April 14, 2022

This story was originally published by St. Stephens Indian Mission Foundation in VOL. XIX APR/MAY/JUNE 1989 NO. 2. St. Stephens Indian Mission Foundation owns the copyright, and the story is reprinted here with permission from the Foundation. More information on the Foundation can be found following the story or by clicking on the link above.

Photography by Ron Mamot.

Flowers have long been associated with beauty and love. They touch the lives of every class and age of people throughout the world. The soft delicacy of a single flower, a beautiful bouquet or a field of colorful wildflowers have inspired the works of various artists and poets for centuries.

“Forgotten Gift.” Courtesy: Roy Kerswill

There is something about a mountain side of gorgeous wildflowers that elevates all life — clear air, abundant water, good light and serenity. Anyone, who takes the time, is free to enjoy the pleasure of their alluring beauty.

Wyoming is considered to be one of the leading states in having the greatest number of flora. Numerous species can be seen within the Wind River Valley and amid the Absaroka and Wind River ranges located near St Stephens Indian Mission. This wide assortment of wildflowers is due to the variation in the temperature, the elevation and the soil composition found between mountains ranges and the valley floor.

Flowers, considered a luxury today, had a very different meaning for the Native Americans who first frequented this area. A beautiful field of wildflowers were a major source of sustenance for these early inhabitants providing them with food, tea and medicine — as well as pigment for their paints.

A Jesuit priest, Miguel Venegas published a book in 1757 in which he noted: “There is scarce an herb or root which they (the Indians) do not apply to some use.” His observations were made among the tribes of California, but the statement could have been made of any tribe throughout the continent.

In this issue of THE RENDEZVOUS we would like to share with you not only the beauty of some of the wildflowers that nature yields in this region, but also the significance of these wild plants to the early Native Americans.

SEGO LILY

Known to the Indians as the “life plant,” it is one of the most beautiful of the lily family. Its blossoms appear about the time young eagles are feathering. The Indians found it to be useful, nutritious and abundant. Depending on the soil, the root bulbs were found between 4 to 12 inches deep. The bulbs, about the size of walnuts, have a taste similar to potatoes and were either eaten raw, boiled or dried and ground into a flour. Rodents and Big Horn sheep feed on the seed pods and the tubers are eaten by bears. It is the State Flower of Utah.

INDIAN POND LILY

This plant, which seems to float on the surface, decorates ponds created by beaver dams. The flowers appear in spring and stay until the first hard frost of fall. Beaver use the older heavy stocks in constructing their dams and store the young tender stocks within their houses for food supply. During hard winters the Indians knew they could find emergency food within the snow covered beaver houses. The Indians used the rootstocks like potatoes or dried and ground them into a flour. The ripened flowers were cut and dried to remove the seeds which were used in various ways: roasted like popcorn; heated and then pounded to open the shell and winnowed to retrieve the nutmeat; used like rice, or ground like cornmeal. Ducks eat the seeds from the flowers and moose are often seen standing in the deep water feeding on the plants.

COLUMBINE

This beautiful flower which ranges high into the mountains comes in an array of colors, from deep blue — the State Flower of Colorado — to a cream white. The Indians found the entire flower to be edible and learned that the nectar vessel at the tail of the blossom gave it a sweet honey flavor. It blooms about the same time calf elk are born and the blossom remains until the young elk have almost lost their spots.

PRAIRIE SMOKE

Found in the early spring as soon as the snows recede from the valley floors and mountain sides. The Indians boiled the roots to make a tea that was used to stop diarrhea. They found the fern-like leaves to be very tasty.

LEWIS MONKEY FLOWER

These bright cheery flowers, which resemble “grinning faces,” can be found in damp places throughout the mountains. The blossoms appear about the time trout have finished spawning in the streams and endure until trout begin their migration to the deeper lake waters to winter. The plant was named for Captain Meriwhether Lewis, who first collected it for identification. The flower was nutritious but not very tasty. The Indians boiled the stems and leaves using them as greens. They crushed the raw leaves and stems and applied them as poultice on rope burns and wounds.

ELK THISTLE

Native Americans found this species to be the most tasty of the thistle family. The plant, high in Vitamin C, has its own defenses. The prickly leaves and stock were a hindrance to the Indian, but did not deter their ponies or elk from feeding on them. Once the spines were peeled off the stocks were either eaten raw or cooked. The texture and taste resembled celery. The roots from young plants were roasted or sliced and fried. The roots were also dried and ground into a flour. The tops of the matured plant made good tinder for starting fires. Black and grizzly bears are particularly fond of thistle in early summer months.

INDIAN PAINTBRUSH

For Native Americans of this area the Indian Paintbrush was an abundant source of Vitamin A. It blooms early in the spring in various species, colors and sizes along the foothills and valley floor within the Wind River country. As the snows recede in the mountains, the beautiful colors of the Indian Paintbrush can be found at high elevations. A unique characteristic of this plant is that the color is not a flower, but actually the bracts and upper leaves of the plant. It is the State Flower of Wyoming.

MOUNTAIN GENTIAN

This short colorful flower, called “heavens own blue” by poet William Bryant, is found high in the mountains. It blooms during the short time between spring thaws and early winter snows. The Indians found that the leaves were helpful when used for anti-inflammatory purposes and a tea made from the leaves could be used to treat arthritis. By observing the grizzly bear in early spring, Native Americans learned that the roots of Green Gentian were a way to clean their system before starting a diet of fresh wild plants.

FIREWEED

The name of this useful plant is twofold: the interesting feature is that it blooms from the lower stock upwards resembling a flame; it is one of the first and most prolific to appear after the ground has been disturbed following a forest fire. In the fall, each seed is tufted with long silky hairs that are easily carried by the wind. The Indians used the young leaves as greens or cooked them like spinach. They also prepared the young shoots like asparagus. Mature leaves were used for tea and the pith from the stem used in soups. This plant is a favorite of the grizzly bear and is also eaten by deer and elk.

COW PARSNIP

The blossoms sprout in early spring and flourish into mid-summer when bear cubs are first exploring their new world. The young stems and leafstalks resemble cooked celery when boiled. Indians used the upper stems as rubbing sticks to clean their teeth, utilizing the loose chlorophyll it contains. They discovered that the root, once dried, loses much of its acridity and used it to make a tea that was a remedy for nausea, indigestion or heartburn. The seed tincture was used as an analgesic for a sore tooth. The powdered roots and seeds were used as a poultice for sore muscles and joints. Great care was always used in the identification of this plant because species of the parsnip family are deadly poisonous. The plant is eaten by elk and bears feed on the succulent stems.

MOUNTAIN HEATHER

A drought resistant plant found at high elevations, it blooms about the time ice goes off the mountain lakes. The Indians gathered the leaves of this plant, then dried and ground them to be used as a treatment for dysentery. They learned that the leaves have an anti-inflammatory nature and mixed them with animal fat applying the compound as an ointment for skin irritation.

BITTERROOT

Blooms appear in the spring when sage chickens are on their nests and last into mid-summer. The starchy roots were an important food source for the Indians. They harvested the roots in early spring before the blossoms appeared, which made them too bitter to be eaten. The root, jelly-like in appearance when boiled, could also be baked or dried and powdered. The Indians introduced their usage of this plant to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. A British botanist named it “Lewisia” for Captain Meriwether Lewis, who first collected the plant in 1806 and took samples back to Washington, D.C.; they sprouted two years later due to the humidity found there. It is the State Flower of Montana.

ROSECROWN

This short hardy plant can be found among rocks, along streams and in moist meadows high in the mountains. It superficially resembles the red clover and blooms throughout the short summer season in high elevations. The Indians discovered it to be soft and palatable. They often ate this tasty plant raw and used the dried flowers to make a healthful tea; it was a good source of Vitamin C. Birds and animals eat both the flower and the plant.

SHOOTING STAR

These small flowers burst forth with brilliant color in early spring when eagles are preparing their nests. The delicate sweet flavor of the flower was a welcomed addition to the diet of the Native American. They also roasted or boiled the roots. Deer and elk eat this plant in early spring before other foliage is available.

WILD BLUE FLAX

Blossoms emerge about the time newborn eagles are observed in the nest and can still be seen when these young birds are testing their wings. The Native Americans detected that this plant was poisonous, but could be used medicinally as a laxative or made into a poultice for burns. The seeds, high in oil content and when rendered produce linseed oil, could be eaten if they were roasted or dried and ground. They utilized the tall stems in several ways: the long fibers were used as a type of linen in their clothing; the stems of numerous plants were braided together to make cordage, which was used for fishing line, nets and ropes.

ELEPHANTHEAD

Found along mountain streams this plant is well named because each blossom has an appearance of the trunk, ears and head of an elephant. The Indians made use of the roots much like carrots are used today, eating them either raw or cooked. They prepared the tops of this plant into a tea to be used as a mild sedative or consumed them raw. Elk feed on this plant in the early months of summer.

ARROWLEAF BALSAMROOT

About the time sage chickens hatch their young each spring, clusters of these flowers turn the foothills of the Wind River Range a bright yellow. The blossoms remain until the hot days of summer cause them to wilt. Although this plant is not very tasty, it is nutritious. The young leaves and stems made a palatable meal for the Indians who used them as boiled greens. The roots had a taste like balsam and were boiled, roasted or eaten raw. The gummy root sap was swallowed for consumption. The powdered root was made into a dressing for syphilitic sores and swelling from insect bites. The Indians gathered the seeds at maturity and either roasted or ground them into a flour.

LUPIN

Blooms burst forth in early spring along the foothills and as snows recede in the high mountain meadows lasting throughout the summer. It is poisonous until the seeds drop off. Deer graze on the sturdy rocks which are strong enough to protrude through early snowfalls. The Native Americans knew that where Lupin grew abundantly they could be sure of having a successful fall hunt for meat.

St. Stephens Indian Mission Foundation is a non-profit organization, incorporated under the laws of the State of Wyoming on March 31, 1974, and listed on page 184 of the 1993 OFFICIAL CATHOLIC DIRECTORY. The sole purpose of the foundation is “to extend financial support to St. Stephens Indian Mission and its various religious, charitable and educational programs and other services conducted primarily for the benefit of the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone Tribes on the Wind River Indian Reservation.”

Posted in Notes From the Field