Pšíŋ Hinápȟe: Onions Emerging, over 5 days

Pšiŋ. Onions. There is an indigenous wild onion, pšiŋ šičámna, but this post is about domestic onions. These are a special North-Dakota-adapted variety bred by Dr. Frank Kutka at NDSU extension in Dickinson. He gave me the seeds at a seed exchange at the Indigenous Farming Conference hosted by the White Earth Land Recovery Project in Minnesota. They are supposed to be a good storage onion. They germinated in less than a week, and I took daily photos as they emerged.

One interesting fact about baby onion plants is that the top of the plant does not emerge first — a loop of the middle does, and you can only guess which end will wind up staying attached to the soil.

Onion loops getting bigger…

Some onion loops starting to unfold…

Once the tops emerge, they will usually have their seed husks still attached. Some seed heads are visible here, as the onions unfold:

This was the last day I took a picture, before the onions got their first haircut. You can clip the tops off. If you’re starting onions indoors (which is necessary in ND due to the short growing season), you will need to regularly trim the onion plants to keep them focused on producing a wide base and thick root structure.

Frank recommends starting onions indoors in February in order to have them ready to go out into the garden in May. These are from March, so they may not do well this season. But Frank advised me that if I plant them close together, I might be able to convince them to produce seed, rather than bulbs.

 

I’m going to stick the rest of my onion seed in the freezer, with hopes that the cold will extend its life and keep it viable for next year.

Wažúšteča – Wild Strawberry Leaves in April

On an early spring walk along the Moreau River, when the ice was still melting away and the first leaves of our local plants were just beginning to show themselves, I saw this wild strawberry plant.

It was very close to the ground, disguised so it would be easy to miss. Not even a hint of a flower bud yet.

Wild boreal strawberries are one of the sweetest, most amazing wild fruits around. There is simply no way to describe the taste. While the berries are often only about a quarter of an inch long, and hard to find, they are well worth it. Ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer has a fantastic chapter on the strawberry plant and the lessons we can learn from it in her book Braiding Sweetgrass.

Kȟáŋta Twig Tea

Kȟaŋta. Prunus Americana. Wild Plum. While this shrub is most famous for its small but delicious fruits, the spring is a good time to harvest the stem tips, which are another kind of medicine, You can make a tea from the twig tips that treats asthma or other breathing difficulties.

This is what the tips look like in April:


Identifying plants in the winter, when they don’t have foliage, can be challenging. One way to identify kȟáŋta this time of year, before it gets its leaves, is by its distinct thorns. They are nothing like the sharp, long thorns of the Hawthorn tree, but you definitely don’t want to stab yourself. If you’re not sure, get to know a kȟáŋta plant during the summer and then come back to it the following spring.

 

This one, which I harvested from, was chewed by a porcupine or some other kind of hungry animal over the winter, but it was still in good enough shape to harvest a few twigs:

That day, with a friend, I actually harvested the ingredients for several different spring teas. Some made use of plants that had been drying/ripening over the course of the winter:
-Last year’s sage (Pȟežíȟota, Artemisia ludoviciana): still strong enough to make a good tea.

-Uŋžiŋžiŋtka (Rosa Woodsii, Wild Rose Hips): They actually get sweeter after spending winter on the bush.

And the other two focused on fresh ingredients:

-Igmú čheyáka (Nepeta cataria, Catmint): The first fresh shoots emerging this time of year.

-Kȟáŋta twigs, of course.

 

To make the kȟáŋta waȟpékȟalyapi (wild plum twig tea), put about 1-2 tablespoons per 2 cups of water in a pot, and let it boil about 20 minutes. Cool to room temperature, remove the twigs, then serve. For breathing difficulties, this should provide fairly quick relief.

Pȟaŋǧí — Sunchoke/Jerusalem Artichoke

Pȟaŋǧí. Helianthus tuberosus. Sunchoke or Jerusalem Artichoke in English. It is a cousin to the sunflower. It is not remotely related to an artichoke, and does not look or taste anything like one, so I’m not sure how it got its English name. But its Lakota name, Pȟaŋǧí, has since lent itself to many other root vegetables that are newcomers to Lakota country, such as the pȟaŋǧí zizí (carrot — literally, yellow sunchoke), pȟaŋǧí háŋska (parsnip — literally, long sunchoke), pȟaŋǧí huthóškokpa (celery root/celeriac — hard to translate, but the “škokpa” part refers to the rounded shape), pȟaŋǧí pȟepȟé (radish — literally, prickly/thorny sunchoke), pȟaŋǧí šašá (beet –literally, red sunchoke), and pȟaŋǧíska (daikon radish –literally, white sunchoke).

 

Underground, underneath the tall and somewhat prickly flower stalks, a delicious tuber grows. These can be dug out of the ground either in the spring or the fall. While these are indigenous to the area, they can become invasive in a yard or similar area if not contained. These  were planted in a garden bed in Fort Yates.

 

Here’s how they look when fresh out of the ground:

 

After washing, but before cleaning and cutting the non-edible parts:

 

Pȟaŋǧí can be eaten raw, and are delicious that way, with a crunch and a bit of a sunflower-seed hint to their flavor. But they can also be roasted like potatoes, for more of a caramelized, roasted-vegetable taste.

 

I chopped these into equal-size pieces, covered them in olive oil, and roasted them in a glass baking dish in the oven at about 400 degrees for 20-25 minutes, until they were just starting to caramelize. (The actual cooking time will depend on how thickly you cut them, and how much you have.) I finished them off with just a bit of salt. They are healthy, and a low glycemic index food. You can read more about the health benefits of pȟaŋǧí here and here. These are delicious, and I wish I had more!

Eating Your Weeds

It’s the time of year where every seed that has blown into the garden bed is popping up, as well as any weeds that I failed to eradicate last year. I’m working on learning the difference between those that have some medicinal/nutritional value and are worth keeping, and those that should be pulled before they take over the entire garden.

This one, I learned, is amaranth:

The greens are edible and delicious (I ate a piece that broke off), as well as the seedheads that the flowers produce. These were once an important source of grain in the traditional diet of the Plains, and gardeners sometimes plant them for aesthetic reasons in their flower gardens. They are now making a resurgence in terms of use as food. South Dakota Magazine even featured an article about them. I replanted the root where I can keep an eye on it and hopefully harvest more greens before it goes to seed throughout the summer.

More Amaranth growing:

 

Another one that I pulled, which I will not replant because it is a weed that sprouts all over the place around here and grows huge very quickly, is Alfalfa. Alfalfa is an invasive species from Eurasia that was brought over for use in livestock feed.

I had a pet house rabbit for almost 12 years, and I was familiar with alfalfa hay as it is fed to rabbits. You can give a young rabbit large quantities to help them grow up healthy, but for adult rabbits, it is too rich to be anything but a special treat in limited amounts.
For humans, it turns out, alfalfa is more than just edible — it is beneficial. In addition to being rich in vitamins and minerals, alfalfa tea can treat a host of health problems, as detailed here, here, and here. It has been used as part of Traditional Chinese Medicine for almost 2,000 years. While I won’t let this one survive in my garden, I’ll be saving it to dry for tea later this summer.

Wáǧačhaŋ Čhíŋkpa Pȟežúta Káǧa — Making Medicine from Cottonwood Buds

Wáǧačhaŋ. Populus deltoides. Cottonwood. This is a very culturally important tree for the Lakota and many other Indigenous cultures. It has more uses than I will get into in this post. Today I will focus on the medicinal uses of the buds, or čhíŋkpa. (“Čhíŋkpa” specifically refers to a bud on a tree; “čhamní” is a bud on other kinds of plants/flowers.) Wáǧačhaŋ čhíŋkpa are useful for making a salve that helps with pain and coughs, as well as a cough medicine that can be taken internally.

Late April is the time of year when late winter/early spring winds blow lots of wáǧačȟaŋ čhíŋkpa to the ground. Most people do not use the word “windfall” literally, but to those of us who gather wild plants, the term’s original meaning is just perfect. After a heavy wind, the gift of fallen plant items allows you to collect what you need from the ground, without harming the tree or having to reach up into tall, inaccessible branches. To harvest these, I just went outside after a windstorm and looked on the ground under some local cottonwoods:

These buds are very distinctive in both appearance (waxy, sticky buds on nobby branches) and the sweet, almost honey-like smell. Another way of identifying them is that the inside of every branch of the cottonwood tree, when cut cross-wise, has a star:

There are stories that explain the reason for this star, but I will leave that to far more qualified storytellers. It can be a useful way to identify this tree, though, and also a beautiful aesthetic feature.

 

The medicine in these wáǧačhaŋ čhíŋkpa comes from the orange sap, which you can see building up in several little beads on the buds in this picture:

 

The buds vary in shape, size, and color, so here is another shot:

The most recent year’s growth, the part that has buds attached to it, all contains the medicinal sap and can therefore be used — there is no need to separate out the buds from the twig. There will be a clear joint where the most recent year’s growth meets the previous year’s growth, and it should be easy to snap it off at this joint.
I gathered a small bag’s worth on my walk:

 

One way to extract the medicine from wáǧačhaŋ čhíŋkpa is to put them in honey and leave them for at least 6 months. This makes a good cough medicine and can be taken internally. Fill a jar up halfway with the buds and stems, and fill it the rest of the way with honey.

Since honey is a slow-moving liquid, it may take some time for air to bubble up to the top of the jar from between the buds, at which point you can fill the remaining space with more honey.

 

 

Another preservation method is to make a tincture, following the previous recipe, except with a non-flavored, high-proof grain alcohol such as Everclear:

 

Finally, the most common way of extracting medicine from wáǧačhaŋ čhíŋkpa is oil. The slow method, which may produce the strongest result, is to fill a jar up halfway with the buds, and then the rest of the way with olive oil. Most people recommend leaving it alone in a dark, cool place for between 3 months to a year.

 

You can also heat it up by cooking it on a low setting on a stove for at least 6 hours (up to 24 hours). It’s difficult to get the heat low enough not to burn it, though — this batch may have come out a bit toasty (though not too charred to be useable).

If you’re going to do a faster oil infusion with heat, I prefer the crockpot method. These buds will spend about a week infusing in coconut oil (which melts all the way — this photo was from about 20 minutes in) on very low heat in a small crockpot, the type meant for fondues and sauces.

In the end, strain the oil through a coffee filter, cloth, or sieve to remove the plant bits.

 

For a salve, Linda Black Elk taught me that a good formula is 2 ounces of beeswax per cup of herb-infused oil, in order to achieve the proper salve consistency.

 

Mistakes I made, to avoid:

1. Use or preserve all buds as soon as possible after harvest — they will mold! (I tried to rescue some moldy ones by soaking them in vinegar water, rinsing them, then cooking them in boiling oil — but I’m not sure if they were damaged too much by the mold to be medicinal.)

2. You don’t need to wash the buds if you’re doing an oil or alcohol infusion — you will strain out any dirt through the filter at the end of the infusion process. Washing them can promote mold growth, and also add more water which you don’t want in the oil while you are infusing.

 

4. However, washing them is definitely important for making honey.

 

5. There is no need to separate out the buds from the twigs that they are on. As I mentioned above, the sap that is such a strong medicine is present in both.

 

6. If you handle these, your hands will be very sticky! Soap won’t help much. However, rubbing alcohol works like a charm.

Wáǧačhaŋ Wanáȟča Yúta — Eating Cottonwood Flowers

Wáǧačhaŋ wanáȟča kiŋ yáta oyákihi he? Can you eat cottonwood flowers?

I’ve been working with cottonwood buds to make medicinal salves, but when I walked by our neighborhood trees and noticed that the buds had burst open to reveal these red flowers (technically called catkins, not flowers), I wondered if they were edible. I tried one — it tasted almost like broccoli, but a bit bitter, with nothing of the taste/smell associated with cottonwood buds and stems.


Since most things taste better fried, I gathered some to take home and experiment. 

The first step in cleaning them is to remove the shells of the cracked-open bud:

Finished pile of peeled flowers:

Compost bin full of shells:

I did my gathering over several days, during which time the flowers still growing on the trees matured and elongated, growing to look more like velvety, fuzzy caterpillars.

After washing them in water and patting them dry, my first step was to soak them in goat’s milk briefly:

Then a dip in cornmeal:

Then briefly frying them in grapeseed oil:

After they came out of the frying pan, I added a bit of salt. I experimented with other seasonings, both sweet (honey or brown sugar) and savory (various herbs). I came to the conclusion that just salt is best, and allows the flavor of the wáǧačhaŋ wanáȟča to stand on its own. This is the finished product, which I served to my Ethnobotany class:

Mistakes I made, to avoid:

-Cook these the same day that you pick them. Overnight, the flowers will start to open up more, produce more pollen, and disintegrate. If you must pick them ahead of time, keep them in the fridge in a bag with a paper towel.

-Don’t wash these with water until you’re ready to cook them.

-If you wait too long in the season to pick the flowers, they will start to dry out and lose their taste.

Conclusions:

-I’ve heard in Lakota country that people consider the flowers to be “famine food,” but I thought they were pretty good.

-If you have a strong reaction to bitter undertones in foods, you probably won’t like them.

-In my research, I found that the Japanese fry these tempura-style at a later stage of their growth. They look very beautiful this way from the pictures I found.

-There may be other spices that work well with the flavor of these buds, but I haven’t found the right one yet.

-After writing and posting this, I found that another blogger had written and posted pretty much the same exact thing. We each came to our conclusions independently, but here’s the link if you want another source.

Rhubarb

This is not a native plant, but since it’s so popular here and does well in our climate, I thought it deserved its own post.

While this plant is actually from Asia, it is a hardy perennial that thrives in USDA Zone 4. People from outside this region in the U.S. are often unfamiliar with it, and are skeptical about it. But many people in the Dakotas love its sweet-tart taste, and gardeners across the reservation maintain rhubarb patches in their gardens.

My neighbor and friend from the Standing Rock Seed Exchange has a great rhubarb patch in her yard. The stalks, which are the edible part of the plant, grow in abundance as the summer season wears on. But this was a special gift: an early-summer cutting from my friend’s garden, at a time when the stalks are not yet abundant. I love the vibrant colors of the fresh stalks.

One woman brought rhubarb seeds to the Mobridge Seed Exchange. I didn’t have any success starting them, but I’ll try again next year.

The main method of propagation for rhubarb is by roots. The roots of this plant will form a crown under the ground — and when it is big enough, part of the crown can be dug up and separated from the rest of the plant, which can then grow a new plant, forming a new rhubarb crown. (Sorry, no pics; I didn’t want to damage my own fledgling rhubarb patch, but I’m sure you can see what it looks like with a quick google search.) It takes a couple years for a rhubarb patch to get established, so this plant requires time and patience: you can’t harvest any stalks right away, or you will be harm your plant before it is strong enough to withstand harvesting. Some people only prefer the red-stemmed varieties of rhubarb, which are gorgeous, but I find that the green varieties taste just as good.

Rhubarb is far too tart to eat by itself — it requires some kind of sweetener. I like preparing it with honey, but brown or white sugar also works. Always taste it as you’re blending; I find that it requires far more sugar than I expect it to. It also pairs nicely with apricots, canned or fresh, which are another perennial Eurasian import that does well in Zone 4.

The leaves are toxic if eaten, but I have heard that they make a great mordant for use when dying fiber with plant dyes.

I used this rhubarb-gift, along with some apricots that were given to me by another local gardener friend, to bake a cobbler for the second Standing Rock Seed Exchange of the season. I didn’t get to try it, as I was too busy during the event to eat and there were no leftovers, but I guess that speaks for itself.