Walking Onion

Some people follow celebrities online, reading everything they can about them online. I have crossed paths with plenty of famous people without noticing, but I follow rare plants online with a similar zeal. I had been reading up on Walking Onions for years, and was thrilled when a fellow gardener brought some to share at the Seed Exchange at the Indigenous Farming Conference in February 2018.

While this plant is not a North American native, it is a really cool allium nonetheless, and grows well in our region, so I think it’s worth knowing about.

Different names I’ve In Latin, it’s known as Allium cepa var. proliferum. Some websites call it a Tree Onion. Also known as Egyptian Walking Onion, these bunching onions are top-setting: a flower forms at the top of a stalk, then develops into a cluster of baby onion starts. When it is heavy enough, the stem supporting the flower cluster will start bending toward the ground. It will “walk” to a suitable spot, where it will set down roots and start a new cluster of onions. A healthy plant can do this about twice a season in North Dakota. 

These can be invasive, so I’d only recommend planting it in an enclosed area where it can’t escape. But if you like onions or onion greens, planting a couple of these will ensure you an endless supply. They also could have been named Infinity Onions.

I’m not sure why people call them Egyptian Walking Onions, because from everything I’ve learned about them, they did not originate in Egypt. They are hardy perennials that do well in northern climates, and will come back even after a long, cold winter. I’ve also seen them thrive in sidewalk gardens in San Francisco, which has a Mediterranean climate.

Maštíŋčaphute čháŋ

Maštíŋčaphute čháŋ (literally, rabbit nose bush — inexplicably named Buffalo Berry in English). The leaves are oval-shaped and fuzzy, and the shrub is covered with sharp thorns.

In the fall, the berries will turn red. Some people wait until after the first frost to harvest, because the berries will be sweeter.

I have heard that Europeans have declared Maštíŋčaphute as a new “superfood,” and that it is now getting more difficult to find, due to over-harvesting. So a Maštíŋčaphute čháŋ (buffalo berry bush) is a precious thing to find! They are easier to spot in the fall/early winter, when the bright red berries stand out in the landscape.

I have noticed that in a cluster of Maštíŋčapȟute čháŋ, all of the bushes don’t produce berries at the same time. I wondered if the bushes might have different species, with only female ones bearing fruit, as is true for some other plant species. My teacher, ethnobotanist Linda Black Elk, said that she didn’t think this was the case with these — thought it was more likely that every bush just doesn’t produce berries every year. Some may be recovering from a past big berry output, and elect to save their energy for future years instead.

Flower Biodiversity: Uŋžíŋžiŋtka Hú Waȟčá

Uŋžíŋžiŋtka hú. Rosa woodsii. It goes by many names in English, including Woods’ Rose and Wild Rose. Distribution maps show that it grows all over western North America, and also in some eastern areas including Ontario and Québec.

Rose hips are widely known as a great source of Vitamin C, in a form that is much more bioavailable than citrus fruit, which does not grow in our climate, anyway.

The flowers of this plant also have plenty of culinary uses — they are delicious eaten raw, and can also be used to flavor teas, jellies, and other desserts. I’ve even heard of one of my mentor’s students making ice cream from it.

The purpose of this post is to show the biodiversity of flower colors. These are all from different uŋžíŋžiŋtka plants growing within a 20-mile radius of each other on the North Dakota side of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

Čhaŋpȟá Tȟózi: Green Chokecherries

Čhaŋpȟáhu, Prunus americana, Chokecherry bush. Still completely green in mid-June.

One of the Lakota names for the moon month of July is Čhaŋpȟásapa wí, the moon when the chokecherries are black [ripe].

After the clusters of white flowers blossom in the spring, small green fruits appear. Over the next couple months, they get bigger. Then, under the warm summer sun, they begin to ripen — first to a bright red, and then slowly, to a purple-black. If you pick them too early, they are bitter or sour, and not very sweet. But the longer you wait, the the sweeter they become.

As you can see in these pictures, they are still green, without the slightest hint of a red blush. They are not even close to being  ready to pick, despite the fact that Čhaŋpȟásapa wí is right around the corner.

Due to climate change, the timelines for plant lifecycles in our area has shifted — some subtly, and some dramatically. In our area, you can get your first taste of chokecherries at the tail end of July, though they are still not very sweet. These days, I harvest the best best-tasting čhaŋpȟá in August and September.

The impacts of the shifting times for plant lifecycles are much bigger than the name of the month no longer accurately describing what is going on in the natural world. It can have a devastating effect on other species, plant and animal, who depend on these food sources, which are no longer available at the time when they need them, which can sometimes threaten another species with extinction. (The yucca flower and the yucca moth are a prime example — but that will be another post.)

A language note:
Čhaŋpȟáhu = Chokecherry bush.
Čhaŋpȟá = Chokecherry, the fruit.
There is a whole bunch of interesting vocabulary around chokecherries and their processing, because it is a very culturally important food.

I definitely have my favorite bushes to harvest from, and I’m guessing that other people do, too. There is tremendous variation in fruit size, sweetness, flavor, pectin content, and abundance, from bush to bush, although they don’t consistently produce a big crop from year to year…but that is another topic for another post!

Čhaŋíčaȟpehu: Nettles in early June

Čhaŋíčaȟpehu, Urtica dioica, Stinging nettles. They grow in shaded, damp areas.

Many people today avoid them or even wear thick gloves to pull them out for fear of the sting.

But on Standing Rock, the knowledge that they are actually a powerful medicinal plant, and that the stingers can help with pain and inflammation, is coming back to the people. Now, nettle patches in public or accessible areas are becoming more popular, as people seek out the fresh nettles to do “whipping treatments,” whipping the stinging hairs against inflamed joints or other painful spots.

This knowledge is spreading through Prof. Linda Black Elk’s Ethnobotany classes at Sitting Bull College, through word of mouth, and through the Tribal Health Department’s educational activities, such as the Awáŋič’iglaka Pain Summit, where they presented this plant as one alternative to opiate prescription medications. Many people have personal testimonies of dramatic transformations in their pain and mobility as a result of this plant.

I returned to this nettle patch a week later. (I will not disclose the location, as it is already pretty well-known around the rez, and over-harvesting could damage it.) I found that someone, or perhaps a group or family, had cut off the tops of many plants, probably for medicinal use or food.

While this meant that I was unable to harvest that day, it does not actually damage the plant irreversibly, as long as someone doesn’t rip up the whole plant by the roots. Harvesting just the tips is fine — nettles are resilient and will continue to generate new growth tips (which are delicious when steamed or sautéed in melted butter, and also a very nutritious food).

Nettles propagate by either root or seed, so this plant can withstand some human harvesting for food or medicine. Hopefully, as more people come to know about the healing properties of this plant, we will start to encourage it to grow in more places.

Milkweed yarn

Made by an expert weaver from Europe who came to live on the rez as a water protector while the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ Camp was still active.

This yarn is made from the fibrous stems of the plant (not the silk in the seedpods). It’s very strong, and also pretty soft.

I haven’t tried making this myself, so I can’t give a firsthand report — but I’ve been cautioned that the milkweed sap can be caustic. I was advised that it’s best to wait until the stems are dry before starting to turn it into cordage.

Ičáȟpe Hú: Echinacea angustifolia plant

June prairie sunset, with an ičáȟpe hú (Echinacea angustifolia) plant in the foreground. At this time of year, when we were out thíŋpsiŋla hunting, the pink petals were just starting to emerge around the flowerheads.

The root and various other parts of this plant are a great medicine for toothaches, sore throats, immune system issues, and many more things. I’ve also heard it called úŋglakčapi, referring to people using the prickly but sturdy seedhead as a comb.

Right now, the plant is putting its energy into producing flowers, which will become seeds for the next generation of plants, so this is not the right time of year to harvest it. Due to past instances of outsiders coming onto the reservation and over-harvesting this important traditional medicine resource, there are now restrictions on harvesting it on the reservation.