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Turnips, anyone? - Botanist explores staple food of Plains Indian diet

Posted: Tuesday, Aug 18th, 2009

SDSU professor Neil Reese and his students have assembled information to help gardeners grow prairie turnips, a staple food of the Plains Indian tribes. Reese holds a bunch of the legumes that have been dried and braided together like onions.

If someone asked you what foods the Lakota were eating before the homesteaders began to move onto the prairie, no doubt you'd answer, "Venison or "buffalo ."

It's a pretty good bet, though, you wouldn't have answered, "Turnips."

A South Dakota State University botanist's lifelong fascination with native plants is helping him unearth new knowledge about a staple of the Plains Indian diet - the prairie turnip.

Along the way he's doing the groundwork to help gardeners grow this native legume for themselves as a table crop.

Neil Reese, a professor in SDSU's Department of Biology and Microbiology, last year published an article in the journal Native Plants that summarizes key facts about the prairie turnip's history and nutrition, along with detailed information about how to grow the crop. He was assisted by his students in the research.

"We believe demand for this crop will increase as people become familiar with it," said Reese. "Potential consumers include those who are interested in maintaining and perpetuating American Indian traditions, native plant enthusiasts, and those interested in eating foods native to our region."

The prairie turnip is an unremarkable plant about 5 to 7 inches tall with purplish flowers. Its roots look like a potato, although a bit more elongated. It thrives in the hard, dry soil of the Great Plains.

It turns out that the lowly turnip, known to scientists as Pediomelum esculentum, is something of a wonder-veggie . One of Reese's current research interests, for example , is why the prairie turnip stores so much more protein than ordinary root crops - about 7 percent protein by dry weight, compared to only 1 or 2 percent for most root foods. Heavy protein

"This is a large amount of protein," Reese said. "We've actually done the work, and we're now awaiting the analysis on the sequence of this protein. I'm just curious about what the basic protein is and how it compares to what you find in seeds."

At least by amino acid composition, Reese said, the protein in prairie turnips appears to somewhat similar to what is found in peanuts. Peanuts are a seed, not a root, so Reese is curious about that apparent similarity.

Reese teaches a course in ethnobotany at SDSU and first learned about prairie turnips from Joseph Flying-Bye , a Lakota elder on the Standing Rock Reservation, and Dorothy Gill, a Dakota elder on the Lake Traverse Reservation.

Gill taught the professor how Plains Indians harvested , stored and prepared the prairie turnip. The plant keeps indefinitely when dried and can be rehydrated by simmering for several hours. Used medicinally, too

Prairie turnips had medicinal uses in some tribes. The Northern Cheyenne used them to treat burns and diarrhea , Reese said. The Blackfeet used them in treating sore throat, gastroenteritis , bowel problems and colic.

In the Indians' diet, prairie turnip not only provided protein and fiber but was also a rich source of iron, zinc, magnesium and potassium. The legume delivers lesser amounts of other nutrients.

"I find them quite tasty," Reese said. "They're a little earthy in their flavor, but you can use them in soups and stews. If you powder them, you can use them like flour. If you're a traditionalist and you're making wojapi, you use this instead of flour."

Wojapi is a fruit pudding made by Dakota and Lakota people that can be thickened with ground prairie turnip root. Some used turnip flour as a key ingredient for fry bread mix, or in making cakes. Or you can eat prairie turnips raw, as Reese has seen Lakota children doing at a Sun Dance.

The prairie turnip doesn't appeal to everyone. Some members of the Lewis and Clark expedition, for example weren't quite adventurous enough to sample it.

Capt. Meriwether Lewis wrote that "the white apple appears to me to be a tastless, insippid food of itself, tho' I have no doubt but it is a very healthy and moderately nutricious food. I have no doubt but our epicures would admire this root very much, it would serve them in their ragouts and gravies in stead of the truffles morella."f Not to European taste

There were some attempts to introduce the prairie turnip to Europe in the 19th century, Reese said. But there were difficulties growing them, and Europeans didn't take to the taste. Gardeners seeking the best results or tips on where to obtain seed or how to collect seed from plants in the prairie can refer to an article by Reese and his students from the spring 2008 issue of Native Plants.

Contact Reese directly for more information by e-mailing him at Neil.Reese@sdstate.edu.

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