Amaranth sprouts in early summer in areas where the ground has been disturbed. You can often find it in pastures, gardens and in the remains of prehistoric ruins. Their green flowers turn dark towards the end of summer and produce seeds that number in the tens of thousands. Amaranth seeds are an especially good source of protein, containing more of the essential amino acid, lysine, than most true cereal crops. The greens are a healthy food too, being rich in vitamins A and C, plus iron and calcium. Members of many native tribes have used amaranth as a staple in their diets for hundreds of years. Some tribes ground the seeds into flour for cakes or mush. Parched seeds were also chewed as a snack.
Big Sagebrush is a very common shrub in Western Colorado. It is easily recognized by its pale gray-turquoise color and it strong smell. It grows 2 to 5 feet tall and has long, soft bark that shreds of in long strands. The Fremont people used sagebrush to make trade goods like woven baskets. Sagebrush also served as a primary fuel source for early Native American groups. Sagebrush leaves are a good source of vitamin C and iron. Although sagebrush can be poisonous and can cause birth defects, early Native Americans knew how much was safe and it was used to treat intestinal worms. Today, parts of the plant are still used as medicine and for ceremonies.
Dandelion is considered by most people to be a weed. There are many varieties of dandelion and it can be found worldwide in one form or another. They have been used by humans for much of recorded history. They were used by the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, early Chinese and many other early cultures as a food and medicine. Dandelion was used by Native American tribes in similar ways. Dandelion leaves contain many vitamins and minerals, especially vitamins A, C, and K, and are a good source of calcium, potassium, iron, and manganese. Today, dandelion is still eaten by many cultures. It can be found in salads, sautéed like spinach and is even an ingredient in drinks like Root Beer. Dandelion is often the first flower to bloom in early spring and attracts pollinating insects like Bees. So next time you go to weed your garden, think about the dandelion and its many uses.
Four-wing Saltbush can be found all across the Great Plains, the Great Basin and the southwest desert. The stems and leaves are covered with white scales called scurf, which helps it maintain its water in arid climates. This plant is unusual because it has the ability to change its reproductive parts depending on environmental factors. It is called dioecious—its sex is not genetically fixed, as it is in most animals. Native Americans harvested the leaves and seeds of the Four-wing Saltbush. The Navajo used them to make flour. The seeds could be cooked to form a type of oatmeal. The ground up seeds were used to make a drink called pinole. The Zuin were known to mix the crushed male flowers in water to make soap for washing and treating ant bites, while the Navajo made a yellow dye with boiled twigs and leaves. Many Native Americans used it as their main fuel source.
Fremont Barberry is an evergreen shrub. It’s leaves sprout in the late winter and it flowers between April and May. It has round, little yellow to red berries and blue-green prickly leaves. The berries are edible raw or cooked (though you must always be certain you have correctly identified the plant). Native tribes would make a beverage from the berries. The roots are bitter and were used to make a tonic that helped with digestion. A chemical called berberine is found in Fremont Barberry and is known for its antibacterial effects. Native Americans may have used this plant to fight intestinal infections. The boiled roots were also used to dye buckskin.
Mormon Tea, also known as ephedra, is a medium sized evergreen shrub. It grows almost everywhere in our region. It has tiny leaves and numerous upright branches that flower in the summer. The stems preserve well and have been found at many archaeological sites. We don’t know if it was brewed for a tea or if it was used as a medicine. We know the Hopi, Ute and other Native American groups used Mormon Tea. It was used to treat stomach pain and that boiled roots were used for colds. Modern day Native Americans brew the tea both for pleasure and for its medicinal benefits. Many compare it’s effects to caffeine.
Utah Juniper is an evergreen tree that can grow up to 25 feet tall and is commonly found all over the Four Corner area. It has scale-like leaves, long-flakey bark and large blue-gray berries. Junipers were used in many ways by Native American tribes. The berries, despite being dry, were regularly eaten. The wood and bark of the Juniper tree is still used to construct Navajo sweathouses. A tea made from juniper sprigs is used during childbirth by Pueblo women. The bark was braded to make rope. It was also used as insulation and even as toilet paper!
Pinon Pine and juniper evergreens cover the lower regions of the Four Corner area. Pinion Pines produce a rich seed crop every year and the nuts are ready to be gathered in late august. People from every period in our areas history have utilized the bountiful nut crops from the Pinion Pine. We find cracked nutshells at almost all of the Ancestral Puebloan archaeological sites we find. Cones were picked and stored. Throughout the winter, cones were put on hot coals to force them open, exposing the nuts inside. Pine nuts are very nutritious. They have more than 3000 calories per pound and their protein levels can be compared to the protein found in a steak! Pinion Pitch or sap was also used in many ways. It was used to waterproof basketry and pottery, to repair broken objects and to cement together stones for jewelry. It was even chewed like gum.
Three Winged Sumac is a large shrub that produced fuzzy, red berries in the fall. The bright green leaves turn a bright red in autumn. In spring, the shrub flowers with clusters of small, yellow buds. Many Native American tribes used sumac in a variety of ways. The seeds, bark and leaves were used to tan leather and the berries were used to make a red dye. It was used as a medicine to treat skin and mouth sores and to treat dysentery. The berries have a sour flavor that had many uses. A popular drink was made by seeping the berries in water which produced a lemonade-like pink drink.
Meadow Knapweed grows 2 to 4 feet tall and has a purple flower that blooms in mid-summer. It has many branches that end in a single flower. It is found mainly around roadways and in pastures and rangelands. It was introduced from Europe and blocks grasses from growing, which impacts livestock and native plants. In Colorado, it is listed in the Noxious Weed Act as a weed that needs to be removed and destroyed.
Yellow Toadflax grows anywhere from 1/2 to 3 feet tall and has distinctive yellow flowers that are similar to those of a snapdragon. It has fine, threadlike green leaves. It is found mainly around roadways and in pastures and rangelands. It was introduced from Europe and blocks native plants from growing which reduces forage for wildlife and livestock. In Colorado, it is listed in the Noxious Weed Act as a weed that needs to be controlled.
Cheat Grass is a type of weed that grows to 16 to 35 inches tall. It has a long stock with wildly dispersed, long green leaves. At the top, it has a nodding seed head with many fine, hairy drooping seed heads. These seeds cling to animal fur. You may have found then sticking to your socks or stuck in your pets hair. It can be found in recently burned rangeland and wildlands, in winter crops and grasslands. The weed sprouts early in the season and ‘cheats’ native plants out of early spring water and nutrients. It is very flammable and allows fire to spread rapidly in places where it has taken over. In Colorado, it is listed in the Noxious Weed Act as a weed that needs to be controlled.
Purple Loosestrife grows 6 to 8 feet tall and has long, pinkish flowers that bloom throughout the summer. It has long lance-shaped leaves that are 2 to 5 inches long. It can be found in areas near water. It was introduced from Europe and affects water flow and animal lifecycles in rivers and canals. Native plants, like cattails, are crowded out and the organisms that rely on them die. In Colorado, it is listed in the Noxious Weed Act as a weed that needs to be removed and destroyed.
Russian Olive Tree can reach up to 30 feet tall and have become prominent in Colorado. The plant has an olive-shaped seed that is widely spread by birds. Its branches have 1 to 2 inch long thorns along their length and the leaves are long and silvery-green. It was introduced from Europe and Asia and because it can grow in a variety of conditions, it can be found all over. It likes most the moist areas around streams, floodplains and rivers. It chokes out competing native plants. In Colorado, it is listed in the Noxious Weed Act as a weed that needs to be controlled.
Japanese Knotweed has a hollow stem that looks like bamboo and grows between 9 to 13 feet tall. It has broad, green leaves and small, cream-colored flowers that grow in a bunch pointing into the air. It was introduced from East Asia. It grows in thick colonies that completely crowd out other species. They have also been known to damage concrete foundations, roadways and flooding defenses with their strong root systems. In Colorado, it is listed in the Noxious Weed Act as a weed that needs to be removed and destroyed.
Yellow Starthistle grows 2 to 3 feet tall and has a yellow flower that blooms in early spring. Below the flower are sharp thorns. It is found mainly around roadways and in pastures and rangelands. It was introduced from Europe and blocks grasses from growing, which impacts livestock and native plants. It is toxic to horses, causing what is commonly known as ‘Chewing Disease.’ In Colorado, it is listed in the Noxious Weed Act as a weed that needs to be removed and destroyed.
Tamarisk trees are a type of evergreen that frown from 3 to 50 feet tall. They have slim branches and gray-green, scaled leaves. They grow in bunches forming dense thickets. It was introduced from Europe and Africa and has become a major invasive species in Colorado, especially along riverways. Both wildlife and native plants have been chocked out as the trees block access to the river. The Colorado River is in the midst of a battle to remove the invasive species. Nonprofit organizations, the BLM, the Colorado Department of Agriculture and Colorado Parks and Wildlife are all working to remove the tamarisk from the Colorado River. In Colorado, it is listed in the Noxious Weed Act as a weed that needs to be controlled.
St. John’s Wort is a subshrub (a small species of shrub) that grows 12 to 18 inches tall and covers the ground. It has large, five pedaled, yellow flowers that bloom in the summer and oval, green leaves . It was introduced from Europe and its ability to cover the ground blocks native plants from growing. It is dangerous to livestock such as horses, sheep and cattle. It can cause problems with their nervous systems, lead to premature birth and even death in livestock. In Colorado, it is listed in the Noxious Weed Act as a weed that needs to be managed. Additional education and research is required.