And I love her shape. The strong stalk of this algae connects to a central region from which numerous streamer-like straps radiate. These projections set Atlantic Kombu apart from other edible Kelps (Laminaria spp.) growing offshore of New England.
My first taste of seaweed -- which are large, edible marine algae -- came many years ago when I tried vegetable sushi wrapped in Nori. The salty flavor was initially strange but gradually grew on me. It wasn't until years later that I began to explore other sea vegetable options, like toasted Dulse on salads and hearty Kombu and Kelp in broths and soups. Now, seaweed is a valued part of my diet, as it was and still is for indigenous peoples all over the world.
Throughout their lifetime of immersion in mineral-rich ocean water, seaweeds also accumulate rich stores of micro-nutrients. While these algae are highly valued for the feeding of garden soil (as compost and garden fertilizer), the direct food value of seaweeds appears to have largely faded from the consciousness of modern Americans. Aside from processed Nori wraps, how many people are aware of seaweed's vast culinary uses?
Seaweeds are adapted to living in conditions of constant movement. Influenced by the endless ebb and flow of ocean waters, they must remain flexible yet firmly attached to their anchor points. Humans, too, can thrive in these shifting times by remaining rooted in the present moment, and I suggest that seaweeds are therefore not just sources of nutrition but living beings with life lessons to share. Buy taking in seaweeds, we incorporate their wise spirits into our lives.
If you are interested in adding some wild algae to your diet, I recommend finding a local source of hand-harvested, air-dried sea vegetables. Ironbound Island Seaweed (a small company based in Winter Harbor, Maine) sells several kinds of seaweed, which they describe in detail on their site. They offer seaweed by the pound, as well as 2.5 pound Ocean Harvest Bushel for those who want to experiment with all their east-coast offerings.
Of course, you can also harvest seaweed yourself. But be aware, that while gathering piles of rotting seaweed from a coastal beach may work for garden mulch, edible seaweeds need to be gathered while they are still alive. If you are up for the challenge and don't mind getting wet, I recommend contacting an experienced seaweed harvester to inquire about apprenticing.