Thursday, March 16, 2006

Wild Fruits of the Nebraska Sandhills

Chokecherries, sand cherries, plums, grapes, and more

Over fifty years ago (can it be?), when I was very young, we lived south of Johnstown, Nebraska. Sand cherries grew along the side of the road-trail that led from Highway 20 through the hills to our place and south to the McDaniel Ranch, Moon Lake, and beyond.

We picked so many sand cherries along the road one year that my mother set up an old window screen on blocks to help process them. She spread sand cherries across the screen and washed them with the garden hose. I don't know if she decided this technique was successful or not. I just remember several big buckets of sand cherries and the interesting things Mama was doing with them.

Grandma Nora came to visit and she talked to my mother about how some of the cherries were as big as her thumb. I deduce that they were not often that large. Many years later, I asked my mother about all of this, and she was surprised that I remembered it so well.

Those wild sandcherries would probably have been the western sandcherry, Prunus pumila L. var. besseyi. Native Americans had used sandcherries for millenia as fresh and dried fruit, but the great pioneer botanist of Nebraska, Charles Edwin Bessey (1845-1915) gave the little silvery bush a Latin name and put it in its proper spot in botany's great structural diagram of earth's plant life.

My dad, a child of the Sandhills, loved sandcherry pie and my mother baked it for him whenever she had the fruit. Daddy's sandcherry pies were few and far between after we moved to Rose because we didn't have sandcherries there, but he developed a fondness for chokecherry pies. (More about chokecherries later.) I guess we may have been a little east of the natural range of sandcherries or maybe Duff Valley just wasn't a sandy enough spot.

We had windbreaks of trees (called "tree-pens" because they were fenced) around our ranch buildings. In one of the tree-pens, a big thicket of plum bushes grew. Their fruits were yellow and intensely bitter, and after her first harvest of them Mama didn't bother again. Still, in the spring they bloomed gloriously.

I remember a spring afternoon when we took the shortcut home from school, across the meadow and through the tree-pen. We could smell the sweet fragrance of the plum blossoms even before we saw them. We took a big armful of the blossoms to Mama. When we broke off the branches with their blooms, we were eliminating the fruit as well as mutilating the bushes, but the plums were always so sour that no one cared.

Wild Sandhill orchard

After we had lived at Rose for a few years, my dad bought some pasture land in Loup County, about 15 or 20 miles from our home place. The land was south of the Calamus River and much of it consisted of long ridges of big hills, actually grassed-over sand dunes, that ran mostly east and west. Thickets of wild plums were sprinkled across the south sides of many of those sandy ridges. These Loup County plums had a sweet, red fruit. The skins were sour, but the meat of the plums was delicious when ripe. The best way to eat them was to place the entire fruit in your mouth, bite into it, suck out the sweet juice and pulp, and then spit out the sour skin and the seed.

In one area of our most remote Loup County pasture, a long, wide sweep of prairie grasses lay between two high sandy ridges. Northwest of the windmill in that big valley, a very large plum thicket grew on the hillside. Small chokecherry trees grew within the tangle of plum bushes and wild grapes grew over the top of everything, so we called it "the orchard". In good years when spring weather was mild and no late frosts nipped the blossoms, all three fruits produced bounteously.

My mother often rode the Loup County pastures in the summer when all the men were busy making hay. Checking on the cattle, giving them salt and mineral, "doping" the backrubber with fly control, and making sure the windmill was working was called "riding the pastures" even though we rode in a pickup truck, not on horseback.

My sister and I went on these excursions to give my mother company and moral support as she bravely drove over treacherously sandy trails. We also opened the gates for her. Actually, I usually opened the gates because Charlotte was 5 years younger and shorter. (In all fairness, Charlotte may have had her turn at gate-opening later on after I started working in the hayfield.)

Riding the pastures always took an entire, long, hot summer afternoon, so I was never happy when my mom wanted to stop and pick fruit at the orchard. If I had picked faster, we might have left sooner, but I remember that Mama filled her buckets much quicker than I filled mine. Then when we were finally done picking, we had to stop at the windmill, so Mama could wash with lye soap to get the poison ivy off herself. It grew in the orchard, too, and she was very allergic.

My parents speculated that Indians had planted that hillside orchard. Wild plums were common throughout our several sections of hills, but chokecherries and wild grapes grew only in that one big plum thicket. It was probably a couple of acres in size, on a wide, sunny hillside at the edge of a large valley. Their talk of Indians intrigued me, so I was greatly interested years later when I read these paragraphs in Stephen R. Jones' book, The Last Prairie: A Sandhills Journal:

Plains Indians coveted chokecherries. They mashed them up and mixed them with bison fat to make pemmican, a winter staple, or crushed them to make a special drink. Many peoples refered to the August moon as the "black cherry moon" or "the moon of black cherries ripening." The Lakota drank chokecherry juice at ceremonies honoring a girl reaching puberty. The red juice represented both the sacred blood of the young woman and the fruits of the earth.

Plains Indian tribes would camp for days along streams where chokecherries grew. The women used stone pestles to pound the cherries to a pulp, pits and all. It's possible that people deliberately carried chokecherry seeds from one campsite to another, contributing to the spread of this moisture-loving shrub into arid regions.

My experiments with wild fruits

My childhood "fruiting" experiences instilled an interest in growing wild fruit. I bought some sand cherry bushes from a catalog and planted them here in Kentucky. They didn't do well, but during the few years that they lived, they produced a handful of cherries, and I picked and ate them right off the bush. I had forgotten their unique, dusky flavor.

Soon after we moved here, Keely became friendly with a little girl named Tiffany who had wild plums behind her house. I acquired a few plums from Tiffany's mother and started some bushes from the seeds. I planted them on a south facing slope that we don't enjoy mowing. I was hoping they would take over the slope, but they haven't yet. These plums produce a sour yellow fruit that I don't recommend eating straight from the bush, even when fully ripe.

Several years ago, I visited my brother's place in Kansas when their wild plums were ripe. Those plums are yellow and fairly sweet. The plum bushes are surprisingly small and scrubby, but I think they're stunted by the dry conditions that usually prevail in SW Kansas.

I brought home some Kansas plum seeds and planted them in a little bed, then transplanted them to the slope. Now, the Kansas Sweets are intermingled with the Kentucky Sours, and I can't tell them apart by looking. (Their fruit should identify them -- "By their fruits ye shall know them.") I posted their photo yesterday. If we don't get any more hard frost, I'll have a few plums to play with this summer.

 Lewis and Clark's descriptions of the wild fruits of the Great Plains are summarized by the Mouth of the Platte Study Group in their webpage titled, "Fruits." An interesting report from 1912 for the Smithsonian Institute about "Uses of Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region" can be downloaded (126 page PDF).

More wild foods

My father was knowledgeable about many plants of the Sandhills. One day in the hayfield, when I was just a little girl, he showed me the low-growing ground cherries in the stubble and how to open their little husks to find the seedy little fruits.

Daddy also showed us a wild purple flower that he called "Indian turnip". I have tried to identify it in a book of Nebraska wildflowers, and I can only say that it might have been liatris squarrosa (scaly blazing star). It had a small edible bulb with a woody texture and a sharp bitter flavor. They didn't taste very good, but it was fun to think that I knew something from Indian lore.

Our family ate and greatly enjoyed a certain type of wild mushroom that came up after a rain in areas where the cattle had been hayed during the winter. I have studied mushroom books, and I think it was the meadow mushroom.

If you have read all the way to the bottom of this long, long ramble, I congratulate you.


Trixie said...

I enjoyed it! It brought back memories of my childhood when my dad would take us to the sand bars on the Arkansas River for Sunday afternoon weiner roasts and a "swim" (more like a wade because our area of the river was always fairly shallow.) He'd take us along the banks and we would find sand plums and possum grapes. I would not trust myself today to know what was edible and what is not, at least not without a guide book.
Guthrie, Oklahoma, has a sand plum festival and it's very easy to find jellies made from the fruit.
Thanks for the memories!

Genevieve said...

I regret that I don't have some of my mom's recipes for the things she made with wild plums and cherries, the sour old pioneer rhubarb that grew in the yard, and all. I don't know if she ever wrote anything down, or if she just adapted recipes from cookbooks. She made a baked dessert with a plum and plum-sauce topping over a cake, so that the cake sort of cooked over the plums in places. It was sweet/tart and good. I think it might have been an adaptation of a baked cherry pudding recipe.

Collagemama said...

Did you make wild plum or wild cherry dumplings?

Genevieve said...

Something strange has happened to a comment where Collagemama asked if we ever made wild cherry or wild plum dumplings. For some reason, it's showing up in the list of recent comments, but not here.

To answer the question -- no, we did not. I don't remember my mother making sweet or fruit dumplings at all. She made dumplings in soup sometimes -- heavy, chewy ones, because my dad liked them that way.

Karolee said...

I live in Loup County, 6 miles west of Taylor on the N. Loup river.
I won 25 sandcherry plants & was hunting for information on planting them when I came across your article.
Very interesting.

PS The plums are blooming!

Genevieve said...

Karolee, so nice to hear from you! I hope you'll visit again. I hope your sandcherries do well for you. I think the soil here is too dense and heavy for them. regrettably. I would love to see the plums blooming. I can imagine them on the south sides of the hills in big white thickets.

Ryan Armbrust said...

I believe the the "wild turnip" you mentioned may be Psoralea esculenta, the prairie turnip. They are rare today, so if you stumble across one on the prairie, it's best to leave it be.

Genevieve said...

I'm really not sure, Ray. If the Wikipedia article describes Psoralea esculenta accurately, the Indian turnips of my childhood were much smaller. Granted, we might have been digging up babies, but you'd think we'd have got a big one sometime, just by accident. The largest one I ever saw was maybe as thick as an oversized beginner's pencil at it's largest point, and maybe an inch long, excluding the tap root.

Genevieve said...

Sorry, Ryan. I am getting dyslexic in my old age. I have to watch myself all the time about transposing numbers.

Unknown said...

the Indian turnip you speak of is called timpsila by the lakota and dakota natives. we picked them a lot when I was little, and when home we would peel off outer layer leaving the root, then bread them together into long braid to dry. then used in winter ikn soups n stews, very delicious. very hard to find nowadays. loved your article. was out gathering choke cherries and ran across a patch of sand cherries! have looked long n hard for these. so happy to find them. brought home few plants n dried seeds to tryto get them to grow here also got couple gallons berries for jam too thanks for your words, they very heartwarming, n loves reading them, because we gather every year all wild fruit n plants we can :-)

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CONTENTMENT: Keep your heart free from hate, your mind from worry, live simply, expect little, give much, sing often, pray always, forget self, think of others and their feelings, fill your heart with love, scatter sunshine. These are the tried links in the golden chain of contentment.
(Author unknown)

IT IS STILL BEST to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasure; and to be cheerful and have courage when things go wrong.
(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

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