Pšíŋ Šičámna — Wild Onion harvest

April and May are wild onion season on Standing Rock! These native onions may be strong, but they are powerful! Hence their Lakota name — Psiŋ = onion; šičámna = stink/strong (bad) smell. They are one of the early spring plants that come up, abs are recognizable by their stems that are a bit thicker and more rubbery than a blade of grass.

If you dig them up, they have a delicate brown netting the surrounds a small bulb:

If you peel aware the netting, there is a small white, extremely strong pearl onion underneath.

I’ve been told that they are traditionally eaten cooked in soups, but I’ve only eaten them raw — so far, ever time I’ve gotten them, I’ve given away my whole harvest to other people. But if their raw taste is anything to go on, it probably wouldn’t take too many of these to flavor a whole pot of soup. And if I ever realize my dream of making a fire cider with 100% Standing Rock local ingredients, this plant will be at the top of my list.

Pšíŋ — domestic onions grown from seed

Some shots from the day I transplanted my onions grown from seed out into the garden.

These are onion varieties developed by agricultural scientist Frank Kutka, specifically to meet the needs of the North Dakota climate and storage needs. He calls them Noeth Dakota Red and Yellow Storage Onion, respectively.

Due to the onions’ long growing season, if you want to grow them from seed here, it’s necessary to start them indoors in February. Start them any later than that, and you’ll be harvesting golf ball sized onions in the fall (as I can attest from personal experience).

Many people don’t see the value in growing onions, since they can be obtained so cheaply from the store and require a lot of effort and time to grow at home. I can see both sides — and growing onions from seed has allowed me to get to know the plant and its growth cycle better, which I believe is valuable knowledge.

Cover Crop: Buckwheat

This was last spring’s cover crop, buckwheat. I didn’t have a whole lot to start, and the seeds didn’t germinate evenly, so I got pretty sparse coverage. But hopefully it still did a bit to increase the nitrogen available in the soil, which was my goal in planting a cover crop.

I planted it in April, the day before a minor snowstorm, but when the snow melted, it watered my seeds. This low-maintenance crop just came up all on its own when the weather conditions were right.

This picture is from mid-June, before I turned them back into the soil and planted the rest of my garden. My understanding is that if you turn a cover crop back into the soil while it’s flowering, your garden will get the maximum nutritional benefits. This will definitely avoid getting unwanted seeds into your soil if you’re planting a cover crop like alfalfa that has weedy tendencies.

It was a bit hard to say goodbye to these plants after a couple months of growing them, but they seem to have helped my garden — the tomatoes I planted in spots where alfalfa had grown were my most productive and healthy plants.

Baby Gooseberry Bush – Wičhágnaška hú

Here’s a baby gooseberry bush that I rescued from death by lawnmower, and replanted in a safer place. Isn’t it adorable?

While Wičhágnaška hú (Ribes missouriense, or Missouri gooseberry bushes) are fairly common around here, they’re a pretty under-appreciated fruit. Most people can’t identify them by sight, and don’t think much about mowing them down. Personally, I love them and think they’re worth keeping.

In the spring, a gooseberry plant will produce yellow flowers, which eventually yield to small green globes, which swell and become red, eventually turning purple-black when they are ripe. These fruits are sweet and tart – perfect when warmed by the sun.

Wičhágnaška hú species exist across North America as well as Europe. In England, breeding and cultivating domesticated gooseberry species in order to develop the biggest berries became an intense, competitive hobby for the wealthy in the 1700s and 1800s. They developed complete with gooseberry clubs and gooseberry competitions that were heavily attended by the public. The oldest surviving gooseberry club from this era is the Egton Gooseberry Show, which is still running today. (The European species of gooseberry is a cousin, but not the same, as the one we have here in North America.)

While gooseberry fervor has never reached quite this much intensity in North America, the berry is certainly an important traditional food in our region. While I’ve heard that you can dry them, in addition to eating them fresh, I’ve never been able to hold off on eating them long enough to find out. I also have not heard of any medicinal or other uses for parts of this plant other than the fruit, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any.

Later in the season, I’ll post some pictures of the berries on different gooseberry bushes, in different stages of development.

Saving asparagus seeds, and starting baby asparagus plants

I may be suffering from a pathological compulsion to save and start seeds.

Yes, I know it’ll be at least several years from the time of initially planting asparagus seeds, until a person can reasonably expect to harvest any.

Yes, I’m a renter without a permanent home and permanent patch of soil where I can plant my asparagus, and know that I’ll be able to harvest it for many years to come.

No, I probably don’t have enough space for a forest of the giant Christmas-tree ferns that asparagus usually becomes by the end of the season.No, I don’t have any experience growing asparagus from seed.

No, I don’t have any idea what variety these seeds are, how well they’re reputed to do in my region, what their origin is, or anything else a gardener might reasonably want to know before starting a long-term relationship with these plants.

But did any of the stop me from saving and planting asparagus seeds?

Of course not!

A bit of the back story here: last summer, I purchased 2 crowns of what was labeled as Jersey Knight, an all-male variety that is not able to reproduce on its own. (Male plants produce the thicker and more desirable spears.)

But one of the plants had red berries that contained seeds — something that an all male species should not be able to do.

I consulted a more experienced gardener and we discussed the possibilities. A transgender or intersexed plant? (The world of plant sex and gender is far more complex than the human one.) Vestigial seeds that ultimately wouldn’t be fertile? (Can male plants even do that?) A labeling error at the nursery? We decided to wait and see.In September, I gathered all the berries and brought them inside to dry. I’ve heard of people processing them while they’re wet, but I opened one and found a sticky, pulpy mess, so I decided to wait.

Warning! The berries are said to be poisonous to humans. Wash your hands after handling them.

Another warning! Store them someplace pest-proof while they dry. They are apparently not poisonous to mice, who helped themselves to a good portion of my drying berries.

I returned to my now-dry berries in March. (I could have done this sooner, as they were dry within a month, but I had lots of winter projects.) They were still a bit sticky, but easier to pull out of their dry shells and separate out.

Here is a shot of the berries with a penny for scale:

The number of seeds per berry varies a lot. Some have one and some have 6 or more. Here is a shot from when I first cracked one of these open. You can kind of see the sticky texture on the seeds. Below is a pic of the seeds I got out of this one:

Not all of the seeds are good — some were misshapen black seed-like material that crumbled when I rolled it between my thumb and finger. But honestly, never having done this before, I was just going by instinct about what a viable asparagus seed would look like: round, solid black, firm, not crumbly.

Here is a portion of what I collected:

Next it was time to plant some of these babies, and see what happened.

Compared to my other seedlings, these had a long and somewhat uneven germination period. Unlike my tobacco seedlings who poked their heads up within a few days, it was exactly two weeks before the first asparagus baby emerged. (Some stragglers are still coming up now, over a month later.)

These first babies are seriously cute. I know it’s hard to see, but they look like teeny little asparagus like you’d see in a grocery store, but only as thick as a standard pencil lead, and 2-3mm tall.

I’m going to post the series of photos of their lives so far.

Planting date: 4/11/19

First up: 4/25/19

First photo date: 4/26/19

Second photo date: 4/29/19

Third photo date: 5/4/19

Today’s photo date: 5/16/19

I should probably transplant them soon so they have more space, but they seem so thin and delicate that I don’t want to injure the stems. I’ll post an update when I move them to a bigger container.

Uŋžíŋžiŋtka Hú

Fall and winter are  Uŋžíŋžiŋtka harvesting season! Starting in early fall, uŋžíŋžiŋtka kiŋ (rose hips) turn dark red, and start standing out from the green foliage all over the prairies. Uŋžíŋžiŋtka got its name, in part, from its habit of standing straight up on the prairies, so the red hips really pop out when they ripen.

The longer you wait to harvest them, the more the fruit will mature, and the sweeter they will become.  Some people gather them in the fall, when the fruits are firm and plump. Others wait till after the first frost to pick them, when they are a little more squishy and wrinkly, because they will sweeten after the exposure to the cold. I’m not sure how (if?) freezing impacts their medicinal content, but I would like to find out, because the main reason I harvest them is for medicinal use. In some places, there are whole fields of them. But there aren’t a ton of them near where I live, so I just harvest a few whenever I get the chance, either before or after the frost.

Here is what they look like after a frost:

Rose hips have some of the highest Vitamin C content of any native North American plant. I have heard (though I haven’t yet verified) that the Vitamin C in citrus fruits is not actually very bio-available to humans — in other words, most of it just passes through our systems without our bodies being able to take it on or make use of it. I’ve heard (but still need to verify) that rose hips have a much more bio-available form of Vitamin C in abundance.

Rose hips are excellent for stopping and preventing infection. This is most likely related to the Vitamin C content — though I believe it’s important, when working with plants, that we remember that it’s never a just single chemical that’s responsible for all of the plant’s medicinal properties. Every plant has countless chemical properties, some of which western science has not yet investigated, and all of which work together to create these complex medicines.

The way that I was taught to use rose hips against infection is to boil them into a tea. This is a decoction, rather than an infusion (requiring a longer boiling time). The patient then drinks the tea (ie, it is taken internally).

On Standing Rock, a common use for rose hip tea is to take it prior to surgery in order to prevent infection. My mentor, Linda Black Elk, recommends it to her patients to drink for a few days before an operation. Many patients struggle with postsurgical infections, rather than having complications from the procedure itself, so this tea is a simple way to increase the likelihood of a successful recovery.

I recently delivered a jar of this tea to my neighbor on the rez, the mother of a little girl who was about to go in for heart surgery. I boiled a big handful of uŋžíŋžiŋtka in a half gallon of water, for about 15 minutes, turning it off after the water turned a dark pink. (Normally I wouldn’t add any sweetener, because rose hip tea has a pleasantly tart flavor but isn’t sour or bitter — and also because many sweeteners like sugar have immune-suppressing qualities, which are the exact opposite of what we’re hoping  to achieve here. But because this was for a young kid, and I wanted to make sure it was palatable for her, I added a bit of honey this time.) Once it cooled down, I strained out the rose hips and put it in a jar for her to drink. She has since come through the surgery just fine  — and while I’m sure this is mostly due to factors other than this tea, it never hurts to take every precaution to stay healthy!

Other uses for rose hips (with which I have no personal experience and therefore cannot describe in depth) include food and cosmetics. They are supposed to be really good for the skin, which makes sense to me, given  the high Vitamin C content. Many people use them for making jams, jellies, and sauces. I’ve heard that the flowers can be used to give flavor to cooking, too.

Another interesting note about this plant: uŋžíŋžiŋtka is the word for both “tomato” and “rose hip” in Lakota.  This was a source of confusion for me when I first learned this plant’s name. Linda Black Elk has lectured about 2 possible origin stories for this name:
1. Both are round, red fruits with seeds in the middle and bracts on one end — so perhaps this resemblance led the first L/Dakota people to encounter tomatoes after the already-familiar uŋžíŋžiŋtka.
2. Tomatoes first came to this area in cans, as commods. The cans had a wild rose (uŋžíŋžiŋtka) on them, so the contents were named accordingly.
I’m not going to speculate on this myself, but I do love a good word-origin story!

Čhaŋšáša Wanáȟča

Čhaŋšáša, an  important plant medicine (Cornus sericea), grows all across North America. In the spring, it produces clusters of lovely four-petaled flowers.


Spring comes at widely different times in different territories, but this is an April čhaŋšáša flower from central California. In other, colder territories (like Standing Rock), the plant wouldn’t even be producing leaves yet.

Even with the spring flower and leaf production in full swing, the branches of this bush are still the lovely deep red color that gives this plant its name.

Eating Local in the Lean Months: Winter Squash

Seven months after harvest, it’s still fresh and ready to eat: Local winter squash. This is one of my own: it was purchased at the co-op in Bismarck. I don’t know the name of this variety, but it’s beautiful, stayed fresh for over 7 months, and tasted great, too!

I’ve heard people say that if they were forced to eat local in our climate, they’d starve to death in the lean months. But traditionally, people got through the winter just by eating what was available around here — and that’s still possible with a little planning.

I’ll devote another post to traditional methods of food storage without refrigeration, but I want to celebrate the long-lived winter squash varieties in this post. Squash is one traditional food that keeps for a long time at room temperature, no special preservation needed. We have some great winter squash varieties here that are well adapted to our climate, and can keep a long time on storage. This squash, harvested last September, kept just fine and still tasted great when eaten seven months later, in April.

Pretty soon, we’ll have the first spring greens from this year’s garden and wild plants to eat, which will complete the cycle (and circle) of the year.

Seed Stories: Corn Rematriation

When we started the Standing Rock Seed Exchanges we had last year, we made it our custom to open each one with a prayer. I’m glad we did, because that opens the space for some truly extraordinary things to occur.

The Standing Rock Seed Exchanges we had last year resulted in many people forming relationships with new plants and seeds, which I think was a very positive thing for our community. But occasionally, during these exchanges, something really special occurred — a rematriation.

(Mohawk seedkeeper Rowen White has a great post on seed rematriation here, if you’re unfamiliar with the concept.)

Our Sitting Bull College librarian, Mark Holman, brought these ears of corn to the seed exchange, along with a story:

Mark shared that someone who came to visit the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Camp as part of the #noDAPL movement had given him these seeds. I believe he said they were a gift from a Native man from Montana. The person who brought these ears said that although they had been growing this corn in Montana for awhile, they knew that it was originally from Standing Rock territory. So they wanted to bring it home when they came to visit us.

I’m not sure how long this corn has been gone from the land. I’m not sure if it’s a variety that is still grown here, or if it has only persisted with this corn grower in Montana. I don’t recognize it as one if the ones I know from around here, but I only know a tiny bit about local corn varieties.

This is an 8-row corn, with some resemblance to Mandan Bride Corn, but not entirely. I’m not sure how it turned out for those who took seeds to grow this past year, but I’ll post an update if I find out.

And if anyone has any more info on this corn or this seed origin story, I would love to hear from you!

I appreciate the people who brought gifts to camp, and especially those who brought gifts that were essentially rematriating culturally significant items. It’s pretty special when seeds come home to the land and people where they were born, and it’s always an honor to witness that return.

Retrospective: Biodiversity at Sacred Stone Camp

This month marks three years since the founding of Sacred Stone Camp in April of 2016, on land just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, at the confluence of two important rivers.

These photos were taken during Prof. Linda Black Elk’s Sitting Bull College Field Ethnobotany class in June 2016. This day we did a field trip to Sacred Stone Camp, which had been established 2 months before in April. At that time, there were approximately 25 people camping out there — mostly local people, with a mix of youth and elders.

(In case you don’t recognize the camp’s name, this was the first camp to be set up on Standing Rock treaty land as a prayer camp resisting the Dakota Access Pipeline. The coming fall and winter, tens of thousands of supporters from across the world would pour into Sacred Stone and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Camp. The National Museum of the American Indian has a good summary of the situation online here, complete with links to resource guides, audio clips for pronunciation, and citations from relevant treaties.)

This was the entrance, circa mid-June 2016, when you first drive into camp from the town of Cannon Ball, ND:

The focus of our visit was:
1) to discuss the impacts of previous flooding in this area on the plant population at the confluence of these two rivers, and
2) identify culturally important plant species still existing in this area that would be impacted by the proposed pipeline.

One important aspect of the botanical history of this area that I learned from Prof. Black Elk was about the devastating impacts that flooding had already had on this landscape. Prior to to the damming of Mnišóše (the Missouri River) to create Lake Oahe, an agricultural irrigation and hydro-power project that benefitted the white communities downstream, the confluence of Íŋyaŋwakáǧapi Wakpá (the Cannon Ball River) and Mnišóše was home to some critically important plant species that have since been wiped out.

One plant story that Prof. Black Elk shared about the pre-dam confluence of these two rivers really stood out to me. She told us that this area used to be thick with wačháŋǧa, or sweetgrass — so much so that she said there are stories of Indian families coming from all over with their wagons, sometimes for a week at a time, just harvesting and braiding sweetgrass to take home to their communities. Sweetgrass favors a moist growing environment, so the areas along the banks of the river, especially this confluence, were an ideal growing environment. But when the floodwaters rose with the dam, those medicine plants drowned. Today, sweetgrass does not grow wild anywhere on the reservation that I know of. Some locals have told me that they have to go to Montana or Canada if they want to harvest sweetgrass in the wild. A few people tend tiny patches in their gardens, but it is not the same, and since growing conditions are not ideal, it can require a lot more maintenance.

In the flooding of Mnišóše to create Lake Oahe and the Oahe Dam, the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ peoples living along the river lost a staggering amount of land. Entire communities disappeared under the floodwaters. Some of the elders I work with talk about their homes being lost under the water, the graves of their parents and extended families, sacred sites, and much more. All told, the Standing Sioux Rock reservation lost 55,993 acres of land (according to Wikipedia), and our downriver neighbor, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, lost 150,000 acres.

In addition to just this staggering loss of land, the quality of the land lost is important to mention: both tribes lost their best farmland. The river bottom fields had good, fertile soil, which the elders still speak of fondly. They had traditionally been tended by local Lakota families, producing a significant portion of the food they would need for the year. (I received a great lesson from one of my language mentors one day about how they preserved this agricultural bounty in communal root cellars, but that’s another post for another day.) These fertile fields, combined with hunting and some ranching, allowed the local people to be food sovereign: the elders told me that there was almost nothing that they needed to go off-reservation to find, food-wise, besides coffee and sugar. But all of that good, river-bottom land disappeared beneath the floodwaters.

The remaining land on Standing Rock was much less suited for farming: you have to work harder for less yield, contending with factors such as extremely hard ground, low soil fertility, and sandy soil that does not easily hold nutrients and water without serious amendments.

Before Mnišóše was dammed, Prof. Black Elk says that nobody on the reservation was on welfare. Within 5 years, about 60% of the population was receiving welfare, she reports, and within a decade, that number had risen to something like 95%. (Note: if I’m wrong about these numbers, it is due to my own mis-remembering, not Prof. Black Elk mis-reporting. I will go back and verify when I have a chance.) Regardless of numbers, though, it is no exaggeration to say that the impact of losing this land was devastating to the people of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.

Another culturally important plant species that was lost with the flooding of Mnišóše was makȟátomniča kiŋ, the Mouse Bean (Amphicarpaea bracteata). This was an important wild food source. Some of the elders in our Field Ethnobotany class had fond childhood memories of harvesting these with their grandparents when they were children. (I will share more about the stories of Mouse Beans in another post.) Our local population of these plants was also wiped out with the floodwaters. Attempting to reintroduce and restore a local population of these plants has been the subject of Prof. Black Elk’s doctoral work.

So this is a tiny piece of the recent history of this small patch of land, and this community that has already lost so much. This was the situation into which the threat of the Dakota Access Pipeline was introduced.

This small patch of where Prof. Black Elk is standing, was maybe 2 car lengths long and one across. Our Field Ethnobotany class — including some students with very little plant ID experience — identified 16 culturally important plant species in this little piece of land, in under 15 minutes.

Here, some students search for plants to ID, while others enjoy a species that we have already identified: the juneberries that were in season.
We found plants that would help with depression, toothache, stomach ache, colds, and more, in just this area. This area is incredibly sensitive, ecologically speaking — and it is also a rich pharmacy that will care for us for generations, if we look after it, too.

Looking out into Íŋyaŋwakáǧapi Wakpá, the Cannon Ball River:

View from the top of the hill, looking out at Íŋyaŋwakáǧakapi Wakpá, as it flows toward Mnišóše to the east. Up here, we found some additional culturally important plant species up here that were not growing down below, including several fruits such as pté tȟawóte (Astragalus crassicarpus), i.e. ground plums, and some medicinal plants including ȟaŋté, or cedar.

At the top of the hill, flags were flying from some of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ bands (which are all sovereign Indigenous Nations) that were represented at Sacred Stone camp at that time.
(Left to right: Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Oglala Sioux Tribe, Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate.)

So this is a little bit of what Camp looked like before it became known around the world. This is a little bit of the plant history of the area. And a little bit of what is at stake, should the pipeline burst and contaminate the waters, as we fear it easily could.

The following month, in July of 2016, I was in Saskatchewan for my university course, when the kind of devastation that we fear on Standing Rock happened up there: Husky Fuel spilled 225,000 liters of oil into the Saskatchewan River. Two and a half years later, the case is finally making its way through the courts, and the Indigenous communities downstream from the spill are still facing devastating consequences. At the time of Saskatchewan River spill, friend of mine who works for Health Canada dealing with situations just like this one told me about the environmental devastation that was predicted. The impacts would be felt within 100 miles of wherever the current carried the spill, in every direction — upstream, downstream and along both banks. He predicted a die-off of plants and animals, and environmental consequences that would take a very long time for the ecosystem and all of its inhabitants to recover from.

Many of the leaders of the Dakota Access Pipeline resistance are youth, as were many students in Prof. Black Elk’s Field Ethnobotany class. In the time since Camp, I have been asked to give plant walks for our local schools, and I am seeing a lot of enthusiasm among the young people in our communities on the reservation, for getting to know and make friends with their local plants. I hope that the deepening of these relationships, and the reconnection to the land that took place for so many at camp, will mean that the numbers of water and land protectors will continue to grow, for years to come.