Navajo Wild Plants

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by Kelley Fowler
Baya Meehan, a Navajo tribal member from Copper Mine, Ariz., gathers pinyon in the autumn. Pinyon nuts—from the Pinus edulis tree—were a staple food crop for prehistoric tribes, such as the Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblo, who inhabit the Southwest.

In Hopi, it’s called “talasi.” In Navajo, “tata-deen.” In the Navajo and Hopi traditions of the American Southwest, corn pollen is a sacred substance, used in ceremony.

But before there was corn pollen, there was cattail pollen.

“Cattail pollen is maybe even more powerful,” Arnold Clifford, a Navajo ethnobotanist who chronicles Navajo plant use on the reservation, said.

The wild plants of the Southwest have been used for millennia by native tribes of the area–mostly Navajo and Pueblo tribes, including the Hopi, who are related to the Pueblo people. Many of those plants are still used today, in conjunction with the plants the people began cultivating when agriculture (including corn) came to the region via Central America an estimated 5,000 years ago.

How the ancient people discovered the process of getting the most nutrition out of their corn is unknown, but it turns out that corn is a food that lacks niacin, because its niacin is bound up.  When you mix that same corn with an alkaline solution of lime or ash, its nutritional profile is improved–niacin becomes available to the human eating it, and the amino acid profile of the corn is improved. This process, called nixtamilization, also can drastically increase the calcium content of corn.

The science is complex, but the bowl of blue-corn mush is not-and nearly every household that makes “hopi word” or “thos-cheen” uses some fine juniper ash (typically made from burned greenery of nearby juniper trees) added to the water with the blue corn. The alkalinity of the ash improves the nutrition of the corn, but Polly Bitsui, who has been using this process for decades, says for her, it’s about flavor-thosh cheen isn’t thosh cheen without the juniper ash.

Juniper (Gad bik- igii) is perhaps the most prevalent tree across the American Southwest, and it is used by Navajo , Hopi and Pueblo cooks, medicine men, mamas and children in too many ways to count. The fall berries are eaten and used to sweeten meat.  Mothers use the berries as beads and make bracelets of juniper to sweeten a baby’s dreams. Juniper leaves are considered effective against all kinds of ailments–headaches, flu, and spider bites. Juniper wood and smoke is considered protective against evil spirits, and its wood is used in sweat lodges of some tribes to purify the air.

juniper-berries in hands

Juniper grows in abundance near its friend, the Pinyon pine (Pinus edulis), and another very common Southwestern tree. The Pinyon pine (Neeshch’ii) is renowned for its ability to produce copious quantities of sticky, resinous sap used as glue by ancient peoples and in many ways today. The pitch is used in basketmaking to make objects waterproof, often mixed with colored clays for appearance. The pinyon pitch is also used medicinally, especially on the skin, where it is said to draw out infection and irritations.

Pinyon wood makes perhaps the sweetest smoke of any wood, and its wood is strong and used in building hogans and other tribal dwellings.

The Pinyon, though, is also a major food crop for all peoples of the Southwest, tribes and Spanish and newcomers alike. In the fall from late September through November, the sticky, resinous cones of the pinyon start to turn from green to brown, and they drop their little pea-sized, oval, dark-brown seeds to the earth below, where pickers scramble to find them in the needle duff. Similar trees across the world produce the pine nut, or pignoli, with its distinct sweet nutty flavor. In the autumn of a good pinyon year, roadsides across the Southwest are lined with cars pulled over and their inhabitants disappeared into the scrubland, gathering the little brown nuts.

The pine nut is a high-protein and high-fat food, which would have been very valuable to our ancestors.

In modern times, some of the ancient uses of wild plants have been lost, but many have not. Every Navajo household, for instance, has “stirring sticks,” often hung on the walls and made of greasewood (dawooji). Those sticks are used for stirring mutton stew and blue corn mush. Digging sticks have gone out of style, replaced by hoes and shovels, but many homes in Navajo and Hopi areas still have digging sticks around made of greasewood, mountain mahogany, sumac and other hardwood shrubs–just in case.

The most commonly used plants are often the ones most easily found-the weeds. On the reservations of northeastern Arizona, one of the most common weeds-found growing in gravel parking lots, against cement buildings, on the edges of cornfields and along roadsides–is the plant known as Navajo tea, unless you’re an Hopi, in which case it’s called Hopi Tea, or along the Rio Grande, where it is Pueblo Tea, or in Spanish territory, where it is called Cota. No matter its common name, Thelespermamegapotamicum, and its close relatives are a tea plant, a dye plant, and a medicine across the four corners states. It’s so common that sometimes people don’t think of it as a useful plant–just a weed.

Native American woman elder holding gathered tall green Cota

“They completely took out the whole patch of Navajo tea,” says Ashley John, a recreational co-ordinator with Dilkon Youth Services. About half of the space in their community garden in Dilkon, Arizona, was covered with Thelesperma, until John asked her students to weed the garden in preparation for a “garden party.” The next day, the Navajo tea was gone.

“It’s ok,” John said. “It’s already coming back. This whole yard will be covered with it by next month.”

The most well-known herbal for the reservation areas is Nanise: A Navajo Herbal by Vernon O Mayes and Barbara Lacy, which covers 100 plants on the reservation.  Arnold Clifford, a prominent Navajo botanist and ethnobotanist, says that until recent times, thousands of plants were used, and for thousands of uses.

“Dawooji (greasewood) grows all over the Rez, in all the low areas.  It was used for stirring sticks, planting sticks, firewood, cookwood fuel, shelter, and weaving,” Clifford cites. Similarly, the three-leaf sumac (K’ii) was used for food, basket weaving, mordant for dyes, digging sticks, and many other uses.

Clifford also believes that cattail pollen is “more potent than tatadeen” and says many medicine men still fill their pouches with this pollen when possible. Because it grows in wet places, it is scarcer on the reservation than corn pollen.

He also points to prickly pear cactus as a common wild food in Navajoland.  The ripe fall fruit makes a wonderful jelly and “tastes like kiwi,” he said. The Spanish call these “tunas” and the Navajo “Hosh niteeli.”

Another roadside weed, Beeweed (Cleome serrulata or W’aa), is called “Navajo spinach,” Polly Bitsui said. When young, it is eaten as a cooked green. When older, it is boiled down to make a black dye that was used for painting Pueblo pottery. Polly has a greasewood stirring stick on her wall, but she also likes to use the four-wing saltbush (Da’akoozh deenini) as a stirring stick (and also for the Navajo puberty ceremony known as kinaalda).

Walking back from a cornfield, Polly also points to a wide-leaf yucca and says she remembers her mom used to take the pod and turn it to mush, like a banana, and then dry it. Out in the pasture is snakeweed; “we use it attached to a gourd as a rattle for the squaw dance,” she said.

Kristen Davenport is a farmer, herbalist and writer living in the Rocky Mountains outside of Taos, New Mexico. Raised in Roswell, she worked for newspapers across the Southwest — including several years on the Navajo reservation-before settling on a 20-acre family farm. Now, Kristen and her husband, Avrum, are raising two kids and growing garlic for Baker Creek Heirloom Seed, and growing vegetables and herbs for markets around Northern New Mexico.

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