Nebraskaland June 2019

NEBRASKAland Magazine is dedicated to outstanding photography and informative writing with an engaging mix of articles and photos highlighting Nebraska’s outdoor activities, parklands, wildlife, history and people.

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58 Nebraskaland • June 2019 While traveling with the Astor Expedition up the Missouri River from St. Louis into the Dakotas in 1811, the naturalist Thomas Nuttall was likely the first person of European descent to collect leadplant. In 1814, the botanist Fredrick Pursh christened the plant with the scientific name Amorpha canescens. Amorpha is derived from "amorphos" which in Greek means "deformed" in reference to the incomplete, single-petaled flowers characteristic of the genus. Other members of the Fabaceae, the pea family, typical have five-petaled, pea-shaped flowers. Canescens is Latin for "gray-haired," describing the dense leaden-colored hairs which coat the plant's foliage. A short prairie shrub with spikes of red-violet to blue flowers, leadplant ranges over much of the Great Plains and nearly all of Nebraska. Though its scientific name is descriptive, leadplant's other common names reflect the history of the Plains. Native Americans were the first to name leadplant, but the vast majority of these names were lost to history as cultures faded. Luckily, a few of them still persist in tribal languages while others were recorded by ethnobotanists. The Lakota's name for leadplant is "zitkatacan'" which translates to "the bird's tree" as small birds perched on this shrub in the tree-less prairie. The Omaha and Ponca call the plant "te-huntonhi" meaning "buffalo bellow plant" ("te" means buffalo, "hunton" means bellow and "hi" means plant) because the buffalo would soon be coming into rut, the bulls bellowing, when it was in flower. One Ho-Chunk (Winnebago) name for the plant was "taxumaka" meaning "burnt medicine," as the powdered leaves were moistened and applied as a medicine to scalds. They also call it "Xawisku" translating to "sweet root," as the root was used as a food. For the Assiniboine and Sioux, leadplant had spiritual significance and a "medicine" was made of the pounded roots which was rubbed on the hunter's clothes, giving him the power to attract buffalo and to kill as many of them as he wanted. The Lakota used leadplant's dried leaves to make a pleasant-tasting hot tea and as a smoking material. For the latter, a little buffalo fat was added to the leaves. Learning the tea-making tradition from the Indians, European settlers referred to the plant as "wild tea." They also called it "prairie shoestring" because its tough, stretching roots, abundant just below the soil surface, made a popping sound similar to that of snapping shoestrings when sliced by their plows. The name "Devil's shoestring" attests to the frustration the roots caused the sod-busting settlers. One might say the rhythmic popping of the roots composed a swan song apropos to the vanishing prairie. The name leadplant is now universally used. In areas of our state, the shrub is still abundant and in the morning sun, the prairie slopes take on a leaden hue. MIXED BAG LEADPLANT – WHAT'S IN A NAME? By Gerry Steinauer, Botanist PHOTO BY GERRY STEINAUER Leadplant growing in prairie at Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park in Antelope County.

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