Blending Herbal Tea

an infusion blend I recently made: rose petal, yarrow flower tips, and a mugwort leaf.

I’ve gotten a few questions about herbal tea blending recently, so I wanted to share about what I’ve been taught. 

Different kinds of plants, and different plant parts, may require different preparations to extract the medicine.  I pay close attention to this — I want to respect the plants that have sacrificed so I can have medicine, by not wasting this gift.

For some plant parts, you just pour hot water over them to extract the medicine. This is called an “infusion.” If you put them on a pot and boil them (ie, make a “decoction”), you may be destroying some of the medicinal qualities in the herbs.

Other plants need to be boiled (decoction) — just pouring water over them won’t extract very much medicine.

There are even some plants that you want to soak in cold or room-temperature water (“cold infusion”) because heat can destroy their main medicinal qualities.

Some plants are versatile, and will do fine with any of these preparations.

Here is how I understand the differences.

Infusions (pour hot water over plants in a cup; do not boil) work best for plants with soft tissues, such as:
-Soft leaves (ex: nettles or mint)
-Flowers (ex: rose petals or elderflowers)
-Soft dried fruit (ex: dried persimmon slices)

Decoctions (boil for about 15m; exact time depends on the plant) work best for plant parts with hard tissues, such as:
-Roots (ex: dandelion root, ginger)
-Bark (ex: willow bark)
-Dried berries/hard dried fruit (ex: rose hips)
-Tougher leaves and plants (ex: gumweed or kinnikinnick [ie uva ursi/bearberry])

Cold infusions (soak in cold/room-temperature water for 6-12h) work best for demulcents. Demulcents are plants whose medicine is slimy, and soothing to mucus membranes in our bodies (great lung or gut medicine).

Some common demulcents: 
-Slippery elm bark (invasive cousin, that is also great medicine: Siberian elm bark [Ulmus pumila])
-Marshmallow root (weedy cousin, also great medicine: Common mallow [Malva neglecta])
-Seeds that form a gel coating (ex: chia seeds, basil seeds)

For demulcent plants, you do NOT want to pour hot water over them — heat can destroy their good slimy medicinal qualities. I first noticed this when I washed my hands off with a cold hose after peeling Siberian elm bark — and instantly, they were covered with clear gel, the soothing medicine of this plant. But when I tried boiling it into tea, this gel texture/feeling was totally gone. I later heard a more experienced herbalist explain that chemically, heat destroys the plant’s demulcent qualities.

Mixing them together

Now, back to the question about blending. I am always careful about not blending ingredients together that have different requirements to bring out their medicinal qualities.

For instance, let’s say I wanted to make a tea from ginger roots & rose petals. If I poured hot water over my ginger & rose petals, I’d get a great rose flavor in my tea, but a weak ginger flavor — the pour-over wouldn’t be enough to get the medicine out of the ginger. But if I boiled both herbs in a pot, by the time the ginger was good and ready, the medicinal qualities of the rose petals would start to dissipate. (One work-around might be to boil my ginger roots for 15 minutes, and then add the rose petals once I took it off the heat. But if I was hoping to store this in a jar and share it with others as a tea blend, it wouldn’t be the most effective combination.)

A better blend might be rose petals and passionflower, because an infusion (pouring hot water) is ideal for both plants. Or pairing the ginger with another medicine that can withstand a decoction (boiling), like willow bark.

As for cold infusion blends, I don’t do these very often, so I’m still experimenting. As I mentioned, there are a few plants that need to be infused cold to preserve their medicinal properties. You can add other plants to the mix to come up with some good blends. I have successfully made cold infusions with many of the same plants that work for hot infusions. Soft flowers work great (ex: chamomile). So do nettle leaves, and many other soft leaves.

I hope this is helpful to my friends and relatives who are just starting out and experimenting with blending tea for themselves and their relatives.

As always, I welcome questions, comments, and corrections.

After the Harvest: Processing, Drying, Storing, & Caring for your Medicines (part 1)

We’re in the height of summer here in the northern hemisphere. Many medicine makers (including me) are heading out to harvest in the evenings after a full day of work/school/childcare. We race against sunset to gather our precious plant medicines while they are in season, and bring home baskets or bags full of beautiful medicine.
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Some readers of this blog have suggested that it would be useful to do a post about how to take care of your plant medicines once you have harvested them.

In my opinion, when we take medicines from the Earth, even following proper protocol (tobacco, other offerings according to your tradition, getting the plant’s consent), the medicines we harvest are still a gift. And it is important for us to honor that gift by taking care of it.

It’s heartbreaking to me when carefully gathered medicines rot in a plastic bag because they weren’t processed in time. Or medicines that were packed together so tightly, that they grew mold and became unusable. I’ve done this a few times. It feels so terrible to know that you’ve dishonored a gift, and wasted medicine. Hopefully I’ve learned my lesson by now, and I can avoid repeating it again.

So taking care of your medicines quickly is crucial — and there’s no way around this step. When you’re planning your plant harvest, for the day, make sure you budget time at the end to process what you brought in that day. Some plants start to go bad fast once they’re picked, and you don’t want to lose them.
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I was discussing this today with my Anishinaabe plant medicine woman friend. She said, “The work of bringing in our plant medicines is 1 part going out to harvest, and 2 parts processing and taking care of the medicine. It’s a lot of work going out and get our plant medicines — and once I’ve done all of that work, then I have twice the amount of work, to process and take care of them!”

I couldn’t agree with her more — and I can’t even count the nights I’ve been up well past midnight, working to process the plants I harvested that day. Here are some Nettles and Cleavers, about to be washed and processed:
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Now, I’ll walk you through the steps I take in processing plants.

The first step when I bring a medicine home (except mushrooms): Wash it in cold water. Depending on the size of the harvest, I might use anything from a small basin to a full bathtub. Washing removes the things we don’t want in our medicines: dust, dirt, bugs, and some contaminants that we can’t see.

I don’t use soap. But depending on the medicine and the location I harvested from, I might put a plant through several changes of water. Some plants, you can leave to soak in the water for awhile to clean them off. Others start making the wash water into tea pretty fast (for example, marigold species) or react with it to form a gel (for example, mallows), so you can’t leave them in too long without losing their potency. (Cold water is definitely essential — hot or warm water will turn your fresh harvest into tea pretty quickly.)

Ideally, if I have enough water and time, I wash only 1 species of plant at a time. Some can react to each other, or contaminate the others with their scent/flavor.

I remove plants from the water bath in groups that are small enough to bundle together. I grab each bundle by the end, shake it off vigorously, and then lay it on a clean towel to dry off a bit.

After that, unless you’re making a fresh-plant tincture/oxymel, we’re on to the drying stage.

Here are the different drying methods I have tried:
1. Air dry on a counter/shelf/table
2. Hanging plants in bundles on the walls
3. Paper bag or Cardboard box
4. Dehydrator
5. Inside a hot car

Let’s discuss each of these.

1. Air dry on a counter/shelf/table:
Definitely the easiest method. However, there’s a high risk of contamination: dust, pet hair, mice, insects etc. If you have a relatively secure location, too high up for pet hair to land in, and it’s a very short drying period, you might be able to get away with this — but it’s not my favorite.

2. Hanging plants in bundles on the walls:
This method is the most aesthetically pleasing. Who doesn’t love the look, feel, and smells of your fresh harvest hanging up around you on the walls of your home, after a productive summer of harvesting?
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However, this method comes with serious down sides: it’s labor intensive (bundling, tying, hanging, etc), it can gather dust, and you need to be vigilant about not leaving it up too long, because your plants can easily spoil this way, through bleaching or oxidation, and get ruined.

3. Paper bag or Cardboard box:
This is definitely my favorite method. It was passed down to me by mom. You don’t get the pretty hanging plants from the previous picture (which I did because I ran out of boxes and bags), or the Instagram-ready aesthetic — but your harvest is well-protected. The paper of the cardboard or bag pulls the moisture out of your plants, helping them to dry. Best of all, you don’t have to be as vigilant about keeping track of the time as methods 1, 2, and 4 — if you forget about your plants in a paper bag or box for a few months, they’ll still be ok when you come back.

4. Dehydrator:
This is the most expensive method — both because you need a dehydrator, and because of the power costs from running it. It’s labor intensive because you have to cut things up small enough to fit in the dehydrator. I use mine only for really wet things (like chokecherry patties) that won’t dry well by other methods. If you have hot summers where you live, this is probably unnecessary for most plants. Perhaps for people in really damp climates, this would be a good method to dry your medicine quickly before it molds, but I don’t have any personal experience with this. I also know people who are in a rush to put their medicines away after harvest, and use a dehydrator to speed up the processing time.

5. Inside a hot car:
The tried and true powwow-trail plant preservation method!
While some people talk about drying things out on your dashboard or back window, I do not recommend this in most climates. It gets way too hot — you’ll dry out your plants quickly, yes, but before you know it, they’ll get scorched, diminishing their medicinal properties. The sun will also bleach them out too fast. (Have you ever smudged with sage from somebody’s car dashboard, bleached yellow-brown from too many miles in the sun? To me, it smells like I’m basically smudging with dust at that point!)
If you’re going to leave plants in a hot car to dry, I recommend a gentler drying method: leave them somewhere that will get less direct, intense sunlight, such as the backseat. Also, check on them frequently — it’s very easy to leave your plants in there too long, and fry them to death.

So, it turns out that there’s a lot to say about drying plants. So the rest of what I was going to write, on how to dry and store them, will have to wait for another day. Stay tuned for part 2 of this post, coming soon. Happy harvesting!img_2382

All About Yarrow: Cold Remedy, Wound Medicine, and More

I’ve been getting a lot of questions about Yarrow lately, so I decided it was time for a more comprehensive Yarrow post. It’s a very important medicine, and in many regions, right now is the time to harvest it.

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First, a little background. This plant has many names:
Ȟaŋté Čhaŋȟlóǧaŋ
Tȟaópi pȟežúta
Achillea millefolium
Yarrow

Yarrow is a common plant around the world in the northern hemisphere: North America, Asia, and Europe. I’ve seen it growing all across Turtle Island. Every person who works extensively with plant medicines has favorite plants that they work with, and catch-all remedies that they use to treat many ailments. Yarrow is one of my favorites.

It starts off as a patch of feathery, deep green leaves on the ground. Later in the season, it forms a flower stalk. The buds will open to reveal an umbrella-like cluster of white flowers. (To me, these white flowers smell kind of buttery, but not everybody agrees on that.) In this picture, you can see a bunch of yarrow plants in full bloom, and one in the front where the bud is just getting ready to open:

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I was first introduced to its medicinal properties by some mentors of mine in British Columbia, a couple of St’át’imc medicine people, Wayne Smith and Rita Wells of Q’aLaTKu7eM/Samahquam/Battiste-Smith Indian Reserve. They work with the flower tips, which they told me are the “extra-strength part.” I learned from them that if you feel a cold or other illness coming on, you can drink a few cups of yarrow flower tip tea to fight off the illness. For years, this was the only way I used yarrow. It is still my go-to cold-prevention tea. It forms a beautiful, bright yellow tea. Some people find it a tiny bit bitter, but I think it’s a very pleasant tea.

The tea is a remedy for more than just fighting off colds, though. I have also noticed over the years that this tea settles an upset stomach. And later on, I learned from Linda Black Elk that it can be a blood purifier.

Linda also taught me the 2 Lakota names for this plant: Ȟaŋté čhaŋȟlóǧaŋ, and tȟaópi pȟežúta. Each of these names has something to teach us about this plant.

Ȟaŋté čhaŋȟlóǧaŋ: This name can help us to identify the plant if we’re not sure. Literally, this translates to “hollow-stemmed cedar.” The leaves kind of resemble cedar leaves (a much less woody version of cedar). And the stems of this plant, especially the stalks that the flowers grow on, are hollow.

Tȟaópi pȟežúta: This is a really important one. In fact, I think this name describes how most people know Yarrow. It’s also the most important way to think of this plant in an emergency situation. This name translates to “wound medicine.” It has styptic action — meaning, it can stop bleeding. If you ever find yourself cut and needing to stop bleeding, look for yarrow.

If you’re trying to stop bleeding in a hurry, the best styptic part of the yarrow is the leaves, although the flowers can work, too.

How I have learned  yarrow to stop bleeding in the field:
Have the patient chew up a handful of leaves. Then put the poultice of wet, mashed leaves on the wound to encourage blood clotting.
(If you’re indoors and have a jar of yarrow leaves, you can also wet the leaves and mash them up, or even apply them as a dry powder to the wound.)

I’ve used yarrow effectively to stop bleeding on cuts and puncture wounds on many occasions. The latest was just over a month ago — I accidentally caught the palm of my hand on the exposed tip of a nail, and it tore my hand up pretty badly. I immediately poured hot water over some dried yarrow leaves to rehydrate them, mashed the leaves, rinsed the wound, and packed the leaves onto the cut, before bandaging up my hand. It was a painful, jagged cut, and I didn’t it think would heal well, but now I only have a tiny scar. One of my projects for later this season will be to make a yarrow wound powder and salve for my first aid kit.

Linda tells a story of the day she was out with a friend, when yarrow really saved the day. The friend dove through the barbed-wire fence of a buffalo pasture to avoid a charging bull, tearing a deep gash in his thigh in the process. She and the others picked a bunch of yarrow leaves for him to chew, packing it into the wound as they rushed him towards the truck, and then the hospital. When they got to the hospital, she reports, the gash had entirely stopped bleeding, and the doctor asked how they had cauterized the wound in the field. If I remember her story correctly, they had trouble convincing the doctor that they didn’t actually cauterize it, but just used this amazing medicinal plant. I believe that interaction led to developing a relationship with the doctor, who had pretty recently immigrated from India, and was curious to get to know and appreciate the medicinal plants we have in the Great Plains.

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Indigenous Turtle Islanders aren’t the only culture that has a long-standing relationship with Yarrow. The scientific (Latin) name, Achillea millefolium, alludes to several more stories and identifying characteristics.

The second part of the name, “millefolium,” translates to “thousand leaves.” Have you ever counted each of those feathery needles on a yarrow leaf? I haven’t — but while I think it’s probably closer to a hundred than a thousand, I can easily see why it got that name.

The first part of the Latin name, Achillea, is a reference to Achilles. Even if you’re not familiar with the Greek story of Achilles, you probably have heard of the Achilles tendon in your heel.

This is how the story has been explained to me:
When Achilles was a child, his mother dipped him in a bath of yarrow tea, so that he would be invincible — not able to be killed in battle, and shielded in protection. But when she dipped him in the bath, she held him by his heels. So his heels, the only part of his body that didn’t get soaked in this protective medicine, were his vulnerable point.

Related to this story, I’ve heard of people of European descent working with yarrow on a spiritual level for protection. I’ve also heard practitioners from these traditions say that they work with yarrow spiritually to help them reinforce their own healthy boundaries. A few months ago I heard the 12-year-old daughter of one of my herbalist teachers describe herself as “feeling yarrow-y.” At the time, she was snuggled under a blanket on a comfortable couch next to her mom, feeling safe and warm, shielded from danger, imagining a big umbrella of yarrow growing up above her head.

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There are so many other applications for this plant. Yarrow can also treat a sore throat. An Anishinaabe medicine woman I know recommends it to help with Lyme disease. Linda Black Elk also describes it as a diuretic, and documents it stimulates on urination and sweating.

I know some people who work with yarrow around regulating their menstrual cycles. I do not have personal direct experience with this, but I know people who have consumed yarrow tea when they were in a situation that they needed to stop menstruating. However, I have also known people who have used this plant to bring on menstruation.

In a first aid podcast, I heard from the New York-based herbalist 7Song that he uses yarrow soaks (a bath in a small tub for the affected area of the body) to combat infection. And this plant monograph gives some other interesting uses that I didn’t previously know about, such as using the root to soothe the pain from a toothache.

This is a wild plant that can also be cultivated in a garden. If you have any space at all to garden, I highly recommend making space for this infinitely useful plant. Yarrow grows in a mat (branching out from one individual to a whole colony), and a surprising number of individual plants can grow in a small space.

It’s worth noting that there are some non-native ornamental varieties of yarrow plants (Achillea aegyptiaca), which have paler, sage-gray leaves with a slightly different shape. It is my understanding that these are less medicinal, so I would recommend growing wild yarrow instead. Wild yarrow usually has white flowers, occasionally with a touch of pink. (California has several endemic indigenous yarrows with different colors of blossoms, such as the Channel Islands red yarrow — but I am just getting to know these, so I cannot comment on their medicinal value.) The white-blossomed, indigenous yarrow is the surest bet. It propagates well if you dig up a single individual in a colony, and is easy to keep alive. (For more on gardening with yarrow, California cultivars, and medicinal uses, I recommend this blog post by a very knowledgeable elder I’ve met who runs a native plant garden in Livermore, CA.)

In many places across Turtle Island, yarrow is in bloom right now. If you are harvesting the flower tips, now is the time to do it! I recommend cutting the whole long stalks, washing them, then drying and storing the leaves and flowers separately (since you will probably want to use them for different purposes).

If you are harvesting it for the leaves, it’s probably best to get them sooner than the end of the summer, especially if live in a drier climate. By the end of the summer, the leaves tend to dry up and fade away, dying back to the roots, which will regenerate a plant and flower stalks the following year.

 

Juneberry look-alike: Chokeberry (Aronia Berry)

If it’s past Juneberry season, and getting towards fall, but you see a plant bearing berries that look a lot like Juneberries/Wípažukȟa (or Saskatoon berries, for the Canadians), you’re probably looking at a Chokeberry, or Aronia berry, bush. I took this pic last August:

As you can see, they’re definitely not identical to Juneberries. To explain a few differences I notice in non-botanical terms:
-The leaf shape is different.
-The serrations (teeth) go around the entire leaf, unlike Juneberries
-The bottoms of the fruit are indented, almost in a star shape, but the bottom of a Juneberry pokes out a little bit.
-Each chokeberry hangs from its own individual stem, but Juneberries hang in clusters.
-Since chokeberries are not a wild plant, I have only ever seen them around homes, homesteads, campuses and human-created landscapes — I have never seen one growing wild on the prairie. (If you’ve seen one that escaped cultivation and planted itself wild, I would love to know! Please comment on this post.)

They’re native to Europe, but people tend to plant them ornamentally in the Dakotas. While I don’t think they taste nearly as good as Juneberries, they are definitely edible, and full of antioxidants. (You might want to taste them before you fill a bucket, just to make sure you like the flavor.) They are in the same family as roses (Rosaceae), and I usually see them ripening in August on Standing Rock.

Ziŋtkála Tȟačháŋ — Lung Medicine Tea

Ziŋtkála Tȟačháŋ.
In English, it literally translates to “Bird’s Bush”, although the official English name for it is Leadplant. The people who gave it this unfortunate English name apparently thought its presence indicated lead in soils.
Its scientific name is Amorpha canescens.

This plant is the original sun tea plant of the Northern Great Plains. It has a sweet, floral, fruity taste, and is a good refreshing drink — either hot or cold, with or without a sweetener. And while it’s a great lung support tea if you have a cough or lung congestion, it’s good enough that you don’t need to be sick to enjoy it. I often drink it just to enjoy the taste.

About a decade ago, Linda Black Elk and LaDonna Allard collaborated on making ethnobotanical signs for the trails at the Marina behind Prairie Knights Casino. Not all of them have weathered the years well, but this one is still legible, despite having fallen into the grass next to the plant it was meant to identify. So I will let Linda’s words introduce the medicinal qualities of this plant to you:

 

And here are some of my own photos. You can see the feathery gray leaves (which are a key ingredient in an eczema salve I make, and are also sometimes used in ceremonial smoking mixtures) and bright purple flowers. Some people mistake the flowers for purple loosestrife at first glance — but when you look up close, they are very different plants.

If you are harvesting this plant for tea, I’d harvest it when the flowers are in bloom, because that will be the strongest and have the best taste. Personally, I harvest the flowers plus a couple inches of this year’s leaves. (You can easily tell where the soft, green, new growth yields to the harder, woody growth from past years.)

According to range maps I’ve seen, Ziŋtkála tȟačháŋ is pretty widely distributed across the prairies of North America. However, when I’ve made this tea or gifted it to knowledgeable plant medicine people from other areas, they often don’t recognize it. However, when I’ve visited their territories, I sometimes do find it growing there. So I’m not sure why other Indigenous Nations don’t necessarily have an affinity for this wonderful, medicinal plant.

When I’ve seen this plant on the prairies of southern Minnesota, it didn’t even come up all the way to my kneecaps. But on Standing Rock, the Ziŋtkála Tȟačháŋ bushes are often thigh-high. I’m not sure what accounts for the difference.

Depending on where in the Plains you live, this plant is probably ready to harvest right now, or will be very soon. Keep an eye out for it!

Indigenous Community Garden: Opaskwayak Cree Nation

This post is a virtual tour of the community garden at Opaskwayak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba.

While these pictures are almost two years old (this post has been sitting in my “Drafts” for awhile), the ideas of food sovereignty and community gardening are especially important today, so I decided to dig it up and post it.

Situated in the middle of some community housing on the reserve, OCN’s community garden covers about 1/8 hectare (1/4 acre) and is tended to by a group of volunteers. They grow crops that community members are interested in eating. In this picture, you can see rows of healthy potatoes, cabbages, and tomato plants.

They grow medicine too — check out this happy lavender plant:
Here we have some spinach going to seed (background) and some beautiful, aromatic basil:

More spinach gone to seed:
Some flowering potatoes:
And a close-up of the potato flowers:
For those who are wondering: Yes, potatoes have seeds! While most people propagate them by saving a potato (tuber) and planting it the next year, it is also possible to grow potatoes from the seeds of a potato fruit, which forms above ground. My friend Dr. Ruth Genger at the University of Wisconsin is doing some fascinating research on potato seeds and growing potatoes from seed instead of tubers, so I recommend checking out her work if you want to learn more about potato fruits and seeds.

Back to OCN. Two of the Three Sisters are visible in this pic — their corn patch and some bean plants.

Here are the squash (and some more cabbages).

Trailing cucumber vines:
And a zucchini close-up.

This gorgeous, abundant raspberry patch is one of my favorite parts of the OCN community garden. No matter how many people come and pick, there always seem to be more berries.

I actually had a mission in the garden that day, though (besides taking pictures). I was harvesting herbs for the grad students I was TAing for, who were at the OCN Land Camp at Atikameg (Clearwater Lake) for a 10-day land-based intensive as part of their Indigenous Land Based Education degree program. They were responsible for cooking their own meals, and I wanted to bring them some herbs to include: chives, oregano, tarragon, thyme, basil, and mint.I’ve been involved in several food sovereignty projects in remote First Nations communities across Canada, and I am a big believer in the potential of community gardens to transform communities. There are so many great resources out there to support community gardening. I’d be glad to chat with anybody who’s interested but doesn’t know where to start; feel free to send me a private message.

If you’re involved in a community garden project, I invite you to comment with the name, location, and any other information you’d like to share.

I hope everybody is having a great growing season!

July Squash Takeover

July is the month of the Squash Takeover!

(This is another 2018 post that’s been sitting in my “Drafts” folder.)

In June, my squash plants seemed to be spaced out too thinly. I’d planted several bumpy green Hubbards (Curcubita maxima) from Linda Black Elk, as well as a couple Lakota squash.* But there was a lot of empty space between the plants. I worried that I hadn’t planted enough. In July, I went away for a week when the temperatures were in the triple digits, and came back to this:


Did I plant anything besides squash this year?! I seem to remember doing so, but I can’t even see it because the squash vines and leaves are so thick. They sure grew up fast in the sun.

(Note: a month later, it was a daily battle with the squash to keep the sidewalk clear for the neighbors. If you are planning a garden with some squash in it, make sure you plan for some room for your squash to wander!)

*If you are trying to save seeds, and/or keep a strain of squash pure, don’t grow multiple varieties a the same time. Squash cross-breeds easily.

Waȟnáȟnaheča – Wild cucumber

Waȟnáȟnaheča — wild cucumbers! Some years, you can hardly find one in the woods or on the prairies, and other years, they seem to be growing everywhere.

Their leaf shape and vining habit resemble domesticated cucumbers (kuŋkúŋ, or Cucumis sativus), which are native to India, but they are not closely related. Here are some waȟnáȟnaheča plants climbing my friend’s woodpile, where there had not been a single plant the previous year:

and a close-up, so you can see the vine tendrils:

One surefire way to tell it apart from domestic cucumbers is the flowers, which look nothing like a Persian cucumber. I love these spiky, white flowers:

The fruit it produces has the same watery consistency of a cucumber. I have eaten it, and while it was ok, it isn’t a plant I would seek out to harvest.

I have heard different things from Native herbalists across the country about uses for the seeds and the roots, but I have not worked with them personally, so I don’t want to say anything for sure. Some people use these for medicine. However, I do want to note that some people have also told me that they are toxic. Therefore, I would warn people to be extremely cautious, and to avoid harvesting this plant unless they were doing so under the guidance of an experienced practitioner.

One last thing on this plant: I found the literal translation of its name intrigiuing.


Unlike Persian cucumbers, these fruits will dry out at the end of the season, leaving a hollow, spiky case with the mature seeds inside. It can look a bit alien if you don’t know what you’re looking at. I will look for one of these seed pods next fall, to photograph for this blog.

Thíŋpsiŋla Sú: Prairie Turnip Seed

When I was harvesting Thíŋpsiŋla / Thíŋpsiŋna / Prairie turnip / Pediomelum esculentum last year, this adorable little seed fell out in my hand:

It fell out of the fuzzy flowerhead, and resembles a very small bean.

When people dig thíŋpsiŋla, we pay special attention to what we do with the green, non-edible part of the plant after we take the root. The idea is that you replant the green part, so it can either grow into a new plant, or allow the seeds for the next generation of plants to have the best chance at success.

Everybody’s family has their own teachings and traditions about what to do with the green top of the plant:

A) Some families plant the green top right back into the hole that they dug the root out of, so it looks just the way they found it.

B) Some families put it back into the hole — but upside down, so the flower head (and any seeds) are now inside the soil, and have a better chance of germinating.

C) Some families drop the green tops on the ground, and letting them roll across the prairie, being taken to their new homes by the wind.

Which method is best? Well, I don’t want to disrespect any family’s tried and true methods. My mentor, Linda Black Elk, another Native person who is not originally from the Northern Great Plains, explains that she respects the protocol and teachings of whatever family she’s harvesting with. If they stick the greens back in the hole, she does the same. If they let the wind blow them across the prairie, she does, too. So I’ve followed Linda’s lead on this, and always done it the way my hosts do it. (You need access to land to dig thíŋpsiŋla. So, not having land of my own, I always go out digging with someone who does.)

But a few years back, an Environmental Science student at Sitting Bull college asked the same question. She designed a research study to determine which method was most successful in encouraging new plants to grow. After a long period of observation, going out harvesting with different community members and documenting their harvest methods, collecting data, and returning to the same patches of land to survey the plants the next year, she found a clear winner. She determined that Method C (as described above) was most effective in encouraging new thíŋpsiŋla plants to grow.

In case you’re wondering, I didn’t bring the seed home — I left it out on the prairie, to be blown by the wind until it finds its new home and, hopefully, germinates to become a new plant.

Turning Weeds into Cough Medicine: Siberian Elm bark & root bark

These pictures have been sitting in my “Drafts” folder for a few years, and now seemed like an ideal time to turn them into a post.

If you live in Western North Dakota, you know Siberian Elm trees (Ulmus pumila). Even if you don’t know the name, you probably know those annoying, papery, dime-sized seeds that float down from each Siberian Elm tree by the thousands each May, landing in your garden and immediately trying to turn your tomato bed into a small forest. And you almost definitely have seen these fast-growing trees colonizing any available space, quickly growing up and out, squeezing out the competition — sometimes breaking apart trailers and other buildings in the process.

This is a small one — the leaves will probably look familiar to many North Dakotans:

You can try cutting them down at the base, but they have a strong root system, and will grow right back. This picture (above) is actually a fairly old tree. In the time I’ve watched it, a local landscaper beheads it several times a year, and a month or two later, it pops right back up.

At my old place in Akíčita Háŋska, one of these sprouted in the garden bed behind our home. I tolerated it because the kids liked it — but within three years, I watched this cute, seemingly harmless tree grow two stories high. It took up more and more space in my garden bed — and also started growing down into our water main. It was time for it to go.

I knew from my mentor Linda Black Elk that Siberian Elm shares many of the medicinal virtues of its indigenous North American cousin, Ulmus rubra (Slippery elm), but it is seemingly less susceptible to Dutch Elm disease. I’ve tried eating the baby leaves in the spring (too fuzzy to eat raw, but they make a decent addition to a sauté), but hadn’t yet worked with the bark — and Elm is known for the medicine in its bark.

I was too focused on saving our water main from this fast-growing tree that I forgot to take pictures. But picture this: a human-sized hole in the garden bed, me with a shovel down in it, slowly tracing each root to its end point, and unearthing it. (My friend Larissa, who saw me when she came by to pick up some plants, remarked, “You look like a badger.” Maybe it’s a good thing that there aren’t any pictures.)

I saved as much of the bark from the branches and roots as I could, and dried them in bags and boxes.

As I was peeling the bark, it didn’t seem much different than any other bark that I had stripped off a tree branch or root. But an interesting thing happened when I washed my hands under the hose, after peeling all the bark. The water turned to gel in my hands. It looked like I had clear snot running between my fingers, and coating my hands. This, my friends, is a demulcent in action.

“Demulcent” is a term that herbalists use to describe a plant that gets slippery and slimy (one teacher of mine calls demulcent herbs “slimers”), and soothes inflamed tissues in the body. They add moisture to the body. Demulcents can be great for soothing mucus membranes in the throat and calming coughs.

Since I knew this plant was a good cough medicine, I had used it to make a cough tea. But when boiled in hot water, the bark didn’t have much demulcent action at all. So the hose moment was an interesting discovery, and a reminder of something I have been taught before: not all plant medicines are best extracted in hot water. Some, especially demulcents, extract best in cold water. If you are trying to get the demulcent action from this plant, try a long cold infusion (6-12 hours, possibly overnight). You can add in other herbs, too.

So if there are any Siberian elms invading your home, yard, or community, do yourself a favor and pull them out before they get too big. (Don’t worry about taking too many — this tree is classified as an invasive species everywhere in North America, and even a noxious weed in some places. Even if you tried, you could never eradicate all of them!) And while you’re pulling them out, save and dry the bark from the branches and roots — having good demulcent medicines around is going to be extra important this year.