Buckbrush in Bloom

Here’s an early-summer picture of a Buckbrush bush in bloom. When I take people out onto the prairie, they frequently ask about this plant. It’s common for people to mistake the greenish-white berries for some kind of late-season blueberry or juneberry. Some notice the somewhat similar leaf shape and texture of Buckbrush and Juneberry bushes, and mis-identify this shrub. But despite their appearance, this plant is actually not a close relative to the blueberry at all – in fact, they are in the honeysuckle family.

The Lakȟóta names I’ve seen for this plant, gathered by my mentor Linda Black Elkares uŋšúŋgnasapi hú, or zuzéča tȟawóte. (The second one, I’d translate as “snake food”; the first, I have some guesses, but none good enough to speculate publicly.) Its scientific name is Symphoricarpos occidentalis. Two alternative English names for this plant are Snowberry and Wolfberry.

I’m guessing the whitish appearance of the ripe berries explains the “Snowberry” name, but I’m not sure why it was named “Wolfberry” in English. It is not related to the Asian “wolfberry,” a famed antioxidant that is usually known in English as a Goji berry. (Goji berry shrubs are in the boxthorn [Lycium] genus; the two species that produce those elongate, red berries are Lycium barbarum and Lycium chinense.)

I often get asked if the berries are edible. They aren’t poisonous, as far as I know, but they are somewhat bitter and not very palatable (I’ve tried them). Birds eat them, but I have never heard of humans eating them.

This plant also has a history of being used as a medicine, although I can’t speak from personal experience there. According to Linda Black Elk, all parts of it can be used as a wound poultice, and an infusion of the leaves can be used as an eyewash. She also mentioned a tea made from the inner bark as a constipation remedy, and an infusion of the roots as a tonic. I have never personally worked with this plant as a medicine, though, so I cannot personally comment on this.

These shrubs get about knee-high on the parts of the prairie where I often see them on Standing Rock, but I have read that they can get up to 4 feet tall in other places.

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