Čhaŋpȟá Tȟózi: Green Chokecherries

Čhaŋpȟáhu, Prunus americana, Chokecherry bush. Still completely green in mid-June.

One of the Lakota names for the moon month of July is Čhaŋpȟásapa wí, the moon when the chokecherries are black [ripe].

After the clusters of white flowers blossom in the spring, small green fruits appear. Over the next couple months, they get bigger. Then, under the warm summer sun, they begin to ripen — first to a bright red, and then slowly, to a purple-black. If you pick them too early, they are bitter or sour, and not very sweet. But the longer you wait, the the sweeter they become.

As you can see in these pictures, they are still green, without the slightest hint of a red blush. They are not even close to being  ready to pick, despite the fact that Čhaŋpȟásapa wí is right around the corner.

Due to climate change, the timelines for plant lifecycles in our area has shifted — some subtly, and some dramatically. In our area, you can get your first taste of chokecherries at the tail end of July, though they are still not very sweet. These days, I harvest the best best-tasting čhaŋpȟá in August and September.

The impacts of the shifting times for plant lifecycles are much bigger than the name of the month no longer accurately describing what is going on in the natural world. It can have a devastating effect on other species, plant and animal, who depend on these food sources, which are no longer available at the time when they need them, which can sometimes threaten another species with extinction. (The yucca flower and the yucca moth are a prime example — but that will be another post.)

A language note:
Čhaŋpȟáhu = Chokecherry bush.
Čhaŋpȟá = Chokecherry, the fruit.
There is a whole bunch of interesting vocabulary around chokecherries and their processing, because it is a very culturally important food.

I definitely have my favorite bushes to harvest from, and I’m guessing that other people do, too. There is tremendous variation in fruit size, sweetness, flavor, pectin content, and abundance, from bush to bush, although they don’t consistently produce a big crop from year to year…but that is another topic for another post!

Čhaŋíčaȟpehu: Nettles in early June

Čhaŋíčaȟpehu, Urtica dioica, Stinging nettles. They grow in shaded, damp areas.

Many people today avoid them or even wear thick gloves to pull them out for fear of the sting.

But on Standing Rock, the knowledge that they are actually a powerful medicinal plant, and that the stingers can help with pain and inflammation, is coming back to the people. Now, nettle patches in public or accessible areas are becoming more popular, as people seek out the fresh nettles to do “whipping treatments,” whipping the stinging hairs against inflamed joints or other painful spots.

This knowledge is spreading through Prof. Linda Black Elk’s Ethnobotany classes at Sitting Bull College, through word of mouth, and through the Tribal Health Department’s educational activities, such as the Awáŋič’iglaka Pain Summit, where they presented this plant as one alternative to opiate prescription medications. Many people have personal testimonies of dramatic transformations in their pain and mobility as a result of this plant.

I returned to this nettle patch a week later. (I will not disclose the location, as it is already pretty well-known around the rez, and over-harvesting could damage it.) I found that someone, or perhaps a group or family, had cut off the tops of many plants, probably for medicinal use or food.

While this meant that I was unable to harvest that day, it does not actually damage the plant irreversibly, as long as someone doesn’t rip up the whole plant by the roots. Harvesting just the tips is fine — nettles are resilient and will continue to generate new growth tips (which are delicious when steamed or sautéed in melted butter, and also a very nutritious food).

Nettles propagate by either root or seed, so this plant can withstand some human harvesting for food or medicine. Hopefully, as more people come to know about the healing properties of this plant, we will start to encourage it to grow in more places.

Milkweed yarn

Made by an expert weaver from Europe who came to live on the rez as a water protector while the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Camp was still active.

This yarn is made from the fibrous stems of the plant (not the silk in the seedpods). It’s very strong, and also pretty soft.

I haven’t tried making this myself, so I can’t give a firsthand report — but I’ve been cautioned that the milkweed sap can be caustic. I was advised that it’s best to wait until the stems are dry before starting to turn it into cordage.

Ičáȟpe Hú: Echinacea angustifolia plant

June prairie sunset, with an ičáȟpe hú (Echinacea angustifolia) plant in the foreground. At this time of year, when we were out thíŋpsiŋla hunting, the pink petals were just starting to emerge around the flowerheads.

The root and various other parts of this plant are a great medicine for toothaches, sore throats, immune system issues, and many more things. I’ve also heard it called úŋglakčapi, referring to people using the prickly but sturdy seedhead as a comb.

Right now, the plant is putting its energy into producing flowers, which will become seeds for the next generation of plants, so this is not the right time of year to harvest it. Due to past instances of outsiders coming onto the reservation and over-harvesting this important traditional medicine resource, there are now restrictions on harvesting it on the reservation.


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.