Photo ©: WWF-US/Clay Bolt

I often write about the value of working lands for wildlife, the important role that well-managed cattle grazing plays in keeping grasslands intact, and the more elusive species found within the Northern Great Plains (NGP). However, the story would be far from complete if I didn’t go back further in time to explore the traditional, Native uses of the plants that still grow on working lands. Plants, like people and landscapes, also have histories of their own.

During my childhood in the Southeastern US, I was always fascinated by the softball-sized fruits of the Osage orange (Maclura pomifera), which littered parks and threated concussions to anyone who stood beneath the tree’s gnarled branches. The tree is a mulberry relative whose fruit is mostly inedible to humans—the seeds are the exception but a laborious process is required for harvest. In recent centuries the Osage, Comanche, and Lakota people prized the wood for its strength and flexibility for hunting bows, but a more mysterious clue to the plant’s ancient history can be found in its lizard-skinned fruits. According to Connie Barlow’s fascinating The Ghosts of Evolution, mammoths once ate the fruit. Like honey locust pods and avocado seeds—two plants whose fruits were eaten by now-extinct animals—Osage oranges are plants that were made for another time.

When we enter into any landscape or habitat we are constantly surrounded by plants that have a deep history, both before and after the arrival of humans. It can be an informative exercise to consider this history as we chart our own modern courses in their presence. To shed some light on this topic, over the coming months I’ll be delving into the deep history of plants that are familiar to ranchers, residents, and travelers across these Great Plains. In addition to exploring the ecological history of these species, I’ll also be sharing traditional Native knowledge about their uses. To do this well, I’ll rely on historical sources, as well as friends and colleagues with traditional plant knowledge. For this month’s installment I’ll be focusing on leadplant (Amorpha canescens)—a well-known species that is found across the Northern Great Plains region.

5 min read
By Clay Bolt, WWF NGP Program
Osage Orange © Needpix.com
© WWF-US / Clay Bolt

I first learned about leadplant, a member of the pea family, while touring a South Dakota ranch. Its common name comes from its blue-grey leaves, although some believed that it also indicated lead-ore in the soil. I have been told that if I see leadplant growing in a pasture, it is an indication of sustainable grazing practices. Cattle love its taste so much that if they graze an area for too long they’ll vacuum up every last leaf like ice cream at an all-you-can-eat buffet. However, when a rancher moves their livestock on to new pastures, the plant retains a foothold in the prairie, regrows, and continues to thrive.

Like other members of the pea family, leadplant is a nitrogen fixer and, according to the USDA, is a useful plant for prairie restoration projects . Its roots can reach as far as 20’ down into the soil providing resistance to fire and drought. Not only does it restore soil health, but is also a valuable food source for pollinators, elk, and grouse. Long before cattle set foot in North America, leadplant also was an important source of medicine for Native people. The plant goes by several names in the Lakota language, including tȟatȟáŋka hotȟúŋ, which translates to “buffalo’s song (or bellow),” because leadplant blooms during the time of the bison rut.  

Leadplant was traditionally used in several ways: 1.) As a tea to relieve lung-infections from ailments such as the flu, 2.) As pipe tobacco when mixed with buffalo fat, 3.) In a warm bath for eczema relief, and 4.) As a moxa, or ignited medical dressing, where burned or smoldering stems were placed directly onto the skin to lessen the pain of rheumatoid arthritis. Although we know that forbs such as leadplant provide healthy forage for cattle, it is certainly worth considering all of the other values that grasslands plants offer us.

Image Source USFWS

For more information on traditional uses of the plants of the Northern Great Plains, download “Uses of the Plants by the Indians of the Missouri River Region” by Melvin Randolph Gilmore (1919) or “Culturally Important Plants of the Lakota,” which was compiled by Sitting Bull College (1998). And stay tuned, as we’ll feature more plants in this series in the months to come.