Siberian Elm

Siberian Elm. Ulmus Pumila.

The State of Minnesota Department of Natural Resources classifies it as an invasive species, noting that “[t]he tree can invade and dominate disturbed prairies in just a few years.” (see link for more info.)
This fast growing, hard to eradicate tree is a real problem here, growing up under homes and buildings and breaking them, crowding out slower-growing native species.

Last weekend I did battle with a 15 foot tall one that was growing into our water main, and had to go.

I like to use everything I can from a plant. I ate the leaves as a green, though it’s early enough in the year that there are barely leaf buds. These are all the leaf buds I collected from the lower limbs:

I cooked it with buckwheat and sausage: 

It didn’t taste like much, and was a lot of work. I’ll have to try later in the season with more mature leaves from other Siberian Elms, which unfortunately are everywhere around here.

The most useful part of this plant, to me, is the inner bark. It’s used to treat cough, just like slippery elm. If you don’t want to damage the tree, the inner bark of a branch will work fine for this, but since I was digging up the whole tree, I found the root bark to be especially strong for this. It is mucilaginous, which is a property that helps it to soothe a bad cough. Even washing my hands after handing it, I came away with strings of the slime.

(Incidentally, the thinner root fibers are strong and flexible, and would probably be great for a basket maker.)

Here’s my pile of bark, drying in the sun after I washed the dirt off of it:

To make the tea, boil the bark is the root or branch for 20 minutes. I like to add my other favorite herbs that also treat illnesses, such as čheyáka (mint), yarrow, and rose.

I dug three feet down and I think I got the majority of the roots. I guess I’ll see for sure in whether it comes back again later this year.

Čhaŋpȟáhu číkʼala (baby chokecherry plants)

I found these baby chokecherry plants poking their heads up today on my walk. I had tossed some chokecherry seeds in that area earlier this year. I don’t know if they germinated, or if these came from another source, but either way, I was glad to see them.

Yom HaShoah: Hungarian Paprika

Today was Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.

My grandparents’ friend Gabe is a Hungarian Jew who spent a portion of his childhood in a Nazi concentration camp. He was already an old man when I met him, and he spends his days growing rare heirloom tomatoes, some of which I have seen nowhere else.

Today I planted some Hungarian paprika seeds that Gabe gave me. He carried them over from Hungary. They’re a bit old but I hope they sprout, and that sharing them gives me another opportunity to tell Gabe’s story. I’ve heard that the majority of younger people are unaware of the Holocaust. But especially now in the U.S., we can’t afford to forget.

Seeds carry genetic memory, just as humans do. I hope that Gabe’s story as a survivor, as well as the ten million stories of those who didn’t make it, will live on with future generations of both humans and in the descendants of his tomatoes and paprika.

Sugarbush: Maple Syrup Season

Disclaimer: I have no idea how to do this. Despite years of being around sugarbush, having a mom who makes great maple syrup, and going on outings like this one  over the years, I have never done this myself, from start to finish. I’ve only had the privilege to be a guest of other people who were doing sugarbush. So I am not qualified to say much on this topic. The purpose of this post is to show the world that people can and do get maple syrup from čhaŋšúška, the Box Elder maple (Acer negundo), the maple species indigenous to this territory.

When the temperatures are above freezing during the day, but still below freezing at night, the sap starts running, and it’s time for sugarbush. While many people associate this activity with regions that have the Sugar Maple (Acer Saccharum), it’s also an activity here in the Dakotas. It’s where the Lakota word for sugar (čhaŋháŋpi: čhaŋ = tree; + haŋpí = juice/sap) comes from.

One thing that I can say with confidence: Making maple syrup is a lot of work. Weeks of collecting sap, hauling heavy buckets, days of of tending a fire or stove and boiling the sap down into syrup while watching it carefully to ensure it doesn’t burn…all to produce an amount of syrup that seems surprisingly small, given the amount of labor you put in. This is even more true if you’re cooking it down even further to get maple sugar candy!

Here is Linda Black Elk’s Ethobotany class checking some of the taps her family set, in early spring 2018:

and heading into the maple grove:

Linda brought in 3 cups for us to try — raw sap, half-finished sap in the process of being cooked down, and finished syrup. The flavor is a tiny bit different from sugar-maple syrup, but I think it’s very good!

Maybe one day I’ll do this myself — but then again, maybe not. Regardless, my experiences as a guest/observer of other people’s Sugarbush makes me immensely grateful for the maple syrup I have. I have so much gratitude and respect for the people and trees who put so much into making it!

Igmú Čheyáka / Catnip

I accidentally harvested catmint seeds the other day, thinking I was harvesting nettle seeds.

This plant is called igmú čheyáka in Lakota, catmint in English, and Nepeta cataria. It is also (perhaps more commonly) known as catnip in engl. It’s indigenous to Eurasia, but has naturalized over here. It’s all over the place. I found it growing in Wakpála, but it’s also in my own yard.

This plant produces a euphoric state in cats, but for humans, it’s just a refreshing, mild mint tea with no mind-altering effects. It will settle a stomach or help with a cold.

This is what the shoots look like this time of year, emerging from last year’s growth:

This is what the seed heads look like:

And the seeds I cleaned:

The seeds don’t look different from the seeds of any other member of the mint family that I’ve seen. It would be hard to tell them apart by looking at the seeds. But once this plant emerges, it’s visually different (fuzzy leaves with more rounded teeth), and has a different smell, than other mints.

So if anybody needs catmint seeds, I’m well stocked now…

Čhaŋíčaȟpehu / Stinging Nettles

Stinging nettles. Čhaŋíčaȟpehu. Urtica dioica. Many of us have only unpleasant associations with this plant: the sting. It is seen as a plant to be avoided, and carefully uprooted where possible.

Here on Standing Rock, though, a growing number of people are intentionally inflicting themselves with nettle stings. This may sound surprising when you first hear about it, but this is not a trend akin to eating laundry pods. Stinging oneself with nettles is a case where short-term pain leads to long-term gain. Nettle stings alleviate arthritis and other kinds of joint pain.

I know of one local guitarist, a former professional musician who had lost his ability to play due to wrist pain — but after a few months of daily nettle treatments, he had regained the use of his hands and his ability to play guitar.

This time of year on Standing Rock, the ground is largely still covered by a coat of snow and ice, but tiny little nettles are beginning to poke their heads up out of the ground. Despite their delicate appearance, with leaves smaller than a fingernail, they are extra sting-y this time of year. They are a strong medicine, and the stingers seem much more powerful now to me than they are when the plant is bigger and older.

As an experiment, I used one of these tiny nettle heads on my left wrist. I had been having issues with both wrists. The immediate results were visually dramatic, though not actually painful:

Within an hour, it had gone down significantly:

I forgot to take a picture later that day, and I also forgot to look in the evening — but by the next day (if not sooner), the marks were entirely gone. And so, in fact, was the pain I’d had in that wrist. That was Thursday, and it’s Saturday evening now, and the pain is still gone from that area.

I took plenty of pictures of the catmint growing nearby, which I thought was the nettles because I wasn’t looking closely enough. This is the only photo I got of the baby nettle plant (looking beat up, because I took the picture after I stung myself with it a zillion times):

I want to note that there are different kinds of nettles — Wood nettle, or Laportea canadensis, does not have pain-relieving qualities, and in my experience you can still feel the spot where you were stung for days. (In contrast, the sting from čhaŋíčaȟpehu/Urtica dioica lasts only a few minutes.)

This plant also has many other medicinal uses, and the leaves are also delicious sautéed with butter and salt when they’re bigger, but that’s another topic for another day.

Since there aren’t nettles growing where I live, I wanted to gather seeds. Unfortunately, I wasn’t paying close enough attention, and I gathered catmint seeds instead. But I think that if more people knew about the benefits of stinging nettles, we’d be planting them by our homes instead of digging them up!

Maštíŋčathawote su

Lettuce. It’s native to Egypt and has long been cultivated in Eurasia. It’s a relatively recent arrival over here. It’s called “maštíŋčathawote” in Lakota. Literally, rabbit food.

I got a few baby lettuce plants at the Free Farm Stand in San Francisco a few years ago. I have been growing their descendants ever since.

Sú. Seeds.Sometimes, they reseed themselves in my garden, but mostly, they need to be replanted every year. Unlike wild dandelions and other plants whose seed pods burst and release into the wind, these well-behaved domestic lettuce seeds dry out inside their flower heads in the stalk, and wait for a human to collect and replant them.

This is a pretty easy seed-saving project, once the flower heads dry out. I saved it for winter just because I didn’t have time in the fall.

If you gently crush a seed pod between your fingers, the seeds and fluff will release. Rub the contents between your fingers a little more, and the seeds will separate out.

Not all of my lettuce flowers got pollinated, so not all of my lettuce seeds will be viable. It’s pretty easy to tell the difference when you’re holding the seeds in your hand.

These ones, with lighter colored, thinner seeds, are not fertilized (ie not viable):

These darker, thicker ones are fertilized and should produce lettuce plants:

This same principle for telling if your seeds are viable also works for marigolds and flowers whose seeds have a similar shape. If the seed is big enough, you can gently try to bend it lengthwise. If it is flimsy and bends easily, it didn’t get pollinated and will not produce a plant.

Lettuce is easy to grow, sprouts quickly, is cold tolerant, and is a great vegetable to start indoors this time of year. Thinning out your plants before they go in the ground can be the first salad of the year! Or, you can just grow them for the delicious baby greens.

Here’s a pic of my lettuce sprouts in last summer’s garden.

Wagmú

A friend gave me a Connecticut Cornfield Pumpkin, grown here on Standing Rock. It has been sitting in the library at Sitting Bull College since the fall, and was still in pretty good shape, minus a few soft spots on its skin.

The Lakȟóta word “wagmú” is a great one — see below for the screenshot from the New Lakota Dictionary app. You can use “wagmú” for both pumpkin and squash. Since there are so many ambiguous curcubits that I wouldn’t know whether to define as “pumpkin” or “squash” in English, this makes a lot of sense to me.

It always surprises me that so many people think of a pumpkin as decoration, but not as food. In the past, I’ve fed myself off many delicious pumpkins that neighbors were throwing away after Thanksgiving. Baking a pumpkin down to use in pie, pumpkin bread, etc., is really easy.

Pumpkins store well indoors for a long time. You can can baked pumpkin flesh in jars if you have proper high-temperature canning equipment (I don’t). Drying it is another good way to preserve it, and is a traditional way of storing squashes in this region.

I’m short on freezer space, so I tried drying it for the first time this year. If you slice it thinly, 2-5mm, it will dry quickly indoors, at least here in the winter with the heat going.

There are undoubtedly better ways to do this, but I worked with the tools I had: I pierced each slice with an awl, then ran a cotton string on a long, wide-eyed beading needle through all the pieces, then hung them up to dry.

On the strings I hung over the heater, they were mostly dry by the next morning. I left them up for another 2 weeks to be sure, and to avoid mold. Now I need to figure out what will be the best way to store them long-term. Glass jars would probably be good; I’m not sure what was used traditionally, perhaps parfleche? Anyway, I’m glad to have some more healthy food that I can bring camping and not have to worry about refrigeration.

I’ve been pulling the seeds out of pumpkins and squashes to bake as a snack for years (current favorite recipe: olive oil, sea salt, chipotle powder, and oregano). The hardest part for me has always been separating the pumpkin guts from the seeds. This time, since it was a heirloom pumpkin and I wanted to have the seeds for a seed exchange we’re having on Standing Rock this week, I laid it all out on a piece of cardboard to dry. After about ten days on the cardboard, the seeds and pulp separated effortlessly. (It could probably have been separated sooner, but this was when I had time.)

Mistakes I made, to avoid:

Hanging too many pieces on the same string. It will be too heavy, and fall down.

Cutting the squash pieces too small. It’s a lot of work to pierce and string them, so don’t create extra work for yourself.

Slicing from the inside of the pumpkin outward. This makes it hard to get though the shell. It will be easier if you make your slices through a cross-section of both shell and flesh, rather than cutting outside in or inside out.

Using the wrong kind of knife. I found that serrated works best.

Trying to separate seeds from pulp while they are still wet. It is SO much easier when they’re dry!

I’ll have to update with the results when I try making soup with these.