Ȟupáhu: Bug Art on Wood

Disclaimer: I am not an emtomologist; this is an art/aesthetics post.

I found this when I was doing some chainsaw work in a small oak grove, clearing out dead trees that were in danger of falling onto a home. When I rolled this log and a big chunk of bark peeled off, this design was revealed.

I don’t know much about the insects that made this. It seems that they were some sort of tunneling insects that eat their way through the wood under the bark. Perhaps they were some kind of beetle. And I don’t know if they were what killed this tree, or if they came to feast after it had died.

I also don’t know if there is any scientific reason why these insects ate their tunnels through the wood in this particular pattern, but I appreciated the aesthetics. To me, it looks like they created a pair of songbird wings (ȟupáhu).

Bringing Native Plants Indoors: Sedum Blooming on an Icy Morning

Does this North Dakota native plant know that it’s well below freezing outside? I don’t know… but it’s happily blooming cheerful pink flowers!

This indigenous prairie succulent was a “weed” in my garden (a weed is just a plant in a place you don’t want it) that I put in a pot and brought inside. It seems quite happy with its luxurious new life as a houseplant.

Uŋskúyeča Úta kiŋ: Burr Oak Acorns

September is acorn season in the Dakotas. And our local indigenous variety, uskúyeča (Burr Oak) has acorns that are prized for their low tannic acid content. Unlike other varieties that require hours or days of soaking in water to leach out the acids and make them edible, these acorns can be eaten with minimal leaching. Some people don’t even leach them at all. They have a sweet, buttery taste.

Oak groves are rare on the plains, and this was the first year I had access to a good one. I was really looking forward to getting some good acorns. When I saw these beautiful acorns forming on the trees, poking their faces out of their fuzzy basket caps, I excitedly grabbed my camera. I love eating acorns, and I couldn’t wait for the harvest.

But I missed it.

Rookie mistake: I didn’t realize how short acorn season is in the Dakotas.

The last time I had access to good acorn trees, I was living in California. And acorn season works differently there.

I grew up harvesting acorns in the woods with my mom, and have memories of gathering them and making acorn bread. But I was too young, or didn’t pay enough attention, so I don’t remember any of the details when we did it, or of the leaching or grinding them into flour that we must have done.

In college in California, my friends’ mom, an acorn knowledge-keeper from the Hupa Tribe, heard from her kids that I’d been wondering aloud what to do with all these acorns, this abundant food on campus that we were just stepping on and riding our bikes over — and she decided to teach me. We put in a lot of hours. California acorn soup, made with either tanoak or coast live oak acorns, is still one of my favorite foods (and yes, you can really taste the difference). And as a result, even though my ancestry isn’t from California, the bulk of my acorn knowledge is.

In central California (the area around San Francisco), the “first drop” of acorns occurs in about September. The trees drop the diseased acorns first. After First Drop, families would traditionally burn underneath their acorn trees in order to kill the bugs/pathogens and also keep the brush down. (Despite the fact that controlled burns have always been a crucial part of managing California’s ecosystem and preventing larger fires, authorities have nonsensically banned the practice in many areas.)

Then, after the controlled fires that follow First Drop, Second Drop appears — and lately, with climate change, it’s been happening later in late October, and into November. I’ve even harvested fresh acorns in December.

So, when I started seeing acorns rolling around on the ground in September in North Dakota, I assumed it was First Drop. It didn’t occur to me that with snow sometimes starting in October in the Dakotas, the acorn timeline might be different here. And by the time I came to my senses in October and realized that no more acorns were going to fall, the squirrels had eaten all the good ones on the ground.

Lesson learned? We’ll see. I’ll have to pay closer attention. Hopefully I’ll have better luck next fall.

Núŋǧe Yazáŋ Pȟežúta

Seen on Rattlesnake Butte, on the SD side of the reservation. Linda Black Elk told me that it is called Núŋǧe Yazáŋ Pȟežúta, or Earache Medicine. She said that people dry it and apply a poultice of the leaves for an earache. I am not sure what the English or Latin names are, and I have never used it myself.

It is a soft, small plant that grows low to the ground on rocky outcroppings. I believe that Linda says it only grows in high places.

Here are 2 smaller specimens (bottom of the picture, below the 4 small clumps of Pȟéžíȟota waštémna (Artemisia frigida). Standing Rock.

Two of the three sisters at harvest time

Mandan Bride Corn, with Hidatsa Shield Figure beans climbing on it at harvest time. Getting the beans to climb the cornstalks is often a goal of people who plant a Three Sisters garden. You have to get the timing of the planting just right (among other factors) for that to work — and I usually don’t.

But here is a rare occasion where it turned out right:

A Three Sisters garden is a traditional Native American gardening technique, and a form of companion planting where the symbiotic relationships between the different crops grown help all of the plants to be more successful. I’ll dedicate another post to growing a Three Sisters garden (with corn, beans, and squash). But I want to note here that my garden is actually a Five Sisters garden (which also includes tobacco and sunflower seeds).

Milkweed Seed Pods

Milkweed Seedpods

A common sight here in the fall: milkweed pods, dried out and bursting open. The little seeds inside prepare to take flight, their silky parachutes opening so they ride the wind to their new homes.

There are many species of milkweed. North Dakota alone is home to 10 of them. This one, Common Milkweed, is the most common. Its scientific name is Asclepias syriaca. There are 9 Lakota names for different species of milkweed, but according to Linda Black Elk, this one is pȟanúŋpala waȟčáȟča.

Milkweed plants can increase their numbers in two ways. They can reproduce vegetatively, sending out new rhizomes within their colony and forming new plants. But the seeds play an important role, too: these wind-buffeted parachutes are an important way for them to travel to new places, and establish new colonies.

Have you ever wondered how many seeds are contained in a single milkweed pod? According to this article, the average is 226. But the odds of success are not great for any wild seed: they must land on ground that is suitable for germination, avoid getting eaten by a predator as a seed or seedling, and survive to produce the next generation of seeds. Statistically, not many of them will do that, so it’s important for them to produce a lot of seeds.

Humans most commonly use other parts of the milkweed plant – roots, shoots, and flowers – for medicine and food. Dried, aged milkweed stems make great cordage. But humans have a few uses for the seedpods, too.

The silk attached to the seeds is not great for spinning or cordage-making – I’ve tried it. The fibers are too short and too brittle. But I have heard of it being used as stuffing for cushions and pillows.

Earlier in the season, while the seedpods are still green, they can be edible. At Linda Black Elk’s Sitting Bull College ethnobotany class end-of-term potlucks, stuffed, deep-fried milkweed pods were a regular feature. They have to be harvested early enough that the seedpods have not become too fibrous to eat. But I would harvest mindfully, since it’s a trade-off – for any milkweed pod you harvest, that’s 226 fewer seeds that have a chance to emerge into the world.

I would be remiss in discussing milkweed without at least a mention of monarch butterflies. Milkweed is the one and only food that monarch caterpillars eat. Their survival is currently under threat, and the Fish and Wildlife Services has recommended protecting them under the Endangered Species Act. Maintaining a healthy milkweed population is essential for the survival of monarch butterflies. So it is always a hopeful sign to see these seedpods bursting open in the fall, and their windblown seeds parachuting off to new homes.

Nettle and Milkweed Cordage

Cordage/yarn created out of nettle stems and milkweed stems last summer. These are the work of Jana, the incredibly talented artist, spinner, and weaver behind Ffeltabertawe. (I will add a link if I can find one.) She came to the reservation during the #NoDAPL  pipeline resistance movement, and stayed to do some amazing things with our local plants.

The leaves of the nettle, and the seed pod for the milkweed, are included for identification purposes; the stems of the plants are what becomes the cordage.

Nettle yarn:

Nettle and milkweed yarns:
These beautiful works of fiber art are obviously the work of an expert. When I have tried this myself, the results are much rougher-looking, not as durable, and not very soft. I admire her skill level, so I am showcasing her work. I’ll show my own pathetic attempts in another post.

Making cordage is a fun and relaxing activity that people of all ages can learn, and there are many plants in our area that make good cordage. That’s a great winter project (waníyetu wóečhuŋ), so more about that in another season!

Plant Anomalies: Insect Galls

I’ve been examining these fantastical-looking green balls on one particular hillside for years, wondering what was going on with them. They often looked like strings of green pearls, rooted in the prairie. Was this some bizarre natural feature of the plant? Had it been attacked by an insect and formed a whole cluster of galls?

I recently heard an episode of the In Defense of Plants podcast on insect galls (Ep. 221 – Galls Gone Wild!) and started to understand a bit about these mysterious green balls.

Yes, these are galls. Most likely, they are insect galls, but there are also fungi and other organisms that produce galls.

And surprisingly (to me, at least) they do not actually harm the plant. I had previously believed that they would damage plants and trees, and therefore, it was important to remove them. It turns out that this is not true.

Another surprising fact for me was that galls play an important role in ecosystems. They don’t just benefit the organism that creates them. During the cold, hungry months, insect larvae in the galls can be a valuable food source for creatures that don’t migrate or hibernate. And after a young insect emerges its gall, that gall often becomes a home for many other insects that play important roles in the ecosystem. So if you see a gall on your plant, leave it alone.

Once you become more aware of galls, you can start noticing them everywhere. Try looking for them – you may be surprised what you find!