Prairie Turnip Impostors? Thíŋpsinla (Timpsila) vs. False Thíŋpsiŋla, and how to tell them apart

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Pop quiz:

Which of these two plants is Thíŋpsiŋla (Prairie turnip, Pediomelum esculentum), and which is its look-alike cousin, the False Thíŋpsiŋla or Ghost Thíŋpsiŋla (Pediomelum argophyllum, Silver Scurf Pea)?

Plant #1:

Plant #2:

If you guessed that #2 was the true thíŋpsila, you are correct!

I should know better.
I make this mistake every year.
When I go out thíŋpsiŋla digging, after just a few steps on the prairie, I see those familiar leaves and purple flowers. I get all excited, thinking I have found my first one of the season! — only to realize that I have mis-identified its cousin, yet again.

If you were to dig around the silver scurfpea (false thíŋpsiŋla), you would not find the same delicious, bulbous root, that wonderful traditional food that is the reason for digging them in the first place. I believe this is why some people call it “ghost thíŋpsiŋla” — the expected root is nowhere to be seen.

Until I “get my eyes on” for finding the correct plant (and even sometimes after I do), I often mis-identify its cousin, and get my hopes up.

Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes, even if I don’t seem to be able to. Here are some notes that may help you to tell them apart.

-leaf arrangement
-leaf color
-stem structure
-flower shape
-flower color
-growing habitat


Hairiness: The real thíŋpsiŋla has much hairier leaves and stems — this is the biggest and most noticeable difference.

Color: In terms of color, the leaves are a deeper green on the thíŋpsiŋla, and more of a sagey silver-gray on the (aptly named) silver scurf-pea.Although its flowers are a similar shade of purple, thíŋpsiŋla flowers will have a slightly lighter color than the silver scurf-pea.

Height: Another big difference, and probably a big reason why I tend to see notice the false thíŋpsiŋla (silver scurf-pea) plants first, is that they are taller than the true thíŋpsila plants. I may be way off in my estimation, but I would guess that it is about twice as tall. Thíŋpsiŋla grows closer to the ground, and therefore is harder to spot.

The hairy stems and flowers are especially visible here:

In this shot, you can get a sense of the height of the plants — this one is shorter than the surrounding grass and pȟežíȟota waštémna (Artemisia frigida / women’s sage).

A couple notes on the false thíŋpsiŋla, aka Pediomelum argophyllum:

I have heard that the silver scurf-pea (matȟó tȟathíŋpsila or thíčaničahu in Lakota), has medicinal and food uses  — but since I do not have firsthand experience with it other than mistaking it for thiŋpsiŋla, I will not comment on that here.

Also, although I have definitely heard it called “false thíŋpsiŋla” and “ghost thíŋpsiŋla” frequently around Standing Rock, I did not get any hits for those term when I did a Google search. So either the names are not very widespread, or most people don’t have as much trouble telling it apart as I do…or maybe both?

And finally, some alternate names for Pediomelum esculentum, including many possible spelling variations, just in case anybody is wondering if I’m talking about the same plant:
Bread root (not to be mistaken for several plants in the Lomatium genus which are called biscuitroot or biscuit root in English), Breadroot, Ghost thíŋpsiŋla, Ghost timpsila, Prairie breadroot, Psoralea esculenta (former botanical and Latin name that is still in use in some places; Pediomelum esculentum is the current one), Thimpsila, Thimsila, Thinpsila, Thiŋpsila, Thíŋpsila, Thíŋpsina, Thiŋpsiŋla, Thípsila, Thípsiŋna, Timpsila, Tinpsila, Tinpsina, Tinpsinla, Tinpsinna, Tipsila, Tipsina, Tipsinna.

I’ll discuss the harvesting, processing, and braiding the roots in a separate post later on.


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