Spring Prairie Walk

by Rachel Creager Ireland

They say spring comes earlier than it did in your time, though, being Kansas, there is no guarantee of anything when it comes to weather. We could have a perfectly peaceful, warm March, but there could be a late frost in April, or even May. The deities of weather care not that the butterflies are already on the wing, the trees have awakened with blooms and even leaves. Nonetheless, the plants feel the irresistible urge to green and grow when the days warm and lengthen; and so it comes to be that Marlo and I find ourselves equally unable to resist a walk in the prairie to find the tender greens and medicinal plants of spring.

Our first cry of delight came when we saw this sweet flower, the ground-plum milk-vetch, Astragalus crassicarpus. We only enjoyed the beauty of the flowers, however, as spring is not the time for this plant to give itself to the aid of humans. We’ll come back when the flowers have gone, and the fruit is ripe. We’ll come again in the fall, the time for harvesting roots. Daniel Moerman reports that this one was used for bleeding wounds and for convulsions. We don’t see convulsions often, but the herbs will be gathered in their time, so that they might be with us when we need them. If someone is convulsing, we’d prefer to have the treatment on hand already. (Please note, numerous authors warn that this species is easily mistaken for other Astragalus species, which are considered poisonous, and we do not wish to be your personal medical advisors!)

I almost overlooked this sweet little bloom, pussytoes, Antennaria neglecta. It could easily be mistaken for some kind of grass seed, being small and fuzzy and low to the ground. This unassuming little flower is said to be good for coughs, bruises, inflammation, and hepatitis. I think the most significant claim is that Native Americans used it with confidence for rattlesnake bites. We haven’t had to test it, but we do share our habitat with rattlesnakes, and so we are grateful that, as usual, Mother Nature has placed the antidote near the poison.

We saw lots of wild parsley, Lomatium foeniculaceum, along our walk. This is another plant which gives us its roots in the fall, which can be eaten dried and powdered and blended with other flours.

My favorite of the day was the lovely white fawn lily, Erythronium albidum. Also called dogtooth violet, this one is edible, though so lovely that I can scarcely bring myself to uproot it. I noted its location, though, and in summer when it has died back, I’ll take a few bulbs to plant in the flower beds. The flowers, leaves, and bulb are all edible, and perhaps some year when we are more hungry for food than beauty, we’ll be twice grateful to have them.

Thus Marlo and I came home from our prairie walk with color in our cheeks and joy in our hearts, but little in our baskets, but as we approached the common areas of our compound, we found in abundance one of the best healing foods around, of the genus Taraxacum. For our purposes, we don’t need to identify species; they are all edible and wildly nutritious. We collected big roots in the fall as a tonic for mild illnesses, and today we gathered the tender young leaves for a salad, and flowers for May-honey. This tenacious perennial originated in Eurasia, but is found throughout North America, especially in places where the ecosystem has been disturbed, unlike the pristine prairie where we found our native friends. In the days when people had lawns, Taraxacum was unwelcome, even reviled; but it remained unfailingly cheerful nonetheless, and was often a favorite of young children. The common name of this flower is, of course, dandelion. We filled our baskets.

And so, for sustenance for our bodies, we needn’t have gone out on a walk at all; and yet the greater sustenance was received by our souls from our morning walk in the prairie.