Winter Projects: Marigold Seed Saving

I’ve been growing my own marigolds from seed for many years now. They are quite easy to save seed from, once you know what you’re doing. Since fall is a chaotic season that leaves little time for non-time-sensitive projects, I tend to save my marigold seed-saving activities for the winter.

Once a flower head dries up and the stalk starts to turn brown, you pinch it off and leave it to dry. Those dried flower heads can be saved for sorting during a less busy time of year.

There are 56 different species of marigold, all native to Mesoamerica. The one I grow is known has the scientific name of Tagetes patula, although inexplicably, it is know in English as a French marigold. In Classical Nahuatl, it is known as cempoalxochitl. My mentor Davíd Carrasco, a scholar of Mesoamerican religion and Classical Náhuatl language, told me this name translates to “twenty flower,” because of the flower having roughly twenty petals. In Spanish, it is cempacuzitl, or la flor de los muertos, and it is associated with Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead).

In the temperate zones where this flower originates, it can survive all year long, but in North Dakota, it is an annual. But the growing season here is certainly long enough for the plant to live out its full life cycle. With careful seed saving, gardeners in the Northern Great Plains can continue planting their marigold seeds for many generations.

So when some quieter time rolls around in the winter, I pull out my marigold flower heads and start to sort out the seeds. The first step is to split open a flower, from the base (where it attached to the stem) to the tip (where the dried remains of the petals will be). Those long, flat things inside, which are white on the ends and black at the tips, are the seeds.

Not all seeds within a marigold flower head will have gotten fertilized, and will be viable (ie, able to germinate and produce plants). It’s pretty easy to tell which will be successful. While this method is too time-consuming if you are growing on a commercial scale, it works fine for a home gardener who is only trying to go through a few flower heads.

There are two ways to tell whether or not a marigold seed is viable: color and thickness. Looking at this picture, can you tell which are which?

In this picture, the seed on the left, which is darker and thicker, is viable. The one on the right, which is paler and thinner, and looks a bit frayed on the tip (instead of solid black), is not viable.

If you’re unsure, you can gently try to bend it. If it flexes easily, like the one on the right did in the picture below – you can be sure that it is not a viable seed.

Some flower heads will not produce a single viable seed, like this one:

I am not sure why, or what causes this. It probably has to do with whether or not it was visited by a pollinating insect, although I really don’t know much about how this flower achieves pollination.

Marigolds are one of the easiest flowers to grow for new gardeners. They are fairly easy and fast to sprout, and also pretty easy to keep alive. I enjoy giving a budding marigold plant that is just about to open its first flower to a new gardener, as a way to encourage them along and give them their first easy success. If you keep dead-heading (pinching off the dead flowers), a marigold plant will continue to bloom for a long time.

Fast forward a few months: Here is one of the descendants from those seeds I saved that winter, opening its first flower in my garden the following spring.

Harvesting ingredients for Nettle-Basil Pesto

Here are some of the ingredients I harvested in September for my ultra-local nettle-basil pesto.

The nettles came from the grove in my backyard. The basil came from the garden in the front.

The types of basil I used here are Opal Basil (Ocimum basilicum purpurascens) and Thai Basil (Ocimum Basilicum  var. thyrsiflora). Opal Basil, the dark purple one, is an American cultivar of a traditional Italian basil. It was developed in the 1950s at the University of Connecticut.

Thai Basil (below), the brighter green one, is a group of Asian basil cultivars. They are stronger and more aromatic than Italian basils.

The stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) that I used are below. Even though it’s easiest to find young nettle leaves (ičáȟpe hú) early in the season, I was still able to find some young sideshoots on September’s nettle plants. Younger leaves are ideal for cooking because they are less fibrous.

If you’re wondering about the logistics of eating a stinging plant: the urticating (stinging) hairs on the nettle plant are destroyed by heating them or running through a blender. So you can safely enjoy nettle pesto without worrying about being stung.

I blended all of these leaves together with the standard pesto ingredients, to produce a pesto that is stronger and possibly more nutritious than standard varieties. Kept in a freezer, this pesto can last a long time.

(My friend Luke Black Elk makes a phenomenal nettle pesto that also uses local acorns, but his culinary and inventive abilities far surpass mine.)


Chive flower

When I started rehabilitating the neglected garden beds at my old place in Fort Yates, this was the one food plant that had been surviving in that garden, which was mostly weeds. Here’s a picture of it in my garden that year. One of these ball-shaped inflorescences contains a cluster of six-pointed, tiny flowers.

I always assumed that Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) were native to Central Asia, or somewhere in that region, just like garlic and many other members of the Allium family. But when I did some research for this blog entry, I was surprised to learn that Allium schoenoprasum is indigenous to boreal (forested) regions of North America, as well as Europe and Asia.

This is a hardy perennial plant has an indefinite lifespan. While the foliage will die back with winter frosts, it will grow again each spring from its roots – even if it is not being cared for by humans, like this little patch. From the reading I have been doing, it’s probably a good idea to dig up and separate out some of the chives in a patch every few years in the spring, so they don’t choke each other out. But as this resilient plant shows, they can thrive even when neglected.

Later in the season, these purple flowers produced viable seed. It can either be collected to germinate new chive plants, or allowed to drop to the ground, where it may sprout and increase the number of chive plants in this patch.

Uŋskúyeča na úta: Burr oaks and acorns

Acorn (úta) season is finally here!

Acorns have been one of my favorite foods since childhood. The acorns we have in this area, Uŋskúyeča, Burr Oak, or Quercus macrocarpa, are thought of as some of the best in North America, due to their more tannic acid content.

I’m happy to report that I didn’t make the same mistake add last year, when I got the timing wrong and missed the harvest. I’ve been paying closer attention to the little acorns this year as they got bigger, and finally started turning brown and dropping from the trees.

While we don’t have an especially abundant harvest this year due to tree diseases, insect predation, and other factors, I was still able to find enough to cook with, both on the forest floor and barely hanging onto the trees but ready to come off.

I didn’t want to take too many, out of respect for my non human neighbors, but here’s a pic of my harvest:

For those who haven’t harvested or worked with acorns before, this is the time of year to give it a try. Go for the ones with white eyes (the part that connects then to their caps) and no bumps or holes that could indicate that they’re hosting a bug.

Put them in a basket somewhere dry, and in a couple months once their shells dry out a bit and they’re easier to peel, you’ll be ready for some acorn recipes, which I’ll include at as later date.

Tincture Making: Curlycup Gumweed / Pteíčhiyuȟa

I wanted to share a few pictures of my Curlycup Gumweed / Pteíčhiyuȟa tincture. It’s a very simple recipe, but has helped me tremendously with breathing problems during the winter months. So I wanted to share this for others who might also want to try making this medicine.

Generally, tincturing with alcohol is a way to extract as much medicine from a plant as possible. Tinctures can also be made from vinegar or glycerin, for people who prefer not to use alcohol. For most plants, vodka is recommended for an alcohol-based tincture. However, because Curlycup Gumweed is quite resinous, it needs a stronger, higher-proof alcohol to extract the maximum amount of medicine.

I do not drink alcohol — however, I do make alcohol-based tinctures for a very small number of medicinal herbs, such as this one. The effective dosage is so low — maybe half a dropperful — that I have never felt any effects from the alcohol. Each person has to make the decision for themselves about whether they are comfortable using medicine that contains alcohol — but for me, it has not been a problem, and I am comfortable with it.

Someone recently asked me about whether an alcohol-based tincture is safe to give to kids. I don’t have the knowledge to advise either way, but if any readers have insight there, please do share it in the comments.

Materials needed:
1. Clippers
2. Wash basin with clean water
3. Towel
4. Glass jar (you can choose the size)
5. Everclear (enough to fill jar)

Steps for making Curlycup Gumweed Tincture:

1. Gather desired amount of Curlycup Gumweed in as non-polluted of a place as possible. (While it often grows along roadsides, try to find some that is away from a main road, and is in the least polluted location you can find.)
Harvest the top 2/3 of the plant; the majority of the medicine in this plant is in the leaves and yellow flowers. You want to harvest some that has as many open flowers as possible. This tincture is strong and requires only a small dose, so you don’t need a lot of it unless you’re making medicine for a lot of people.

2. Wash and dry the plants you harvested. (They don’t need to be extremely dry; you are about to submerse them in liquid and get them wet again!)

3. Chop the plant up into ~1″ pieces. (Use clippers/pruning shears so it is easy to cut.)

4. Place plant pieces in your glass jar. Keep filling until the jar is between 2/3 and 3/4 full.
(Note: when I first tried tincture-making, I would fill the jar up all the way with plant material, with the idea that I was getting as much medicine out of them as possible. I have since learned that this is not as good of an idea as I thought. In fact, the top 25% or 33% of the jar, which is only liquid, gives the solution enough space to fully extract the medicine from the plant.)

5. Pour Everclear over the top of the plant material, until the jar is full.

6. Put on the lid, and put it away, ideally in a dark space.

7. Whenever you can, turn it upside down briefly in order to agitate the mixture a bit.

8. Within 24 hours, you will see the liquid start to turn emerald green. However, it will not be ready for at least 6 weeks. The longer you can let it sit, the better. I try to let mine sit for 6 months when I can, but sometimes with winter colds, people need it sooner.

9. Pour it out of the jar and strain.
NOTE: This tincture will stain things bright green!
Learn from my mistakes: If you spill any, clean it up instantly, or you will have a bright green stain forever that will be hard to remove, especially from linoleum.

10. Store in a dark place, and/or in a dark/amber-colored bottle. I am not sure how long this tincture will last, because I always use mine up or give it away long before I run out. But generally, tinctures are a great way to preserve medicinal plants for a very long time. Tinctures are shelf-stable and do not need to be refrigerated.

The green color is really visible here:

You can change out the medicinal plant to another favorite plant, and substitute Everclear for Vodka (unless it is another resinous/gummy plant) and use this basic tincture recipe for another plant.

I am also trying an Apple Cider Vinegar tincture with Curlycup Gumweed this year, but I can already tell that it is not going to be nearly as strong as the Everclear one.

(These next 2 pics are the ACV tincture — as you can see, the color hasn’t changed much, although these 2 are the same age. I haven’t opened it up to try it yet, though. I’ll update when I do.)

Since I don’t drink, I did extensive research on alternatives to alcohol tincture before I attempted to make this. From everything I learned in my research, it seems that Apple Cider Vinegar tinctures extract more medicine from the plants than the other common alternative, Glycerin. However, for soft-tissued plants (not like this one), a Glycerin tincture is said to be adequate to extract the medicine. I have never personally tried a Glycerin tincture, though, so I cannot comment from personal experience.

(The 2 tinctures, properly stored in a dark cabinet.)

I have used this tincture at the onset of a cough to stave it off, and also to clear out a lingering cough in myself and others. I also sent some bottles to friends in California last year, whose lungs were suffering from the effects of the wildfires, who told me they were effective.

Elderberry (Čháŋ phuté hú) Harvest

Elderberries are one of my favorite medicinal berries. They are one of the only antiviral medicines that are effective in shortening the length of flu viruses, as well as the severity. Elderberry syrup is also an excellent cough medicine, and can help to nip a cold or other winter illness in the bud. And this is the time of year to get them.

Elderberries are getting ripe this time of year on Standing Rock, and the Human vs. Bird race to harvest them is on!

This year, I had at least moderate success in finding some berries before the birds did. Here’s a bush at a friend’s place in Akíčita Háŋska district that I harvested with permission:

As you can see, not all berries on a bush — or even in the same cluster — ripen at the same time, so harvesting by hand can be a bit challenging.

Here is what they look like when they turn purple and are ready to harvest:
One beautiful characteristic of this plant is that the stems turn purple-red as well.

I harvested these in order to make elderberry syrup, an antiviral and cough medicine.

There are two kinds of edible elderberries in North America: Sambucus nigra (European Elderberry) and Sambucus canadensis (American Elderberry). I am not sure how to tell them apart because I don’t frequently encounter Sambucus nigra bushes, but all of the pictures above are of Sambucus canadensis. I have seen a lot of debate about whether Sambucus canadensis is as effective medicinally as Sambucus nigra. I have seen strong arguments both for and against. From what I can tell, there has been no definitive conclusions one way or another. All I can say for certain is that the North American plant (Sambucus canadensis) has worked for me, and the syrup I have made in the past has worked for others, too.

If you don’t have locally available bushes and want to make elderberry syrup, I strongly recommend finding a source (there are high quality dried elderberries available online, both S. nigra and S. canadensis) and ordering them ASAP. Two trustworthy companies I have ordered from before are Mountain Rose Herbs (S. nigra) and Sacred Blossom Farm (S. canadensis). In general, websites that sell Elderberries in any form tend to sell out very early in the season, especially during bad flu years, because people recognize their medicinal value. So get them while you can!

There are lots of great elderberry syrup recipes online. The one I use, I got from a mentor, so I cannot share it without permission — but the main ingredients a person needs are elderberries and honey (ideally, local raw honey).

Curlycup Gumweed

Pteíčhiyuȟa. Grindelia squarrosa. Curlycup Gumweed.

This is one of the yellow flowers you’ll find growing by the side of the road this time of year — not just in the Dakotas, but across North America. This is the time of year to harvest it!

If you look at the underside of the flower, you can easily see the “curly cups” that give it that name:

When tinctured, this is one of the best, strongest, and fastest-acting medicines I know for breathing. A few people have asked me what it is recently, so I just thought I’d share.

I usually tincture it, which creates a very strong, easily portable medicine that doesn’t require much effort from the patient when they’re sick. (I sent a few bottles of my tincture to California to help friends who were sick from smoke inhalation during the fires last year. It also has helped me clear up a mild winter cough on multiple occasions.) You can also dry it out and make a decoction as needed.

Here is a view of the flower from the top:

It tends to grow in disturbed areas (like roadsides). The ideal time to harvest is when it has as many flowers open as possible.

Úma: Hazelnut Portrait

Hazelnut trees (Úmahu) don’t grow on Standing Rock. They thrive in wetter climates. I have seen this indigenous tree growing wild in Minnesota and Manitoba.

The nuts are ready for harvest in the fall. They grow in clusters of four, forming a beautiful star shape.

I just had to take a picture of this beautiful Hazelnut (úma) cluster that Linda brought back from a recent trip to Minnesota. They are delicious both raw and roasted.

Herb Care Package Portrait

Just a quick still-life shot from earlier in the summer, of an herbal care package I was mailing to a friend who was sick.

From left to right: Pȟežíȟota apé blaska, ziŋtkála tȟačháŋ, pȟežíȟota swúla, ȟaŋté, pȟežíȟota waštémna, čhaŋíčhaȟpe hú apé. (I’m not going to translate for this one, but if you’re interested and don’t know these plants, you can go back through the previous posts to find the scientific and English names for these plants.)

White Waštémna?!

Yesterday, I went out to harvest this plant that has so many names in Lakota and English — waȟpé waštémna, heȟáka tȟapȟéžuta, wild bergamot, beebalm, elk medicine, Monarda fistulosa.

I was surprised to find, in addition to the many magenta flowerheads that were popping out of the hillside to announce their presence, a small number of white blooms.

I reached out to my mentor about this, and she, over in Minnesota, had taken a similar picture of white waštémna flowers only an hour before!

While it’s a less common color and definitely a variant, the white flowers do occur sometimes. I couldn’t speak to any differences in their properties on a biochemical level, but they smell and taste the same as the fuscia ones.

This is an extremely powerful medicinal plant, and a very important medicine for herbalists in the Dakotas and perhaps beyond. I’ll write another post just dedicated to Waštémna as a medicinal plant.