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.


Waȟpékȟalyapi waŋ Wakáǧe – Making a Tea Blend

Three medicinal plants that make a great tasting and medicinal tea (clockwise from top left):

Pȟežíhota waštémna – Artemisia frigida – fringed sage
Čhaŋíčaȟpehu – Urtica dioica – stinging nettles
Ziŋtkála tȟačháŋ – Amorpha canescens – leadplant

A Gift of Violets

A coffee filter with a violet plant inside: a gift from a neighbor and friend from the Standing Rock Seed Exchange, who has a fantastic garden in another one of the North Dakota communities on the reservation.
These lovely little native plants pop up everywhere in the garden, and are sometimes considered weeds, so a lot of gardeners transplant or rehome them. They do well in a variety of conditions, from full sun to partial shade, and they like to be kept damp. I planted this one near a storm drain, where it would thrive.

There are plenty of articles online extolling the health benefits of violets, everything from breathing medicine to cancer. But I am not personally familiar with these properties, and I do not want to make any false claims, so I can only comment on what I have personally done with violets. The flowers are edible and make a nice addition to salads. You can also dry them for later use.

My mom also makes violet jelly sometimes. You need to gather a lot of violets to make a jelly, though if your yard is overrun with violets, this might be a good way to use them. The jelly turns out a lovely light-lavender color, but it should be eaten quickly if you want to enjoy the color — within in a few years, it will fade to a yellow-green color (but still taste the same). The taste is really mild, but if you love violets, it might be worth the effort.

Chokecherry flowers

Seen on a plant walk for the Culture Day at Selfridge Public Schools. I led walks around the school grounds for groups of students from different grade levels. Although they all knew how to identify a chokecherry plant from the presence of ripe cherries, few of them could identify it based on the leaf or the flower.

Many of us, especially when we are first getting to know a plant, rely on just one or two visual cues. That may work fine if it’s a cue that will always remain constant — for instance, the color and texture of the bark — but it can lead to problems if we’re relying on cues that are highly seasonal, such as the presence of fruit.

On this plant walk, we discussed several other ways to identify a chokecherry bush, such as the alternate leaf arrangement, and serrated leaf margin. Even the elementary schoolers were able to master this concept, and successfully identify the next chokecherry bushes we encountered on the walk.

2018 SBC Mobridge Standing Rock Seed Exchange

After the success of our first Standing Rock Seed Exchange in Fort Yates, ND, in Spring of 2018, we started hearing that people on the south side of the reservation wanted a seed exchange, too. So, the first Mobridge Seed Exchange was born. We met on a Saturday afternoon at the Sitting Bull College Mobridge Campus, and set up in the student lounge.

The first Mobridge Seed Exchange attracted a mix of Native people from Standing Rock and the surrounding community, and European-Americans from the Mobridge area. We started with an opening prayer led by Mobridge resident Luke Black Elk, and shared potluck meal. Then, one by one, everyone who had brought seeds to share stood up and introduced us to their seeds, sharing the seeds’ story and any growing tips that people might want to know. Then, we opened it up for people to take seeds.

Here are some of Prof. Linda Black Elk’s Ethnobotany students, and members of the local community, getting seeds:

Enough people (and seeds) showed up that we wound up having to add extra tables!

Overall, we had more than 30 attendees of all ages and walks of life. I didn’t count seed varieties, but many, many seeds changed hands and went home to new families that afternoon.

While, as you can see, there were some seed packets that were donated, the focus was really on sharing locally-adapted seeds from community members’ gardens and farms.
Overall, it was a very successful event! We planned a second Mobridge Seed Exchange for a bit later in the spring, to include a seedling (live plant) exchange and also some brief gardening lessons. I’ll share pics from that event soon.

In this pic, on the bottom on the far left, you can see a milkweed rope, made by Bill Rosin of Rosin Organics (Selby, SD), using a skill he picked up in Prof. Linda Black Elk’s Ethnobotany class.