What it is
Wuskwī-stick is the Cree name for the tree otherwise known as the White Birch, Paper Birch, Canoe Birch, and Betula papyrifera. The tree is renowned for its wur squi (rind/ bark), which is white and highly weather-resistant—while the wood of a downed tree will rot away, the hollow bark will be left intact. The outer bark is used as a fire starter and to make such items as wuskwīyakun (a roggin/ water-proof basket), tiet ta naw gan (a carry-cradle), wuskāpuwīekewap (a tent), and ot tot (a canoe). The inner bark is su wow me stick (sweet wood), edible raw or cooked, or can be used to make dyes. The sap—wuskwiapoo—is sweet. The wur squi ar tic (wood) can be fashioned into small items, from emeguan (a spoon/ ladle) to u’cham que (a bow), and is used to make wir squi ta sam (birch snow shoes). It is also an excellent, high heat-yielding firewood if seasoned properly.
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Sewapoo: vinegar made from wuskwiapoo
While parts of the tree are edible, the aromatic and aliphatic hydrocarbons in wuskwiapoo (birch sap) are irritating to the skin.
Check for allergies: Do not apply externally, or take internally if suffering from oedema or poor kidney or heart function
Where to find
Birch is found throughout Red River Settlement in locations transitioning from grassland to forest, the tree growing best in full to partial sun, and being somewhat wind tolerant. It can grow on a variety of soils— from light (sandy), medium (loamy) to heavy (clay), whether wet or dry, and is a salt-tolerant acidophile. One the farmstead, a birch tree planted near the compost heap will aid the fermentation process.
How to recognize
The tree is medium-sized and deciduous with an average height ranging from 6–30 ft. (18m), but that can reach up to 130 ft. (40m) with a trunk up to 32 inches diameter (8m). The tree often grows in a clump with many stems, up to 30 metres tall. In forests, trunks are slender, often curving before extending to a narrow, oval-shaped crown. In the open, the crown is pyramid-shaped. Birch trees are relatively fast growing and can live to about 140 years.
The obvious feature of mature birch trees (as indicated in the winter silhouettes above) is the wasquoi (rind or bark), which is white—often brightly so—and in places reddish brown in colour. The outer bark flakes in fine, papery horizontal strips that often have small black marks/ slits (lenticils) and scars. Any exposed reddish-orange inner bark will gradually turn black with age. On trees younger than five years, the bark is brown with white lenticels.
The leaf buds are conical and small, green-colored with brown edges. The leaves are alternate, triangular or egg-shaped, 1-1.5 in. long and 2-4 in. broad, with a doubly toothed edge and are dull green on top, paler with a soft down underneath.
The flowers are wind-pollinated catkins 1.5 in. long growing from the tips of twigs. The flowers are monoecious (individual flowers are either male or female, but both sexes can be found on the same plant). In the late summer, staminate flowers are preformed in catkins 2 to 2.5 cm (0.75 to 1 in) long at the ends of twigs and lateral shoots. These mature and grow in length to 4 to 10 cm (1.5 to 4 in) in the following spring. Pistillate flowers are borne in cylindrical catkins 2.5 to 5 cm (1 to 2 in) long and 8 mm (0.33 in) in diameter on the same tree. Two or three (rarely four) aments cluster on lateral spur shoots and disintegrate when mature.
The fruit matures in the fall. The mature fruit is composed of numerous tiny winged seeds packed between the catkin bracts. They drop between September and spring. The flowers are either male or female and are in narrow catkins. Female catkins are 2 to 4 centi-metres long, standing erect at the tip of the branch. Male catkins are longer and hang below the branch. The flowers appear before or at the same time as the leaves. Each tree produces thousands of seeds.
The birch has an extensive, but shallow root system.
Birch is favourite food of caw qua (a porcupine) and au misk (a beaver).
Birch bark is a winter staple food for moo sue (a moose). The nutritional quality is poor, but is important because abundant.
At tick (a white-tail deer) treat birch as a ‘secondary-choice food,’ but it is an important dietary component—they eat considerable amounts of birch leaves in the fall.
Wap puss (a hare or rabbit; particularly snowshoe hare) will browse birch seedlings.
Many birds nest in paper birch, including woodpeckers, sapsuckers [yellow-bellied sapsuckers by Audubon are pictured to the left], and vireos [by Audubon, below]. Once tapped by a yellow-bellied sapsucker, the a birch tree will be sought out by hummingbirds [Audubon, end of page].
The birch can be used to prevent stream bank erosion, protect aquatic environments, enhance wildlife, and increase biodiversity.
By the 21st century, the birch will be notably susceptible to honey fungus and to the bronze birch borer (conditions made worse by over-pruning). Birch die back will be a problem, with sparse, stunted foliage appearing near the top of a tree; branches beginning to die from the top of the tree progressively downwards; remaining foliage often stunted and chlorotic (yellow); and the tree putting out a heavy seed-set. The birch will be considered a vulnerable species in Indiana; imperiled in Illinois, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming; and critically imperiled in Colorado and Tennessee.
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What it is
Mat-heh Metoos is the Cree name of a valuable but ‘rough-looking’ tree also known as Ugly Poplar, Black Poplar, Balsam Poplar, Balm-of-Gilead, Black Cottonwood, and Populus balsamifera (or Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa, or even Populus candicans Ait.). Sometimes, in some regions it is also called Tacamahac (a Mesoamerican inspiration), or is referred to as the ‘northernmost American hardwood,’ meaning it is deciduous. As trees go, Mat-heh Metoos is hardy and fast-growing, but relatively short lived. Nevertheless, some trees as old as 135–200 years have been found.
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Mat-heh Metoos Buds: for medicinal chews, teas, drops, and ointments
Mat-heh Metoos Inner Bark: for soaps and balms
Mat-heh Metoos Wood: for fuel, cleansers, and pipes
Where to find
Mat-heh Metoos can be found growing trans-continentally on boreal and montane upland and flood plain sites. The tree is common at Red River Settlement, but confined to certain areas. Mat-heh Metoos prefers sites that can readily supply its high nutrient requirements, especially for calcium and magnesium. Relatively small, localized stands attain the best development on local flood plains, preferring moist soil that is sandy and gravelly, and able to form adventitious roots within a few days of a flood. It is not tolerant, however, of deep acidic peats and humus with a slow release of nutrients. It will not tolerate stagnant and brackish water.
How to recognize
The winter silhouettes above show both Western and Eastern balsam poplars [respectively: the narrower-crowned Populus balsamifera ssp. trichocarpa] and the wider-crowned Populus balsamifera L.] Mat-heh Metoos can grow up to 100 ft high (30 m), with a trunk of 3–6 ft (1–2 m) in diameter and with stout, spreading branches. The bark is greenish grey at the top, becoming progressively more grey in descending to the deeply furrowed base.
Poplar species will hybridize with each other, so tree forms vary across Turtle Island, but all Mat-heh Metoos are recognizable by their smell—the buds being resinous and aromatic (balsamifera from L. ‘balsam bearing’/ ‘yielding or producing a fragrant resin’). The tree gives off the characteristic fragrance most strongly in spring as the buds flower into catkins, the leaves appear, and the fruit develops.
The winter buds are large and curved with a sticky balsam-smelling resin. Flowers develop from the buds before the leaves expand in the spring—small flowers clustered together as dense catkins, with pistillate and staminate flowers on different trees.
Leaves are alternate and simple, ranging from oval to heart-shaped, but are sharp-pointed with rounded teeth, 7.5–15.0 cm long. The leaves are shiny dark green above and pale green beneath. In the fall the they turn blackish, hence the name ‘black poplar.’
The fruit—a dry, greenish-brown capsule—opens when mature, releasing seeds that are very small, numerous, and hairy. The white hairs float mature seeds through the air and, on landing, coat the ground below like cottony snow.
The roots are shallow, especially on wet soils, which makes the tree susceptible to windthrow.
Bees (including honey bees) use balsam resin for propolis—a known antibiotic—used to seal their hives against winter and intruders.
Many animals, including rodents, hares, beaver, moose, deer, elk, and ruffed grouse, eat the twigs and bark.
Insects also eat the tree, including the poplar and willow wood borer (Cryptorhynchus lapathi), poplar borer (Saperda calcarata), and bronze poplar borer (Agrilus liagrus). And the leaves are food for caterpillars of various Lepidoptera along with forest tent caterpillars, the satin moth, grey willow leaf beetle, and aspen leaf beetle. The insects, in turn, provide food for birds such as woodpeckers, orioles, chickadees, jays, warblers, grosbeaks, and waxwings.
By the 21st century Mat-heh Metoos will be used for wind-break planting and be regarded as important to agroforestry and to riparian rehabilitation. Hybrids of poplar will be used in plantations and for biomass conversion (removing carbon dioxide from the air as part of atmospheric greenhouse gas reduction). In 2015, the value of Mat-heh Metoos will be commemorated with a Canadian $20 silver coin.
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What it is
Sesepaskwut-stik is a Cree name for a tree variously known as Érable à Giguère, Red River Maple, Manitoba Maple, American Maple, Cutleaf Maple, Cut-leaved Maple, Maple Ash, Ash Maple, Ash-leaf Maple, Sugar Ash, Stinking Ash, Black Ash, Three-leaved Maple, Elf Maple, Boxelder Maple, Box elder, California Boxelder, Western Boxelder, Negundo Maple, and Acer negundo. This is a very fast-growing tree, especially in first 20 or so years, but relatively short-lived. It often has several trunks and can form impenetrable thickets.
The tree is notable for its sweet sap, which can be boiled to make a high quality syrup (an average tree will yield 15–20 litres of sap, boiling down to ½ litre of syrup), sesepaskwut (maple sugar), and sewapoo (vinegar). But there are other uses as well. The sweet inner bark can be scraped to make an emetic infusion, or can be mixed with scrapings from the inside surface of animal hides, dried, and made into candy. The twigs are hollowed out (de-pithed) to make pipe stems, bellows tubes, whistles, and even flutes. The light, close-grained, soft wood has burls and knots that make for attractive bowls, dishes, and drums. The wood is as good as Ash for heating, and cooking—though it will rot if left uncovered—the smoke reportedly having medicinal value, and the charcoal useful as fuel and for making tattoos.
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Sewapoo: making vinegar, a multipurpose ingredient
Where to find
Sesepaskwut-stik grows along lake shores, stream and river banks, seasonally flooded sites, and disturbed sites. The tree thrives in the many kinds of soils at Red River Settlement. It is hardy and tolerates cold, heat, and drought, though it is intolerant of shade.
How to recognize
Sesepaskwut-stik is small as trees go, growing up to 10–25 m (33–82 ft) tall, with trunk diameter of 30–50 cm [12–20 in.; sometimes up to 1 m (3.3 ft) in diameter].
The bark on the trunk is pale gray or light brown, scaly to deeply cleft in broad ridges.
The branches are smooth, somewhat brittle, and tend to retain a fresh green colour.
The leaves are lightish green in colour, with slightly serrate edges, and turn yellow in autumn.
The leaves are quite variable in shape. Unlike with other maple trees, the pinnately compound leaf form is the norm. There might be from three to seven leaflets [about 5–10 cm (2.0–3.9 in) long and 3–7 cm (1.2–2.8 in) wide]. But, simple leaves are occasionally present.
The flowers are small, appearing early in the spring on drooping racemes 10–20 cm (3.9–7.9 in) long. Unlike most other maples, Sesepaskwut-stik fully dioecious and both a ‘male’ and ‘female’ tree are needed for either to reproduce.
The seeds are paired samaras, each seed slender, 1–2 cm (0.39–0.79 in) long, with a 2–3 cm (0.79–1.2 in) incurved wing. They tend to drop in autumn, but might persist through winter. The seeds are prolific and fertile so as to easily propagate. The resulting shoots are green, often with a whitish to pink or violet waxy coating. They are tough and resistant to the ravages of most insects and fungus.
The roots are shallow and fibrous. In deep soils, Sesepaskwut-stik sometimes has a taproot.
The seeds are a preferred food of evening grosbeaks (and are an essential food for those birds in winter).
Both grey and red squirrels (ar thick a task) eat the seeds, as do atchitamon (chipmunks).
Au misk (beaver) will use the tree, but it is not well-liked by at tick (deer).
The trees make an effective wind-break.
The fast growth and fibrous root system suits the tree for erosion control.
By the 21st century, the trees will be found to be highly susceptible to herbicides, though they will be regarded as a species that might respond to climate change better than others.
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Featured image: illustration of Beaufoy’s Vinegar Works, Lambeth, England, 1812.
Sewapoo is the Cree word for vinegar, the English term being derived the French, vinaigre, ‘sour wine.’ It is said that First Nations have long flavoured foods with sewapoo made from maple or birch sap with the help of a wild ‘mother of vinegar.’ Vinegar production is also common in British and French settlements to the east. As early as 1804 Alexander Henry recorded having made “a nine-gallon keg of pickles, using vinegar from the Manitoba maple sap.” Birch sap is another good source. At Red River vinegar can be made at home for frequent use as a multipurpose ingredient for use in foods and dyes, as a preservative, and in cleaning.
 Douglas Leechman. “Fractious Farming at the Fur-trade Posts,” Canada’s History online (posted 7 May 2016) http://www.canadashistory.ca/Explore/Environment/Fractious-Farming-at-the-Fur-trade-Posts.
How Vinegar Forms
Vinegar is an acid that forms when wine is exposed to the air, due to the action of acetic acid bacteria that feed on the alcohol and convert it to acetic acid. When most of the alcohol has been consumed, vinegar is the result. Vinegar can, therefore, be thought of as the product of twice-fermented sugar: first sap is fermented by yeast (naturally occurring) to change the sugar into alcohol; then the alcoholic base is fermented and changed into vinegar by the ‘vinegar plant’ or ‘mother’ (Acetobacter aceti , an airborne bacteria widely found in nature that requires oxygen to function).
About Vinegar Plants and Mothers
The Acetobacters used for making vinegar at home are variously described as ‘small vegetables’, ‘plants’, ‘fungi,’ and ‘mothers.’ They can range in colour from transparent to dark. When young and floating on the surface of fermented stock, the bacteria can look delicate and leaf-like; appear as a thin and gelatinous mat; or look like a piece of loose cotton. A mature ‘mother’ resembles a thicker, leathery, pancake. The appearance of a ‘plant’ or ‘mother’ during the fermentation process is an indication of healthy conditions for vinegar development.
Acetobacters need oxygen to function, so cover fermentation containers only lightly. Cheesecloth will keep the dust out but let the air in.
Acetobacters are temperature-sensitive. If exposed to the cold, they will die. They develop and function best between 59–94°F (the optimum range being 80–85°F). They will die off at temperatures over 140°F.
About Fermented Stock for making Vinegar
Any substance that can be made into wine (including fermented fruits, honey, corn, and grain) can be used to make vinegar, and, if leftover wine from festive dinners has soured, use it—good wine makes a vinegar that is excellent for cooking. The final product will contain elements of the original stock, adding flavour.
Stock with alcohol concentrations as low as 5 percent can be used (though they are not optimal), while concentrations over 15 percent alcohol will inhibit or even stop production.
Once the fermentation process has begun, the stock should be placed in a dark spot (Acetobacters being sensitive to direct sunlight for at least 2–3 weeks), and left alone without stirring or agitation.
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· Harvest sweet sap from Manitoba Maple or birch trees [See how to harvest tree sap].
· Cover with cheesecloth, exposing the sap to the air and let it ferment.
· Leave the fermented sap longer and let nature take its course—hoping that Acetobacteria will land and grow a ‘mother’ indicative of healthy vinegar production. Be aware that results from this method are variable and cannot be guaranteed.
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· Harvest sweet sap from Manitoba Maple or birch trees.
· Boil the sap to let some of the water evaporate and raise the concentration of sugar. Raw sap can have a sugar concentration as low as 0.8–1.5 percent in birch trees and 0.8–2 percent in maple trees, so a significant rise in concentration is likely needed.
The concentration of sugar in the sap will determine whether the final vinegar product is weaker or stronger. Sap at a concentration of 10 percent sugar will make a vinegar of 5 percent acid. Sap at a concentration of 20 percent sugar will make a vinegar of 10 percent acid. A sugar concentration greater than 20 percent will take too long to ferment or will not ferment at all.
· Test the sugar concentration of the sap using an egg: it will begin to float at 15–18 percent sugar (which will make a strong vinegar).
· Obtain a clean, tight barrel, removing one of the barrel heads, and standing it with the open end up.
· Pour the sap into the standing barrel and cover the open end with cheesecloth to allow the sap to be exposed to the air.
· Let it stand. After a few days the sap will begin to ferment—the higher the temperature, the quicker the fermentation will proceed (but also the more evaporation will occur, so expect some product to be lost). After 9–10 days there will be only 2 or 4 percent sugar—the sap has turned to ‘wine’
· Continue to let it stand for a few weeks more in a dark warm place to fully ferment.
Once fermented, the ‘wine’ will begin to turn to vinegar (to speed the process, add a little soured wine, or previously-made vinegar)
· After 4 weeks test the vinegar to determine its progress. A ‘mother’ having fallen to the bottom of the barrel is an indication that the alcohol has completely fermented out of the stock and the acetic fermentation is complete. Do a smell and taste test: there should be no smell or taste of alcohol when the vinegar is done.
· Strain the vinegar to safeguard it against deterioration by removing the ‘mother.’ If the mother is left too long it can begin to rot and affect the taste.
Although the vinegar is ready for immediate use, it will have a sharp, intense taste and would improve with aging. (If watering-down freshly made vinegar, use only pure rain water).
· Reserve some of the vinegar in a barrel to keep a home vinegar factory ‘going,’ placing the barrel in a cellar that never freezes. Top it up regularly with an equal measure of rain water mixed with a little sugar and good home-made yeast, sour wine, or skimmings from jellies and preserves. Let the barrel and contents remain until warm spring weather returns, then set it upstairs to warm. In about 4 weeks of hot weather there will be a new barrel-full of vinegar.
· Decant the remainder of the fresh vinegar to airtight, sealed bottles or mason jars (with the alcohol gone, if oxygen is present the Acetobacters will break the vinegar down, reducing the acid levels and making the vinegar susceptible to spoilage).
· Age the bottled vinegar to allow its flavor to develop. Store it for at least 6 months, then gently pour off any sediment and re-bottle for use.
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· Add no more than 3 table spoons fresh herbs as seasoning for every 1 quart of vinegar (a higher herb to vinegar ratio might cause spoilage)
· Let steep for 4 weeks
· Transfer the vinegar to new sterilised bottle and seal tightly.
For those interested in the more expensive but time-saving option, Bannatyne and Begg advertise ready-made Carlton vinegar in the Nor-Wester (29 March 1868), as does Carlton itself (23 May 1868):
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Featured illustration: Animal fat crystals—fig.s 1, 2, and 4 are cow butter; fig. 3 is Muskrat fat. Source: United States, House of Representatives, Executive Documents, 2d session, 53d congress (1893–1894), 302.
Wiyin is a Cree word for animal fat. Aside from its value as food and and fuel, animal fat has long been prized for medicinal use, world-wide. The fat, easily absorbed by the skin, is readily available at Red River (where vegetable oils, such as olive oil, are not), and can be used alone in healing salves or as a base ingredient in the same.
Animal fat (raw or cooked) can mould or turn rancid (heat and light will accelerate rancidity). However, surplus amounts of animal fat can be preserved for an extended period of time by rendering. The rendering process purifies the fat of any blood, connective tissue, water, or muscle tissue (weyas/ flesh/ meat). When combined with other ingredients into such products as salve, soap, and pemmican, rendered fat can serve as a preservative (the cooking will kill bacteria and the fat coating will serve as an oxygen barrier).
Different Fats in Animals
In the animal body there are subcutaneous fat deposits (under the skin); fat deposits surrounding organs (e.g. kidney, heart); inter-muscular fat deposits (between muscles); and intramuscular deposits (between muscle-fibre bundles).
Not all animal fats are created equal. Some animal species have higher quantities of fatty tissue, and the quantity and quality of the fat can depend on the time of year and what the animals are eating. In some species the fat has a very appealing taste, in others it does not. The age of an animal can also influence the taste of fat, with older animals having a more pronounced—sometimes undesirable—flavour to their fat. The taste of fat is also affected by its freshness; whether it has been frozen; or, if it was left attached to meat—and the method by which the meat-with-fat-attached was aged (skin on or off).
Suet is the hardest fat, found around the kidneys and extending inside the loin of land animals other than pork (in which kidney fat is known as leafe lard, described below under the “Farm Animal Fat”, “Pork Fat” headings). Suet has the highest smoke point—about 200 °C/ 392 °F—of the fats found in an animal carcass. It also has the mildest, least-meaty flavour of an animal’s fats.
A note on the smoke point of fat:
After a fat has exceeded its smoke point (it smokes and emits a harsh smell) it has begun to break down and is no longer good for consumption.
Rendered suet from animals such as deer, elk, moose, bison, beef, and sheep, is called tallow (àkwukepime/ ‘hard fat’). Whether a rendered fat is known as tallow or not is determined by the titre scale—tallows do not melt until above 40 °C.
For animals in which the fat is considered good tasting, suet can be picked apart (carefully, to remove as much of the ‘silver skin’ connective tissue and any veins as is humanly possible) then crumbled, shredded, grated, or ground for use in baking—in biscuits, dumplings, minced pies, and boiled puddings for example. (Grating and grinding some of the softer suets into finely textured particles is perhaps easiest to do if chunks are frozen. If baking with shredded suet in excessively hot circumstances, it should be dredged with flour to keep a granulated, as opposed to creamy texture.) Be aware that suet can leave a waxy feel as it hardens on lips and coats the mouth if used as a general cooking fat. This feature is not as noticeable when baked goods are warm as it can be when they are eaten cold. Generally, the whitest suet is best for baking (it yellows with age and takes on a stronger flavor).
Back Fat, Side Fat, &c.
For animals in which the fat is considered good tasting, back fat is possibly the second most preferred fat for cooking (as with pork for example)—though any subcutaneous or intramuscular fat can be good. These fats can be rendered and preserved for future use, much like tallow. However, the rendered product of these fats will not harden to the same degree as tallow—making them more suitable than tallow for some uses and less suitable for others.
Wisih (Caul Fat)
Caul fat a.k.a. abdominal fat is perhaps the least-preferred fat for cooking. It is contained within a fatty membrane (the omentum), which drapes around the organs. For animals in which the various body fats are considered good tasting, caul fat can be used to wrap cuts of meat before roasting, to keep them from drying out and toughening during cooking.
Us can (Bone) Marrow Fat
Bone marrow is about 90% fat. Marrow fat is harvested by breaking open large leg bones rendering the marrow (either by scooping marrow from bones and melting it, or by boiling the bones in water, then skimming the rendered fat (pimis) off the surface to make oscan pimis. At Red River, rendered buffalo marrow fat is a prized preserve, described as “sweet as any butter” (marrow fat from other animals can taste more or less ‘gamey’).
Wild Game Fats
Mus qua (Bear) Fat
Bear fat is used for cooking and baking, raw or rendered. When rendered it can be used to make a salve (alone or as a base) for dry and chapped skin, joint and muscle pain, minor bruises and burns; weatherproofing leather; and as a chest rub; seam sealant (with pine pitch) for canoes; gun oil; lamp oil; mosquito repellent; hair pomade; treatment of head lice; protecting skin against cold weather; saddle conditioner; paint (mixed with pigment); and applying to sacred objects.
At tick (Deer), Wawakāsew (Elk), and Mouswa (Moose) Fat
Deer fat (‘jumping’ or white-tailed deer) is considered inedible by some, due to the pungent flavor and waxy-coating left in the mouth. Elk fat can be similarly waxy and an ‘acquired taste’ for eating, but Moose fat is generally considered good tasting. Deer, elk, and moose fat are not usually used in baking. But being extremely gamey or waxy does not prevent deer fat from forming excellent tallow for non-eating purposes. When rendered, deer fat hardens better than beef tallow. It is the preferred tallow to use in making Osimisk Salve.
Generally the suitability of Elk fat for eating (or of any other animal fat for that matter), can be determined by a sight and smell test: if it is white, heat a small piece in a pan with a little water until it melts to pimis (oil/ melted fat), if it smells good, it will taste good.
Moose fat is rendered to make tallow for pemmican. Oil rendered from moose fats is used as a medicinal ingredient.
Moos-toosh (Buffalo) fat
Buffalo fat is principally known for its use in making pemmican. The marrow fat is highly prized in rendered form. Any surplus of both products can be readily traded or sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Farm Animal Fats
Coo coosh (Pork) Fat
Kidney fat harvested from pigs is known as wesĕ (leafe fat), rather than suet, as the leafe fat has a significantly lower smoke point (190 °C/ 374 °F). Rendered leafe fat, known lard, is much softer than tallow, though the rendering process is the same.
Leafe fat doesn’t have a pork flavor, while the other pork fats have a subtle taste. Be aware that in some instances pork leafe fat and lard do not make a satisfactory substitute for suet and tallow—even if they look the same.
Maychick (Sheep) and Mayachikoos (Lamb) Fat
Sheep fat smells and tastes distinctly ‘muttony,’ so is not a fat of choice for making pastry and puddings—some people dislike the ‘rangy’ taste intensely. Lamb fat is considered more palatable, though an acquired taste. The rendered tallow from sheep is good for candles, soap, and as a rust preventative for tools.
Fat from Moostoosweyas (Cattle)
At Red River the suet from slaughtered cattle was widely used for making tallow—a multipurpose ingredient.
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Pimis (melted fat) is rendered from wiyin (raw fat). Despite different names and properties, the basic rendering process is the same no matter what kind fat is used—though different fats will behave differently.
· Trim off any pieces of muscle, tendon, blood vessels, and connective tissue still attached to the fat, as it can cause the fat to spoil.
· Cut the pieces of fatty tissue into smaller chunks and chop them very fine. This will take time to do well.
· Have a low temperature fire ready (200–250ºF/ 100ºC). Lower-temperature rendering will result in a whiter, milder, and cleaner product compared to what is obtained with high-heat rendering.
· Place the fat in a heavy pan.
· Place the pan near (not directly on) the fire—set far enough away from the fire that it does not fry, but only melts (frying will cook the connective tissue, imparting a meaty taste to the rendered fat). Throughout the process, DO NOT let the fat boil over or splash on the fire—it will ignite and/ or splatter, both of which can burn one’s skin badly.
· Depending on the circumstance, choose either of the following methods:
Dry rendering: render pure fat. It is ready when most of the fatty tissue has given up its fat content. There will be small, dry-looking, and browned sekusakunuk (‘cracklings’) in a bath of clear fat. Watch that the sekusakunuk do not burn, as that will impart a burnt taste to the final product.
Wet rendering: render fat with water added (2 cups water per lb of fat), so as not to have to watch it as closely. Let it simmer a long time. (A pot with 3 lbs of fat may take 5 or 6 hours; a pot with 6 lbs of fat may take 9 hours.) When all the water has boiled off there will be small bits (like cracklings, but not as dry or crispy looking) floating in clear fat. The small bits may begin to burn after this point, ruining the flavour, so watch them carefully and reduce the heat.
· As the fat melts it can be ladled off and strained through linen or cheesecloth into a clean pan (if left to cool before being put into containers) or strained directly into a glazed earthenware pot with a lid (if available), separating out the sekusakunuk (cracklings or small bits). BE VERY CAREFUL to avoid severe burning of one’s skin.
· If dry rendering, keep the sekusakunuk—they are tasty. If wet rendering, the small bits will have to be fried to get appetisingly crispy.
· Let the rendered fat cool. It will turn from clear to opaque and the colour might range from white to a slightly darker off-white.
· The yield will be roughly one pint per pound of fat, though fat with more impurities (such as back fat) will have a lower yield.
· Pot the rendered fat into closely-covered containers (or put the lid on the glazed earthenware pot).
· Store in a cool, dry place—moisture may lead to mould. The fat might keep for as long as a year if a little salt is sprinkled with it, but it might also turn rancid (sâsteyâw) at any time. When fat goes rancid it is oxidizing, not rotting. Unless it smells badly it can still be used for non-ingested products and purposes.
~ •• ♦ •• Àkwukepime (Tallow) •• ♦ •• ~
Àkwukepime is rendered from wiko (suet).
· Harvest suet from buffalo, beef cattle, sheep, deer, elk, moose, bear, or even poultry. The suet will peel off very easily from the kidneys, but has a thin veil of silver skin or connective tissue surrounding it. Pick off this skin (and any vein-like bits) as much as possible (they are definitely not wanted when using raw suet), but if some is left on when rendering, it will melt away.
· Place the suet in a clean saucepan, beside a fire but not over it—set far enough away from the fire that it does not fry, but only melts (frying will cook the connective tissue, imparting a meaty taste to the rendered fat). Complete melting may take several hours.
· When melted, after the fat is completely liquefied, stain it through a sieve or a clean cloth. In rendering tallow, the sekusakunuk (particles of connective tissue, a.k.a graves) that are separated out can be tossed to the dogs.
· Pour the clear melted fat into a pan of cold water where it will harden into a cake of tallow.
· Remove the hardened tallow cake from the water and wipe it dry.
· Wrap the tallow cake in fine paper, then in an linen bag.
· The tallow will keep for up to a year if kept in a cool, dry place.
The tallow cake can be shaved for making pie crusts; grated for puddings and dumplings; melted for deep frying and for sealing jars of preserved fruit or jams; or used in making candles, salves, and soaps (among other things—see Akwâtchi-pimiy recipes).
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Wesĕ (leafe lard) is the fat from around a pig’s kidneys. It is the cleanest fat on the animal. The fat’s low level of polyunsaturated fatty acid means that it doesn’t turn rancid easily and is very heat stable, making it great for frying. Rendered properly, it will give a pure white, odorless lard to use for your pastries.
· Follow the same basic procedure as in the wet method for rendering fat, bearing in mind that rendering leafe lard can take practice to get just right.
· Once the leafe lard melts and separates from the cracklings (which will settle to the bottom), begin skimming off the liquid fat—if it is left too long the cracklings will start to burn, which will result in a lard that is deep yellow, with a fried pork smell and taste.
· Strain the liquid lard into containers and let cool and stiffen.
· The remaining cracklings can be fried for a brown and crispy treat.
Illustration, “Sow of the improved breed,” (1820). Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-1266-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
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At camp in the early 20th century with utensils familiar to 19th-century cooks, including two kettles.
Represented variously in Cree as: Ar skùk, Usik, and Askik
The French-language term for a kettle was une chaudière, which translates as ‘a boiler.’
In 1743 James Isham transcribed the Cree word for kettle as ‘Ar skùk.’ Isham, however, wrote ‘warsh’ for wash, which indicates he meant a ‘roll’ or an expirated sound should be understood whenever he used the letter ‘r’ in writing Cree words. That surmise is supported by the common observation that the ‘r’ sound is absent from Cree dialects. In 1865 Rev. E.A. Watkins transcribed the Cree word for kettle as ‘Usik.’ Both Isham and Watkins were familiar with pronunciations that travelled to, and thrived at Red River Settlement. By 1874, with the settlement supplanted by Manitoba, the transcription ‘Askik’ figured in Cree dictionaries that recorded dialects spoken west of the new province’s boundaries to 1995.
Varieties of Kettles available to Red River Settlers
New ~: Ooskuskik (Watkins 1865).
Small ~: Uskikoos (Watkins 1865).
Large ~ or Cauldron/ Chaudron: Mistuskik (Watkins 1865); Nabakaskik (Beaudet 1995). The French, le chaudron, has transmuted into the present-day Michif, ‘la shadroon.’
Copper ~: Eynuskik (Watkins 1865).
Iron ~: Piwapiskwâskik (Beaudet 1995).
Iron ~, with a spout shaped like a duck’s beak: Sisipâskik (Beaudet 1995).
Tin ~/ Chaudière de fer-blanc: Wapuskik (Watkins, 1865); Wâbiskik (Lacombe 1874); Wapâskik (Beaudet 1995).
A ‘One Beaver’ Kettle: Piuc aurtie ar skuk (Isham, 1743).
A typical HBC ‘trade kettle’ made c. 1830 of hammered brass with iron trim and a diameter of 52 cm.
‘Mrs. Graham,’ a migrant from Canada c. 1871, recalled that for the journey: “I had to choose between [bringing] the boiler and a big brass pot, so I chose the pot. It served me for everything—washing, boiling, mixing bread—and when it wasn’t actually being used, I polished it and kept it up on a shelf.” [Source: W.J. Healy, Women of Red River: being a book written from the recollections of women surviving from the Red River era (Winnipeg: Russell, Lang and Co., 1923), 256.]
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Featured image: illustration, “Deadly Attack of a Wolf upon a Man, and Heroic Conduct of the Man’s Wife.” Source: New York Public Library Digital Collection.
Represented variously in Cree as: Che ka he gan, Shegaygan, Seegaygan, Che-ki-e-gun, and Chekùhikun or Ooètask
Known in French as hache, the axe was “One of the most necessary tools for a new and agricultural country.” Among other uses (of which saving a husband by killing a wolf did not normally count), an axe was indispensable to home cooking, since cooks relied on split firewood. And, “An industrious woman could burn off as many dry, fallen logs in a day as a strong man could … cut with an axe in two or three.” [Quotes from Eighty Years’ Progress of the United States: A Family Record of American Industry, Energy and Enterprise (Hartford CT: L. Stebbins, 1869), 21, 341].
Illustration of man exhausted after chopping wood. Source: New York Public Library Digital Collection.
The Cree word for axe was recorded as: che ka he gan, meaning an axe or hatchet (Isham 1743); shegaygan (Mackenzie 1801); seegaygan (Lewis 1806); che-ki-e-gun (Harmon 1820); and chekùhikun or ooètask (Watkins 1865).
Axes and hatchets used at Red River reflected a continuation of axes imported as trade items, as well as North-American stylistic innovations perhaps inspired by Indigenous craftsmanship.
It is possible that a Basque axe was the first to be traded up the River of Canada/ St. Lawrence—as early as 1500 [see documentary, “Curse of the Axe,” History Television (broadcast 9 July 2012)].
Archeologically better-known early trade axes were imported in the 17th century from France, England, and Holland and proved to be popular trade items. These were tree-felling axes long-used in Europe [photo from Henry Chapman Mercer, Ancient carpenters’ tools, illustrated and explained, together with the implements of the lumberman, joiner and cabinet maker, in use in the eighteenth century (Doylestown PA: Bucks County Historical Society, 1929).]
Because the French entered the North American trade before the English, the oldest surviving axe heads are probably French, though many trade axes were apparently originally manufactured in the Netherlands.
A number of trade axe heads of different sizes and shapes, dating from the late 1600’s to the mid 1700’s, were recovered in 1961 at Double Rapids on the French River out of Lake Nipissing and afterwards curated by the Royal Ontario Museum [four sample heads are shown below].
Axe heads were fashioned of iron. Usually about 8–9 inches long, they weighed nearly 4 pounds apiece. Although the contours of individual axe heads could vary, the essential style remained unchanged to about 1720 or 1740.
The sides of axe heads were impressed with marks known as ‘smith-stamps’, ‘makers marks,’ and ‘touch marks.’ [This drawing of maker’s marks appears in Bonnie L. Gums, Archaeology at French colonial Cahokia (Springfield IL: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, 1988), 186.]
The heads were hand-forged by folding a single sheet of iron in half around a cylinder, then forge-welding the halves together to form a single bit (blade) with an ‘eye,’ at the heel of the fold where the cylinder had been, into which an ar tick (axe helve/ handle; Isham 1743) could be fitted.
From about 1740, North American-made axes became more common. Individual blacksmiths produced trade axe heads for the fur trade in several different sizes. Purchasers of axe heads, whether First Nations, Métis, or non-Indigenous engagés and voyageurs, often carved their own helves.
Illustrated examples of curved handles employed by Iroquois warriors. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Mikan nos. 3025438 and 3025436.
Over time, a curved contour—such as was seen in Indigenous-made handles for some tools—became increasingly the norm.
Axes manufactured in the United States became distinctive, both in terms of relatively short-bitted axe-head shapes, and in the helves. By the 1850s machine-carved, curved helves were being manufactured in America.
By 1860 the cheap, curved, factory-made helves were widely available in North America—straight handles having virtually disappeared. To as late as the 1890s, however, the curved-handle innovation was not found in European-made axes (photo of American axes from Mercer, Ancient carpenters’ tools).
According to advertisements printed in the Nor’-Wester, by 1861 axes and hatchets—presumably American-made—were among the items available to Red River settlers from D. C. Jones’ Agricultural Warehouse at St. Paul MN.
Illustration showing all members of a family contributing to the work of preparing food at a North American settlement. Source: New York Public Library Digital Collection.
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Chicken of the Woods: edible tree fungus
Mat-heh Metoos: Balsam Poplar
Sesepaskwut-stik: Manitoba Maple
Uskepwawe: Aski-pawah/ Prairie Turnip/ Wild Potato
Wiyin: Animal Fat
Tuckahoe: a mystery fungus
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Featured illustration: Isaac Sprague, lithograph “Prairie Turnip,” in George L. Goodale, The Wild Flowers of America (Boston: Bradlee Whidden, 1886), plate 20.
Uskepwawe, a Cree word for potato, is used at Red River to name a tuber known in English both as the ‘wild potato’ and as the ‘prairie turnip’ (the scientific name being Psoralea esculenta). Elsewhere on Turtle Island/ North America, however, the names prairie turnip and wild potato differentiate two separate plants.
As the discussion below indicates, care must be taken to determine what plant is being harvested because:
- in many different locations not only are the names prairie turnip and/ or wild potato applied to entirely different plants;
- there are over a hundred varieties of true wild potato, and some plants known as wild potato can be dangerous to eat;
- some plants that are edible may be hard to distinguish from plants that are toxic;
- some parts of a plant (e.g. roots) may only be edible when cooked properly; and
- while some parts of a plant might be edible (e.g. roots), other parts of that same plant can be poisonous (e.g. seeds).
Uskepwawe ‘Prairie Turnip’ or ‘Wild Potato’ (Psoralea esculenta/ Pediomelum esculentum).
Uskepwawe is an important vegetable of the Plains and the West. A perennial legume, it is related to the garden pea, and native to prairies and dry woodlands of central North America. The plant’s large, edible, tuberous root—or group of roots—is relatively high in protein (9 percent), sugar (5 percent), and starch (70 percent), as well as containing vitamins A and C and dietary minerals. The root resembles the sweet potato, has an ‘agreeable’ smell, and is harvested by plains peoples as a staple, starchy, sweetish food. Once shown the plant, newly arrived Selkirk Settlers subsisted chiefly on prairie turnip over the summer of 1813 at Red River.
Throughout its range Uskepwawe may be known variously as:
- Aski-pawah [in Cree–English/ Bungi, spoken at Red River Settlement]
- M’as [in Siksisaitsitapi, spoken by Blackfoot peoples];
- Tipsin/ Tipsinnah/ Teepsenee/ Tinpsila [names used by Očhéthi Šakówiŋ peoples, including Assiniboine/ Stoney];
- Pomme Blanche/ Pomme de Prairie [by French-speakers];
- Breadroot/ Breadroot Scurfpea/ Indian Apple/ Indian Turnip/ Large Indian Breadroot/ ‘Memomine‘/ Prairie Apple/ Prairie Potato/ Prairie Turnip/ Wild Potato/ Wild Turnip [by English-speakers].
The uskepwawatikwa (above-ground top of the plant/ shaw) stands upright at about 6 in. (15 cm) to 18 in. above ground and is covered, more or less densely, in whitish hairs. The leaves are palmately compound, usually with 5 pointed ovate leaflets that are about ½ in. wide and 1 in. long, dotted with pores and hairy on the underside.
The small, purplish-blue to yellowish, pea-like flowers of May and June bloom in densely clustered spikes about 4 in. (10 cm) long, then become tiny beaked pods containing large, oblong seeds, up to 1 cm in length, that range in colour from olive green to dark brown, often spotted purple.
The roots, “many as large as the egg of a goose, and … some of even larger dimensions” (Hind, 17 July 1858), are harvested in summer while the uskepwawatikwa (plant top) is still attached and can signal root location. Later in the season, the uskepwawatikwa dries and breaks off in the wind to tumble away across the prairie, scattering seeds. When that happens the roots, nestled about 4 in. below ground, are difficult to find—except perhaps for Grizzly Bears of the Plains, who, having a fondness for the vegetable, sniff them out and dig them up to eat.
Uskepwawe roots can be peeled and eaten raw; roasted fresh over the coals of a fire; boiled fresh and served with meat; cooked in a meat stew; pounded into meal and cooked; pounded fine and made into pudding flavoured with saskatoon berries or buffalo berries, or added to breads, cakes, gravies, porridges, and soups; cut into shreds and sun dried; or braided by the stringy root-ends and hung to dry for winter use, for trade, or as a ceremonial item (for example in Blackfoot Sundances).
Plants also known as Wild Potato that might be found at Red River
W.J. Healy, author of Women of Red River (1923), based some of his content on notes taken during an interview with Elizabeth Setter-Norquay, who had grown up at the settlement. According to Healy’s transcript, Elizabeth mentioned both wild potato “which the Indians call aski-pawah,” and wild turnip as readily available at Red River (Healy 154). It is not clear from his text whether Healy confused Elizabeth Setter-Norquay’s references: did she mean one plant with two English-language names, or two distinct plants? If she meant that two plants with edible roots were present, it is possible that in addition to Uskepwawe/ Aski-pawah (Wild Turnip—which Setter-Norquay apparently called Wild Potato), the people of Red River harvested Wabessepin (an Anishinaabemowin-derived name for Wild Potato); Hopniss (Apios americana); or even Goldencreeper (also known as Wild Potato). None of these are ‘native’ to the settlement area, but any or all could have been introduced at various times, with unknown degrees of success or failure (as could some of the other plants described further below).
Wabessepin/ Wild Potato (genus Solanum)
There are many species of wild potato (at least 151 known), ancestral relatives of the cultivated potato. Cultivated potato and its wild relatives belong to the genus Solanum of the family Solanaceae—the Nightshade family.
A note on taxonomic family diversity: the Nightshade family/ Solanaceae has 90 genera and 3000–4000 species that vary greatly in habit and distribution over all continents excepting Antarctica.
The genus Solanum has 1000–1500 species, about 1000 of which might have originated in the Americas. The genus includes herbs, shrubs, trees, and herbaceous or woody vines—often with spines or prickles—in addition to the wild potato (S. tuberosum L./ Solanum L. sect. Petota Dumort.) and such familiar plants as eggplant (S. melongena), sweet pepper (Capsicum annuum L.), and tomato (S. lycopersicum). Many other members of the genus are cultivated for medicinal and ornamental uses—e.g. petunia (Petunia hybrid L.) and tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum L.).
Wild potato/ Solanum L. sect. Petota Dumort. is a group that presents taxonomic difficulties and disputes—not least of which is the circumstance that some have been cultivated by people/ and or have hybridized (by the plants’ own innate abilities) with cultivated varieties at unknown places and times back through pre-Contact societies (see, for example, this article on a 10,900 year old Solanum jamesii plant, which produced small wild potatoes in what is now Utah). It is therefore difficult to know whether a ‘wild’ variety has in fact had a ‘domesticated’ history.
The tuber known as sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas (L.) Lam. var. batatas) belongs to a separate family (Convolvulaceae).
Deadly Nightshade (Atropa belladonna) does not belong to genus Solanum, but does belong to the wider Solanaceae family.
Wild varieties of potato are native to the southwestern portion of Turtle Island/ North America, ranging south through Peru and Bolivia (where they are concentrated) to southern Chile. In that range, they can be found growing in diverse soils and climates—dry desert, valleys, and at high altitudes (4,200 m above sea level). The wild tubers are small, of various colours and shapes, and are nutritious.
Because Red River Settlement is positioned in a northern portion of Turtle Island, wild varieties of potato do not survive the cold winters on their own. If a wild potato is obtained by way of trade and then planted, they must be harvested and the seed potatoes stored carefully to guard against freezing if they are to grow the following year.
Well before ‘official’ settlement, the potato grown at Red River was a round and white skinned variety first introduced and cultivated by First Nations farmers at Peguis’ settlement. While it is possible their seed came from Indigenous sources, it seems more probable that the variety was one imported by and obtained from fur traders (for example the variety known as ‘English White’).
Hopniss (Apios americana)Other names for this plant include: Ahe kamassa (Choctaw)/ Ahpenya (Fox)/ Akkalv (Creek)/ American groundnut/ America-hodoimo/ Blo (Teton)/ Chaplet (New France)/ Cinnamon Vine/ Ɂc’akame’li (Tunica)/ Groundnut (which is not to be confused with other plants sometimes known by that name)/ Hanke (Oregon)/ Hapniss (Delaware)/ Hobbenac (Delaware)/ Hobbiness (Delaware)/ Hodoimo (Japanese)/ Indian Potato/ Its (Pawnee)/ Kan-shack ahe (Choctaw)/ Ko’nan a’yip (Atakapa)/ Mdo (Dakota)/ Mûkwo’pini (Potawatomi)/ Noa (Missouri)/ Nu (Omaha-Ponco)/ Nu’na igatehi (Cherokee)/ OɁpenya (Shawnee)/ Ochnenáta (Onondaga)/ Ocká:hî (Mikasuki)/ Okeepenauk (Algonquin)/ Omen-e-cha/ Openauk (Algonquin)/ Ophen (Menomini)/ Oppin (Ojibwa)/ Ouhpunnauk (Powhatan)/ Pénacs (Algonquian)/ Penninaugh (Powhatan)/ Pomme de Terre (New France)/ Potato Bean/ Potato Pea/ Ppan (Penobscot)/ Sagabon (Metoac Algonquin)/ Schoneschironon (Iroquois)/ Tdo (Winnebago)/ Tucaha (reputed)/ Uli (Cherokee)/ White Apple/ vh-aklowahe (Creek)/ Wild Bean.
Hopniss (Apios americana; occasionally as Apios tuberosa, and Glycine apios)—belonging to the Fabaceae or Leguminosae family so not actually a potato—is a perennial with large edible tubers and a vine bearing edible beans.
In botanical terms, the tubers are not roots, but rhizomatous stems.
The vine may grow to 1–6 m in length.
The leaves are arranged with 5–7 leaflets that are 8–15 cm long.
The flowers, dense racemes 7.5–13 cm long, tend to be pink, purple, or red-brown. These produce pods that are 5–13 cm long.
Hopniss (Apios americana), is not native to the Red River region but has long been used as food by First Nations to the south (east, west, and central)—as evident by the names above.
In some places at some times, hopniss was the most popularly consumed tuber. And, conceivably, planting hopniss could have been tried at the Red River settlement from time to time.
- Some example mentions of Indigenous peoples as making use of the plant for food include observations about:
• Algoquin peoples of North Carolina by Thomas Harriott in 1590, who wrote: “Openauk are a kind of roots of round forme, some of the bigness of walnuts, some far greater, which are found in moist and marshy grounds growing many together one by another in ropes, or as thogh [sic] they were fastened with a string. Being boiled or sodden they are very good meat.”
• The Sixth Tribe of the Second Division of Iroquois, identified in the Paris Documents of 1666 as the people known as “that of the Potatoe, which they call Schoneschironon,” the document including an illustration of tubers with the explanation: “This is the manner they paint the tribe of the Potatoe.” Writing in 1910, Parker was of the opinion that Iroquois had consumed significant quantities of groundnuts until about 30 years previous.
• ‘Indians’ by Pehr/ Pietari/ Peter Kalm in 1749, who wrote: “Hopniss or Hapniss was the Indian name of a wild plant, which they ate at that time … The roots resemble potatoes, and were boiled by the Indians who ate them instead of bread.”
• “Delaware tribes”, “Missouri tribes”, “Southern tribes”, “Oregon tribes”, and Creeks by Constatine Samuel Rafinesque in 1828, who noted the Delaware term was Hopniss; the Missouri term, Noa; and Oregon term, Hanke; while the ‘Southern tribes’ used the term Tucaha.
• Lenâpé by Daniel Garrison Brinton in 1885, who wrote: “Of wild fruits and plants they consumed the esculent and nutritious tubers on the roots of the Wild Bean, Apios tuberosa … which the Indians called hobbenis.”
• Caddoan and Siouan tribes of the Missouri river region by Melvin Randoph Gilmore in 1919.
• Menomini, who peeled the tubers and dried them in the sun on scaffolds of cedar bark covered with mats, to preserve for winter use. They would also sometimes dried the tubers in maple syrup or make a preserve by boiling them in maple syrup.
• Potawatomi, who traditionally boiled the tubers.
• Meskwaki and Chippewa, who would peel, parboil, slice, and dry the tubers—the Chippewa known for using them as a seasoning in other foods.
[See also Daniel F. Austin, Florida Ethnobotony (New York: CRC Press, 2004), 97–100; and Sam Thayer, “Hopniss: North America’s best wild tuber? Also Known as Indian Potato or Groundnut,” The Forager 2, 3 (Summer/ Fall 2002), unpaginated, c. 3pp.]
Goldencreeper/ Wild Potato (Thladiantha dubia/ Thladiantha dubia Bunge/ Thladianthe douteuse)
This plant is also known as: Manchu Tubergourd/ Red Hailstone.
Goldencreeper, a member of the Cucurbitaceae family, is neither a potato nor native to the Red River region. However, it was introduced as an ornamental from Europe to North American settlements [QC, ON, MB] during the latter half of the 19th century. Subsequently it spread and persisted.
This climbing plant resembles young plants of Wild Cucumber. The leaves are roughly haired and heart shaped. The plant climbs by tendrils and exhibits bright yellow flowers from July to September.
In North America, this perennial reproduces almost exclusively from fleshy, round or oblong underground tubers (having only male, pollen-producing flowers, viable-seed producing female plants apparently not having been introduced).
A plant can produce green, yellowish-orange, or red fleshy berries.
The tubers look similar to potatoes but must be processed (not just boiled) to be edible. They are said to aid in restoring health, improving the movement of bile, acting as a diuretic, and may be useful in increasing lactation. The raw fruit are edible and very sweet when fully ripe and aromatic. The fruit should be consumed in small amounts if raw, however, to avoid throat irritation. When subjected to a long boiling, the fruit is safer to eat in larger quantities.
Plants not to be confused with Uskepwawe
Silverleaf Indian Breadroot (Psoralea argophylla/ Pediomelum argophyllum)
Also known as Silverleaf Scurf Pea/ [mistakenly as] Carolina Vetch, this perennial herb species (related to Uskepwawe/ Aski-pawah/ Psoralea esculenta) is native to the grasslands and understories of treed areas of the central plains region.
The roots are edible raw or cooked and can be dried and ground into a powder to be used in soups or with cereals for making bread—though the roots not harvested overly often, usually only when other food proves scarce.
The plant blossoms in late summer with blue flowers. The leaves, which vary in colour from green to silver, can be used to treat wounds. The tough green stems can be made into a basket. With the end of growing season, the stem snaps off and the plant joins the ranks of prairie ‘tumbleweeds’.
Little Breadroot (Psoralea hypogaea/ Pediomelum hypogaeum)
This perennial herb species is closely related to Uskepwawe/ Prairie Turnip (Psoralea esculenta). But, Little Breadroot (Psoralea hypogaea/ Pediomelum hypogaeum) is stemless, while Uskepwawe (Psoralea esculenta) has a distinct flowering stem. The short, round roots of the Little Breadroot are, however, likewise edible—if on the small side.
The plant, also known as the Little Indian Breadroot or Subterranean Indian Breadroot, flowers from the end of May into June.
It might be familiar to some residents of Red River of the North who travel south and westerly to Wyoming and Montana, but is largely confined to the black soil prairies of Texas and Red River of the South.
Wild Turnip (Arisaema triphyllum L./ Ariséma triphylle)
This plant, variously called Dragon Turnip/ Indian Turnip/ Marsh Turnip/ Meadow Turnip/ Swamp Turnip is also known as Arum/ Bog Onion/ Brown Dragon/ Devil’s Ear/ Dragonroot/Indian Jack-in-the-pulpit/ Jack-in-the-pulpit/ Priest’s Pintle/ Wakerobin.
It is a perrenial, native to woodlands of eastern North America—from Nova Scotia to Minnesota, and south into Florida and Texas.
The plant flowers from April to June, ultimately producing clustered, scarlet berries.
The corm (root) is sometimes gathered for medicinal use. Care must be taken in handling the plant, however, because the rootstocks can inflict severe imflamation of the skin.
Reputedly, some medicines take advantage of the plant’s toxins for use in: skin ointments to treat rheumatism; poultices for snakebites and eye treatments; and tonics to treat bronchitis or to induce sterility.
The strongly acrid or peppery taste and burning reaction of the raw roots can be eliminated it they are properly dried or cooked (by roasting—boiling does little to remove acridity) before eating. The peeled root, once ground, dried, and roasted can be used to make a bread with a chocolate-like flavor. Thinly sliced roots when roasted as chips make edible, chocolate-flavored wafers.
Indian Turnip (Lithospermum incisum/ Lithospemrum linearifolium [a.k.a. Batschia linearifolia (Goldie) Small/ L. angustifolium Michx./ L. linearifolium Goldie/ L. mandanense Spreng])
This plant is also known as Fringed Puccoon [from the Algonquian word ‘poken’ for plants that yield dyes]/ Grémil incisé/ Indian Paint/ Fringed Gromwell/ Narrow-leaved Gromwell/ Narrowleaf Puccoon/ Plains Stoneseed/ Stoneseed/ Yellow Puccoon.
Varieties are perennial and native to North America—most in the East. Nevertheless, Lithospermum incisum and L. linearifolium are also found blossoming from April to June on dry soils of the plains, up the foothills, and once past the mountains, along the Pacific Slope (but absent from the coast).
Indian Turnip (Lithospermum incisum/ Lithospemrum linearifolium) is not generally harvested as food, but has other uses:
- purported medicinal properties include sedative, antihemorraghic, stimulant (to revive a paralyzed limb), and contraceptive; useful for treating colds, coughs, sore throat, temporary irrationality (leaves and stem pounded to a powder, brewed as a tea and applied to face and head), stomachache, kidney and thyroid problems; and as a wash for eyes, skin infections, and swelling;
- taproots, dried and pulverized, are used to make red dye;
- the seeds make beads for jewelry;
- the dried roots and stems are burned for ceremonial purposes (Blackfoot).
Wild Potato (Hedysarum alpinum, a.k.a.: H. alpinum ssp. americanum/ H. alpinum var. alpinum/ H. alpinum var. americanum/ H. alpinum var. grandiflorum/ H. alpinum var. philoscia/ H. americanum/ H. caucasicum/ H. hedysaroides/ H. philoscia/ H. sibiricum/ H. truncatum)
Otherwise known as: Alaska Carrot/ Alpine Hedysarum/ Alpine Sweet Broom/ Alpine Sweet Vetch/ American Sweet Vetch/ Bear Root (though another plant by that name is poisonous)/ Eskimo Potato/ Indian Potato/ Indian Sweet Potato/ Licorice root/ Masru/ Sweetbroom
The plant is found throughout the northern latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere and is widespread in North America in the boreal and northern temperate climates on floodplains, grasslands, dry forests, tundra, and taiga.
The long fleshy roots, sometimes over ½ in. (1 cm) thick, are edible raw if harvested in early spring as sources of dietary fibre. These can preserved in wiyin (fat) and stored in roggins (birch bark baskets), placed in a root cellar or even in a hole covered over with moss and leaves for later use.
Stored roots and those harvested later (into early winter) can be cooked by boiling in soups, roasting, or frying and are said to taste like young carrots. Cooked roots served with wiyin and berries prevent constipation; steeped fried-root tea can be used as supplement for babies having trouble nursing. Preserved roots can be used as a trade item.
Wild Potato (Hedysarum alpinum) is eaten by diverse animals including: bears, buffalo, and moose along with smaller mammals, such as voles and short-tailed weasels.
Wild Potato (Calochortus macrocarpus Dougl.)
The English-language name was translated from interior Salish groups from the Ktunaxa to the Tsilhqut’in—the proto-Salish name being S-qawts. The plant is also known as Desert Lily/ Mariposa Lily/ Sweet Onion.
If venturing west from Red River, the plant can be found flourishing east of the Coast range, south of Williams Lake, in the interior Plateau, and in the Columbia and Kootenay River valleys
This perennial is recognizable by its striking lavender or pink, three-petalled flowers born singly or in pairs. Below ground there is a small tapering, deep-seated bulb that may be harvested from April to June.
The crisp, sweet bulbs can be eaten raw or steamed. Both kinds of bulb can be threaded and dried for later use or trade.
Wild Potato (Sagittaria latifolia)
Plant names include Broadleaf Arrowhead/ Duck Potato/ Indian Potato/ Wapato [Chinook].
Sagittaria latifolia, native to the Americas, has been introduced and become naturalized in Hawaii, Bhutan, Australia and much of Europe.
The plant spreads to form dense colonies on very wet soils along rivers, ponds, and lakes, but will mix more sparsely with other species in deeper water.
The buds of late summer and the fruits (seeds) are edible.
The tubers are edible, but ducks are not avid consumers, despite the name. The tubers being too deeply buried, ducks tend to eat only the seeds. Animals such as Au misk (Beaver), Muskrat, and Caw qua (Porcupine), however, will eat the entire plant.
People eat the tubers raw or cooked (e.g. roasted, fried, or boiled), the taste being comparable to potatoes and chestnuts. The tubers can also be sliced, dried, and pounded to into flour.
~ •• ♦ •• ⊕ •• ♦ •• ~
Radway and Company of New York advertised its Ready Relief cure-all in Red River’s local newspapers, the Nor’-Wester (1860–1869) and the New Nation (1870). The claims were extravagant, and homemade natural remedies were available, but it seems there were sales nonetheless, as the ads ran from 1860 through to 1870 (see copies below)—with the addition of advertising for Radway’s Sarsaparillian [sic] Resolvent (also below).
Richard G. Radway “discovered” a formula for Ready Relief in about 1847. He went into business with his brother John in 1848: as J. & R.G. Radway & Co.; changed the name to Dr. Radway and Co.; then eventually settled on simply Radway and Co. Apparently the Radway brothers sold product out of one drugstore to begin with (2 Courtland Street), then dispensed it from several locations, before it became commonplace throughout the U.S. and British North America.
According to the New York Times (6 December 1863), the Radway Relief formula was endorsed to some extent by “Professor Reid, Professor and Lecturer of Chemistry for many years in the New-York College of Physicians, the New-York Hospitals, Edinburgh University, &c., &c.” As a treatment, Ready Relief was, among many other things, “calculated to supersede the use of all electro-magnetic machines, external applications, liniments, plasters, emenagogues, medicines for fever and ague, rheumatism, paralysis, numbness, neuralgia, &c.”
On 9 December 1914, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, acting on a report by the Secretary of Agriculture, charged Radway and Co. with misbranding of the product—the company falsely claiming on labels and wrappers that the product was “Guaranteed … under the Food and Drugs Act, June 30, 1906, No. 537.” It was in fact in contravention of the act: chemical analysis determined that the product did not contain all of the ingredients listed; the ingredients that it did contain were known to be ineffective against diseases the product was purported to ‘cure.’
Surviving product labels indicate that Radway claimed its Ready Relief was composed 27% of alcohol, combined with oleoresin capsicum [a.k.a pepper spray], ammonia, camphor, potassium carbonate, and castile soap. According to The Era Formulary. 5000 Formulas for Druggists (1893), the basic formula could be replicated as: 1½ oz. soap and oils; about ½ oz. tincture of capsicum; ½ oz. water of amonia; and about ½ oz. alcohol. As of 1914, the Bureau of Chemistry, U.S. Department of Agriculture, described it as “essentially a hydroalcoholic solution of oleoresin of capiscum, camphor, and amonia, containing 27.7 per cent alcohol and 1.3 per cent amonia.”
On 14 December 1914, Radway and Co. pleaded guilty to issuing “false and fradulent statements,” and paid a fine of $50. Effective or not, up to that time, the product was popular enough to appear ubiquitous. As early as 1863 John Knowles Paine and three friends had performed a ditty referencing Ready Relief usage that ranged from London, England, to Havana, Cuba (see transcribed lyrics at the end below). Oliver Ditson and Co. of Boston subsequently (c. 1883) published a capella sheet music (think barbershop quartet) for Paine’s composition, though how widely the song circulated, and whether it was ever sung at Red River is unknown.
Sample advertisement, Radway’s Ready Relief, Nor’-Wester (1860):
Sample advertisement, Radway’s Ready Relief, New Nation (1870):
Sample Advertisement, Radway’s Sarsaparillian Resolvent, New Nation (1870).
John K. Paine, sheet music cover page, “Radway’s Ready Relief,” (Boston: Oliver Ditson and Co., c. 1883):
Transcribed Lyrics to Radway’s Ready Relief by John K. Paine:
“Twenty years of sleepless nights,
Twenty years of sleepless nights,
Twenty years of sleepless nights,
Twenty years of sleepless nights.
William Sydney Myers,
Of Havana Cuba,
Of Havana, Cuba,
Cuba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba,
ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba,
ba, ba, ba, ba, ba, ba,
Cuba, Cuba, ba, ba, ba,
ba, ba, ba, ba, ba,
(The correspondent of the London Times)
The correspondent of the London Times,
The Correspondent of the Times,
the London Times,
(the London Times hear! hear!)
The London Times, the London Times.
Suffered with acute and chronic rheumatiz,
(He suffer’d with acute, acute, acute and chronic rhumatiz)
He suffer’d with acute, acute and chronic rhumatiz, a-tiz,
He suffer’d with acute, acute and chronic rheumatiz, a-tiz.
For five and twenty years he had not enjoy’d
one whole night’s calm rest,
one whole night’s calm rest,
It immediately gave him rest.
Radway’s Ready Relief,
Radway’s Ready Relief,
Radway’s Ready Relief,
Radway’s Ready Relief,
Radway’s Ready Relief.
It immediately gave him rest.
And secur’d him the first calm and undisturbed sleep during the twenty years.
The continued use of Radway’s Relief cured him.
(Always ask for)
Radway’s Ready Relief,
(Always ask for)
Radway’s Ready Relief
(always ask for)
Radway’s Ready Relief,
(always ask for)
Radway’s Ready Relief,
take no other!
take no other!
take no other!
Price per bottle twenty-five cents,
(Radway, Radway, Radway)
only, Oh! only,
(utterly too cheap! cheap! utterly too cheap! cheap!)
And for sale, for sale, for sale
(Price per bottle twenty-five cents)
for sale, for sale, for sale
Radway’s Ready Relief,
Radway’s Ready Relief,
O ask for Radway’s Ready, Ready Relief,
ev’rywhere for sale
by all apothecaries,
all apothecaries in the land,
including Chelsea Beach,
O always ask for Radway’s Ready Relief,
ev’rywhere for sale
by all apothecaries,
all apothecaries, in the land,
including Chelsea Beach,
(O ask for)
Radway’s Ready Relief
(Ready Ready Relief O)
Ask for Radway’s Ready Relief,
his Ready Relief,
his ready Relief.
(Take Radway’s, Radway’s, Radway’s Ready Relief).
~ •• ♦ •• ⊕ •• ♦ •• ~
Potted marmalade could be imported, via Hudson’s Bay Company ships, from Britain. One brand available for shipment was made by James Keiller & Sons of Dundee. Shards from their pots have been found in archeological digs associated with the fur trade. Prior to 1870, however, marmalade was not particularly popular at Red River. The product does not appear to have been advertised for sale by local merchants until 1871.
Label fired on ceramic marmalade pot of James Keiller & Sons, founded 1797, Dundee.
Jane Inkster-Tait, interviewed by W.J. Healy for Women of Red River (1923), pp. 199-200, remembered “one of those pots of marmalade which John Ballenden received from his sister in Edinburgh”:
“Annie Ballenden … gave one to Mrs. Mills. I was at St. Cross School then, and I remember that she gave each of the girls a taste of the marmalade, and we all thought it had an unpleasant flavour. That was the first time any of us had seen marmalade. Annie Ballenden married William McMurray, who soon afterwards was appointed to have charge of the Company’s post at Pembina. I remember that my husband (but that was before we were married) telling me that he and Roderick Ross, the brother of Mrs. Bernard Ross, were coming across the plains from St. Paul and they had dinner with the McMurrays at Pembina. There was marmalade on the table, and Annie McMurray made them taste it. After they left and were on their way to Red River, Roderick Ross asked Mr. Tait what he thought of the queer taste of that jam made from some tropical fruit. Neither of them had ever had any experience of marmalade before. As for oranges they were wholly unknown in Red River.”
Advertisement, Manitoba News-Letter (14 June 1871), 3:
Advertisement, Manitoba Liberal (2 August 1871), 3.
Fragments of marmalade pots which originally read: “Grand Medal of Merit Vienna 1873. James Keiller & Sons. Dundee Marmalade, Only Prize medals for Marmalade London 1862, Great Britain.”
Àkwuchepine: tallow for saddlery, tools, cartridges, and candle making
Mat-heh Metoos Buds: for medicinal chews, teas, drops, and ointments
Mat-heh Metoos Inner Bark: for soaps and balms
Mat-heh Metoos Wood: for fuel, cleansers, and pipes
Sewapoo: making vinegar, a multipurpose ingredient
Wiyin: animal fats and rendering techniques for making tallow and lard
~ •• ♦ •• ⊕ •• ♦ •• ~
The black-to-reddish-brown, upright, pointed, and sticky winter buds of Mat-heh Metoos/ balsam poplar have long been used as mas ki kee/ medicine (a.k.a Balm of Gilead). The buds, known in Cree as osimisk:
- contain and are covered with yellowish waxy resins (sometimes, in some regions called tacamahac) containing terpenes and phenolics with disinfectant properties;
- are rich in flavonoids, aromatic acids, and esters; and
- are credited with having anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, antiseptic, antimicrobial, astringent, vasodilator, and expectorant healing properties.
How to Use
Practice Caution—Check for possible Allergy; Use Sparingly—overindulging in some bud concoctions is said to be be Fatal; Do Not use dried osimisk—they will be rotten.
~ •• ♦ •• Handy Osimisk Curative •• ♦ •• ~
· Pick a black-to-reddish winter bud of Mat-heh Metoos, avoiding any larger, brighter green osimisk with partially opened outer scales (which conditions indicate damage or fungal rot).
· Pop the strongly aromatic osimisk in mouth.
· Chew for a tarry and hot quick-release: of vitamins to prevent scurvy; of antibiotics to treat gingivitis; or for relief of a sore throat and cough. The waxy-feeling coating that is released by chewing will remain in the mouth for some time.
~ •• ♦ •• Mus-ca-ke-wâbo/ Tea •• ♦ •• ~
· Carefully pick a small handful of black-to-reddish, sticky Mat-heh Metoos winter buds into a container, getting as little gummy residue on hands as possible (it turns brownish and is hard to remove). Avoid the larger, brighter green osimisk with partially-opened outer scales (indicative of damage or fungal rot).
· Heat 2 cups water to a boil in a pot.
· Add the whole, fresh osimisk (do not crush or chop).
· Simmer osimisk and water about 5–10 minutes.
· Remove pot from heat and let steep until Mus-ca-ke-wâbo is cool enough to drink. The buds should sink to the bottom, the resins will float on top.
· Drink Osimisk Mus-ca-ke-wâbo to relieve respiratory congestion and sore throat. Expect the resins to leave an oily coating in the mouth.
· Thoroughly scrub the pot after use to remove bud fragments and resin that coat the inside.
Use sparingly—overindulging might be be fatal.
~ •• ♦ •• Aromatic Osimisk Inhalant •• ♦ •• ~
· Boil a small handful of osimisk (as described for above Mus-ca-ke-wâbo) in about 2 cups of water to steaming.
· Pour oil-infused water into bowl.
· With head covered by a towel, close eyes and lean face to withing about 10 inches over the steaming bowl (have towel envelope the bowl to bring steam towards face).
· Inhale the osimisk-infused steam for about one minute to open the sinuses and soothe sore throat and cough.
· Repeat 2 to 4 times, as necessary.
Be Careful—take precautions to avoid accidental scalding and burns.
~ •• ♦ •• Osimisk Tincture •• ♦ •• ~
· Fill bottle or jar almost to the top with freshly picked, whole buds (of the kind and quality described for Mus-ca-ke-wâbo above).
· Cover in hard liquor—the osimisk resins are soluble in alcohol but not in cool water (nor in wine and vinegar).
· Cap and shake well.
· Store away from direct sunlight for 2 weeks.
· Remember to check daily: topping up liquid as needed (keeping the buds covered by liquid prevents molding); and giving the mix a good shake each day.
· After 2 weeks, strain through a cheesecloth into a clean dark bottle, preserving liquid and discarding buds.
· Take internally for demulcent, counter-irritant, and nutritive effects, but use in small amounts, a few drops in a spoonful of syrup or sweetened liquid at a time should suffice—if taken several times a day, about 15 drops total would be a reasonable limit (too much will cause ‘griping pains‘); definitely do not exceed 60 drops (see Mus-ca-ke-wâbo warning above).
Be Aware: Tinctures are much stronger than teas, so dilute in use to avoid harmful effects.
~ •• ♦ •• Osimisk Salve •• ♦ •• ~
· Harvest deer suet and render tallow (see “Wiyin” for a discussion of animal fats, including suet, as well as instructions on how to make tallow and lard—under the headings ‘Àkwukepime’ and ‘Rendering Lard’).
· Melt tallow in a pan (or double boiler if available), reducing heat to very low.
· Gather buds. Do not wash them (try to collect them in dry weather, if possible, to avoid introducing water into the salve).
· Place the osimisk in the pan over very low heat, ensuring they are covered by the melted fat just enough to stir them a little. If the buds are wet, leave the lid off the pan just long enough to evaporate the water. If buds are dry, cover the pan with a lid to retain the volatile resins.
· Warm the osimisk to infuse the salve for at least two hours (or even a few days), stirring occasionally.
· Strain out the buds through a sieve and several layers of cheesecloth, retaining the clean salve.
· While still warm and liquid, pour the salve into clean tins or jars to cool. Once the salve has solidified, place a lid on the container for keeping.
Apply as a topical treatment for its emollient, vulnerary, and antirheumatic effects in relieving: sunburn, sores, and rashes (including eczema); the pain of rheumatism and muscle fatigue or bruising; and in soothing an irritated scalp while revitalizing hair.
~ •• ♦ •• Infused Oil •• ♦ •• ~
· Gather Mat-heh Metoos buds (keep dry as for salve above).
· Fill glass jar halfway with the osimisk.
· Pour olive oil over the osimisk to within 1 in (2.5 cm) of top of jar (roughly 2 parts olive oil for every 1 part buds). Initially the osimisk may float, but eventually all will sink (which will prevent mould).
· Cover jar with cloth securely tied around lip.
· Let steep for 6 weeks, giving the mix a good stir every few days for the first 3 weeks and checking regularly to ensure the buds are covered by liquid and not molding.
· After steeping, decant the oil through a cheesecloth into a clean bottle or jar and cap for keeping.
Used the aromatic Osimisk Oil as a perfume, massage or bath oil, and as a wash for sprains, inflammation, or muscle pains.
Excerpt from Morris Mattson, The American Vegetable Practice, Or, A New and Improved Guide to Health vol. 1 (Boston: Daniel L. Hale, 1841), 251:
Mentions in the popular press over time—some more believable than others—that might refer to products with Populus balsamifera as an ingredient.
Advertisement, New York NY Daily Tribune (15 February 1843):
Advertisement, Burlington VT Free Press (13 May 1853):
Partial transcript (with emphasis as in source): “The Balm of Gilead, Especially to Females, In every conceivable condition of life, it recommends itself as far superior in point of efficacy to any of the numerous compounds concentrated under the comprehensive name of ‘Sarsaparillas.’ It acts as a fine TONIC, corrects the line of the stomach, strengthens the digestive organs, stimulates the liver to healthy action sufficient to throw off the impure and poisonous secretions, imparts purity, richness and vitality to the blood, circulates it freely, neutralizing and removing impure deposits, strengthens the nervous system, restores the constitution to all its strength, and imparts a glow of health and beauty of complexion.
This is a Vegetable Spirit, pleasant to take, and perfectly safe to be used in any state of health FEMALE OF CHILD.”
Advertisement, Knoxville TN Daily Chronicle (14 February 1871):
Advertisement, Lancaster PA Daily Intelligencer (8 December 1881):
Advertisement, Missouri Valley IA Times (25 December 1902):
Advertisement, The Coeur D’Alene Press (14 January 1907):
“The Home Doctor,” from the Carson City NV Daily Appeal (8 May 1911), 4:
Advertisement, [Winnipeg Trades and Labor Council] Winnipeg MB Voice (10 December 1915):
Advertisement, Burns, Harvey County OR Times-Herald (6 Mach 1920), 3:
~ •• ♦ •• ⊕ •• ♦ •• ~
The inner bark, the cambium, of Mat-heh Metoos is edible raw. It has long been eaten by peoples in Europe and Asia as well as on Turtle Island. The cambium can be cut into strips and boiled to a mush for cooking. By shredding it into a pulp, sap known as apustam can be extracted and used to light ceremonial pipes, or as a scenting and lathering agent for soap. Although strips of cambium can be dried in the sun and stored for use a short time later (as a scouring pad for example), they will not likely keep for an extended period (the strips can sour or ferment). Nevertheless, dried cambium can be ground and added as an extender to flours for baking, or to thicken soups.
The inner bark/ cambium can be harvested in spring for maximum sap quotient. In making soap, however, autumn is the best season for harvesting pruned branches so as to preserve trees. If whole trees are being felled (for example as firewood) and preservation is not the aim, then the steps below are too time consuming (but can be read to get an understanding of what is aimed at).
To manufacture relatively small batches of soap:
Pick a warm, sunny day and a nice location—harvesting inner bark can be a slow process. Bring along a saw, you will probably also want a knife and a tarp or blanket.
You can determine which trees to harvest by tasting twigs—trees with a stronger taste have more concentrated properties.
Do not ‘girdle’ a tree to get at the cambium—stripping bark all the way around the trunk will kill the tree. Instead look for manageable branches to prune: something smaller than the circumference of person’s arm.
Use a clean saw. Cut branches off trees just before the swelling at the base of a branch where it joins a tree (this ‘collar’ has a natural protective chemical layer that prevents rot—cutting into the collar won’t allow the tree to heal and will introduce rot).
Gather the branches, cut into lengths about 3 ft (1 m) long, and place them next to a blanket. Snip off the twigs while removing lichen, dirt, and insects.
Shave or peel long strips of bark from along the length of the branches (scoring the branch lengthwise speeds up peeling), collecting the strips on the blanket. Peel the inner bark away from the outer. The inner and outer barks are visibly different, and while the outer bark is hard, the cambium is soft, smooth and moist. Save the inner bark. The outer bark and left-over wood can be burned to make ash that will be leached into lye for making soap.
~ •• ♦ •• Apustam Soap •• ♦ •• ~
Large-batch soap making at Red River households might be performed on a yearly or semi-annual basis. The main time for butchering livestock (principally cattle) was the fall, so many householders made their soap then, utilizing the large supply of tallow that resulted. If tallow was rendered from buffalo harvested in the spring, then large batches of soap could made at that time as well. A large, but manageable, batch of soap would require 75 lbs of melted tallow to which would be added 10 lbs lye crystals dissolved in 4½ gal water. Otherwise, an ‘instant’ pot and pan soap could made as needed using wood ash and pan fat after cooking greasy foods.
The basic steps for soap making are outlined below using amounts suitable for a small batch (depending on conditions, the amounts may need adjusting and the soap reworked as described in the note about common problems inserted towards the end of this recipe):
· Work outdoors, keeping animals (such as the cats in the photograph above) and children away. Be exceptionally careful when working with the caustic lye. If vinegar is available, keep it handy to neutralize any spills of, or accidental contact with, the lye.
· Melt 2 lbs (.9 kg) tallow (which adds lather stability and hardness to the soap) in a deep kettle over medium-low heat (for this recipe, the kettle should be less than half full of tallow).
· Shred freshly-harvested inner bark of Met-heh Mettos to obtain a few ounces of liquid extract—a.k.a apustam—from the pulp.
· Once the tallow is melted, add the apustam (anywhere from 1–3 spoonfuls), stirring well. Keep the tallow and apustam mix warm (about 100ºF/ 37ºC).
· Prepare the lye solution. Either:
Method A: Onsite and ahead of time (this process may take hours; with experience—or luck—production time can be reduced):
· boil the ashes from a hardwood fire in rain water for about half an hour. Allow the ashes to settle to the bottom of the pan and decant or skim the liquid lye off the top into another pot. Be aware that the lye solution is caustic—if vinegar is available, keep it handy to neutralize any spills or accidental contact with the lye.
· Boil the lye solution down until it is concentrated enough to float an egg.
· Let the lye solution cool to about 120ºF (49ºC).
Method B. From previously-prepared dry crystals (see lye recipe):
· put 10–13 oz (about 1 cup or 300 ml) ‘room temperature’ water in a large, clean pan or heat-hardy glazed ceramic bowl.
· slowly add 4–5 oz (about 1/2 cup or 132 g) lye crystals to water (Do Not pour water into lye)—be aware that this solution is extremely caustic; the chemical reaction generates high heat; the mixture may boil up and out of a container that is too small.
· make sure the lye crystals are completely dissolved (strain if necessary).
· Take tallow pot off the heat.
· Slowly pour the lye solution into the tallow and apustam (to avoid crumbly soap, try to have both the fats and the lye solution at about the same temperature—anywhere from 90°–120°F for a small batch: lower temperatures give softer, light-coloured soap; higher temperatures harder, darker soap)
· Stir constantly. After some time (from minutes to as much as 3 hours) the tallow-pustam-lye mixture will begin thickening to a pudding-like consistency.
· Before it jells too much, pour the thickened mix into a wooden form (about 3 in high, 4 in wide and 12 in long) that has either been well greased, or that is lined with a clean cloth—knock the form to help settle the mix and release bubbles.
· Cover the form (a stiff lid is a good idea), then wrap it up in a blanket to keep it from cooling too rapidly.
· Let the soap set for at least twenty-four hours to cool down to room temperature and solidify.
· Turn the soap slab out of the mold. The slab can be cut into bars.
Note about Common Problems: Streaky and uneven soap indicates a lack of thorough mixing. A very sharp taste indicates too much lye. Too little lye results in a soft, mild, and greasy product. To fix, put the soap back in a pan and boil again with a little more water. The reboiling is all that is needed to correct the first problem. In the other instances either add a little more oil or a little more lye solution to reach the right balance. Pour back into a mold and let set as above. With experience, these problems will be overcome.
· Cure the bars for at least 4 weeks, in a cool and well-ventilated area away from direct sunlight. Uncured soap will melt rapidly during first use.
~ •• ♦ •• Apustam Balm •• ♦ •• ~
This balm is similar to the salve made from Mat-heh Metoos buds, the difference being that apustam is used instead. Because of the greater effort required to collect cambium/ inner bark (compared to buds/ osimisk), the apustam is best suited for making small amounts of balm to be used right away.
· Melt a small amount of tallow in a pan (or double boiler if available), reducing heat to very low.
· Shred freshly-harvested inner bark of Met-heh Metoos to obtain a few ounces of liquid extract—apustam—from the pulp.
· Place the apustam in the melted tallow over very low heat, stirring until well combined.
· Let cool.
Apply externally to soothe and heal dry and inflamed skin (whether there are sores, eczema, wounds, sprains, bruises, inflammations, or pains such as rheumatism).
~ •• ♦ •• ⊕ •• ♦ •• ~
Mat-heh Metoos/ Balsam poplar wood is renowned as having an ‘inner fire,’ so is used to make pipe stems, while the opustam obtained from the inner bark is used to light ceremonial pipes. As well, the tree is excellent for use in board-and-drill friction fire-making.
Mat-heh Meetoos makes excellent mis-tick (firewood). The green wood of Mat-heh Metoos burns better than that of other species. The ashes make: a cleanser for hair and buckskin clothing (brush on and brush or rinse off—but DO NOT GET IT IN YOUR EYES); a quick fry-pan cleaner (the Pot and Pan Soap below); and, after turning it into lye by leaching (Wood-ash Lye below), it can be mixed with fat to make bar soap (as in the Opustam Soap recipe).
~ •• ♦ •• Pot and Pan Soap •• ♦ •• ~
To wash cooking pans and utensils:
· Mix the fine white ash from the hardwood cooking fire into the still hot pan after serving out its contents.
· Add a little water.
· Scrub with a scouring pad made from Mat-heh Meetoss inner bark (if available).
· Rinse in water, scouring with ya-cow (sand) if available.
The lye in the ash is released by the water and combines with the fat to make soap.
~ •• ♦ •• Wood-ash Lye •• ♦ •• ~
· Make a hopper (shown above), or, wash out a 30 gallon barrel, plug the bung hole, and drill small drain hole 1 in from the bottom, then plug the hole.
· Put a layer of river rocks (several inches deep) on the bottom, then cover with a layer of straw (many inches deep).
· Fill the barrel something near ¾ full with hardwood ash, tamped down.
· Carefully pour rain water over the ashes, filling the barrel.
· Let sit 9 days.
· Place a bucket up to the drain hole, unplug the drain, and let lye-water drain into a cauldron/ kettle. The lye-water is extremely caustic so keep children and animals away.
· Test the lye-water: If an egg floats in the bucket, the lye is ready—if the egg does not float, top up the ash in the barrel, plug the drain hole, pour the lye-water back in, let it sit another week or so, then drain it and test again (repeat until an egg floats).
· Let the lye settle over night, then decant into a clean cauldron.
· Boil the lye down to reduce it into dry crystals.
Wood-ash lye, in either liquid or crystal form (which is reconstituted with water) is used in making of soap by boiling with fats, as in the Opustam Soap recipe.
[W H Taylor of Helena, Montana?], photograph, “Chief Little Bear,” depicted with pipe (1895):
Another use for Mat-heh Metoos, from the Spokane WA Press (16 May 1910):
~ •• ♦ •• ⊕ •• ♦ •• ~
Featured illustration: depiction of a woman who could make good use of tallow products.
Àkwuchepine is a Cree word meaning ‘hard fat,’ commonly known as tallow at Red River Settlement. Tallow is rendered from wiko, or kidney fat (known as suet if harvested from ruminantes such as deer, bison, cattle, and sheep). Although produced similarly, tallow differs from lard rendered from wesĕ, the kidney fat (known as leafe lard) of pigs. While well-rendered tallow is solid and will snap or break if bent, lard is much softer.
See “Wiyin” for a discussion of animal fats as well as instructions—under the headings ‘Àkwukepime’ and ‘Rendering Lard’—on how to make tallow and lard.
Tallow contains vitamins niacin, A, D, K, and E and will keep well for up to two years. At Red River, tallow may be used in pemmican making (though other fats are sometimes used), and in general cooking, from frying to baking. Tallow is also used in making products ranging from soaps, salves, and candles, to boot-blacking and water-proofing for leather products, as well as for waterproof whitewash. Additionally tallow serves as a general-purpose grease and in the rust-proofing of tools. Surplus tallow may also be sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company for extra income.
~ •• ♦ •• Skin Care •• ♦ •• ~
For skin that is cracked and dry from working outside in dry heat or in bitter cold, tallow rubbed on hands and chapped cheeks will sooth inflammation and help prevent further cracking of the skin.
~ •• ♦ •• Saddlers’ Grease •• ♦ •• ~
Regularly cleaned leather can be conditioned, waterproofed, and kept supple simply by rubbing it with ‘dubbin,’ a mixture of tallow and lard (melted together and then let set as below). However, to condition saddles, harnesses, belts, and boots and impart more of a shine:
· Ensure the leather to be conditioned is properly clean.
· Melt together in a pot over low heat (do not boil): 50% tallow, 25% beeswax, and 25% lard.
· Mix thoroughly.
· Take off the heat and allow to set.
· Wipe the leather to be conditioned with a cloth wet with warm water (to ‘open the pores’).
· Hand-apply the saddlers’ grease, rubbing it in with fingers (the body heat helps smooth the conditioner).
· Leave it to be absorbed into the leather by drying naturally—out of direct sunlight and away from direct heat (this might take several days).
· When dry (you may see a cloudy coat of dry grease), strongly and briskly rub the leather (but not so hard as to scratch) with a lint-free cloth to ensure all the grease is absorbed and to bring up the shine.
~ •• ♦ •• Mechanics’ Grease •• ♦ •• ~
For tools, including guns – use pure tallow as a grease to keep tools ready for dependable use, the grease reducing friction and helping to keep mechanical parts from sticking or binding. The grease can also be applied to help re-attach tight or rusty parts.
~ •• ♦ •• Cartridge Grease •• ♦ •• ~
One example of tallow use in guns at Red River concerns paper cartridges for muzzle-loading, flintlock rifles (the cartridges eliminating the need to measure a powder charge ‘on the fly’). Tallow is used as cartridge grease (no lubricant is used in smooth bore muskets).
Typically a flintlock cartridge consists of a sealed paper tube with two compartments: one holds the projectile—which can one large round ball or a collection of smaller shot; the second compartment holds the gunpowder charge.
The cartridge grease serves to: increase water resistance; lubricate the paper-wrapped shot or ‘ball’ to be rammed down the bore; and, in melting upon firing, mixing with gunpowder residue or ‘fouling’, making it easier to remove the residue.
For flintlock rifles, the tallow is applied externally to the paper cartridge containing the powder charge and the projectile ball, at the bottom or ‘bullet end.’ The top end of the paper cartridge is ripped open, normally with the teeth (though it can be opened by hand if desired and time allows); a small amount of powder is poured into the open the flash pan (which is then closed); the remaining powder is poured in the mouth of the gun barrel; then the greased paper-wrapped ball is sent down the barrel with a ramrod—the paper wrap allowing the ball to fit snugly and not roll back out, the tallow reducing friction while ramming.
Cartridge grease is made of 6 parts tallow mixed with one part beeswax
~ •• ♦ •• Candles •• ♦ •• ~
Deer fat, because ‘gamey’ is not particularly good for cooking, especially baking, but the tallow makes excellent candles, being even harder than beef tallow.
Sheep and lamb tallow also work well. For the latter, mixing about ¾ lamb tallow with ¼ beeswax will firm the candle.
Beef tallow is commonly used, alone or mixed with other tallows.
Lard, being much softer than tallow is not well suited to candle making.
Varieties of Wicks
The key to a good candle lies in the wick material. If the wicks are poorly made, with bits of thread projecting, the candles will be liable to ‘gutter’ (melt unevenly, forming hollows or channels) and have ‘wasters’ (large drips of unconsumed tallow), and the light will be unsteady. The best wicks are cotton rovings obtained from Turkey, pre-cut into candle lengths. Some manufactured candle wicks are pre-twisted, with ready-made loops at the end for dipping.
· Select cotton wicks of a size proper for the diameter of the intended candle; soak them in lime-water and saltpetre, or in sewapoo (vinegar); then let them dry.
Wick made from the pith of a rush is used to make a variety of candle known as a ‘rush light.’ Rush lights require no snuffing, because the wick is consumed as candle burns. Rush lights are therefore good for use in bedchambers.
Note that any overly disagreeable smell from a tallow candle will be due to the tallow having been imperfectly purified in the making.
Note as well that tallow candles can be re-converted: they can be melted and the fat used as food, to make pemican, or cartridge grease, leather conditioner &c.
Dipped candles can be made with the coarsest kind of tallow.
· Pull a wick out straight and smooth, cut into the right length, and double it over a broach or dowel rod about ½ inch in diameter, twisting the two strands of the wick together.
· Hang additional wicks of cotton yarn side by side on the broach, spaced according to the diameter of the candles desired, and in a number that will fit comfortably inside the kettle to be used.
· Melt tallow in a large kettle. The tallow must have no water in it, because water drawn up by a wick will cause a candle to spit and crackle in burning.
· Keep additional fresh tallow on hand—during the process it will be necessary to keep topping up the tallow in the kettle.
· When the tallow is melted, allow it to cool to thicken slightly—though not to harden.
· Take the broach and immerse the wicks carefully in the tallow.
· Lift the coated wicks out and hold them over the kettle to drain.
· Let the dipped wicks harden (having a purpose-built rack on hand is a good idea).
· Dip a second time and hang again.
· Dip a third time, repeating the process until the candles are the desired thickness.
· Cut the candles away from the broach at the wicks.
· Level the peaked bottoms of finished candles by cutting, or, to avoid breakage, melt any bulbous bottoms off by holding them upright in a pan with hot grease.
· Let cool overnight, then store according to the instructions below.
Moulded candles can be less trouble to to make than dipped candles.
· Obtain a pewter or tin candle mould, which consisted of a frame that holds individual cylinders with an inside diameter the size of the candles desired. The cylinders are shaped like candles. One end of the cylinder will be smaller than the other and tapered into a cone with an aperture just large enough to thread a wick through for the candle end that is to be lighted.
· Thread a cotton wick up through the aperture and pull up and out the top opening of the cylinder (use a length of wire as a needle if necessary).
· Place the cylinder in the rack and repeat until the rack is full.
· Tie the wicks to a wooden dowel rod laid across the open ends of the cylinder moulds.
· Pull each wick tight at the cone ends of the cylinders, ensuring they are all centred in their respective moulds.
· Plug the conical ends of the cylinders with wood pegs to stop up the bottom of the mold.
· Melt the tallow, then pour it into the cylinders.
· Let the tallow harden. It will shrink, leaving a hollow at the top.
· Fill the hollow with more tallow, then let the tallow harden completely.
· Remove the wood pegs from the bottom of the mould and carefully draw the candles out. They should come out readily when cold, if they do not, plunge them into hot water and they will come out easily.
· Let the candles stand (hanging from the dowel rod) one night to harden.
· Cut the candles away from the broach at the wicks, then store according to the instructions below.
· Harvest rush grass with a suitable pith.
· Strip the rushes of nearly all the hard, outer covering, retaining the pith and just enough of the tough bark to keep it stiff.
· Dip the rush wicks in tallow as for dipped candles above.
Candles work best after having sat for a 6 to 8 months before using. If made of good tallow, they will resist decomposition for at least 2 years.
Store freshly made candles in a box to keep them away from mice. Cover the candles with bran (exposure to light turns them yellow). Place the box in a cool, dry place. Damp causes mildew that makes candles sputter.
A Cautionary Tale: How Candle Making destroyed the Cathedral and Bishop’s Palace at St. Boniface in 1860, killing Mr. Ducharme
“Disastrous Fire. Catholic Cathedral Burned: One Life Lost! The Bishop’s Palace is Ashes! Loss £[25,000?],” Nor’-Wester (17 December 1860), 3:
“On Friday last, about ten o’clock in the forenoon, a fire broke out across at St. Boniface, the like of which has never been equalled in this place for suddenness, rapidity, and destructiveness. Within an hour after it began, the Bishop’s beautiful residence was one mass of ruins, and the flames were raging wildly on the roof of the magnificent cathedral. The sight was terrific, and in so far as this constitutes sublimity, it was grandly sublime.
It originated thus: Two girls were preparing to make candles in the kitchen, in the underground storey. They put about 60 lbs. of tallow into an immense kettle on the stove. There being a large fire, it soon boiled over upon the stove, and of course caused a blaze. They got alarmed and lifted off the kettle, but in the hurry of doing so, a quantity of grease was poured on the stove and flooring, which [fueled?] the flames already started. They then threw water upon the fire; but this only increased the [fury?]. Despairing of [success?] by their own efforts, they gave the alarm; the [illegible: first who answered was a boy—Magloire Morin. He struggled to beat back the devouring element. Right away … saw that the fire … a sight thoroughly not reckoned … Back of the stove there was an old blind man, Ducharme …?] Charity had secured him a home here since January. When Young Morin saw that he could do nothing, he seized the old man to help him out of the house; but the old aveugle, who it appears, was exceedingly ill-tempered and stubborn, would not go. He probably thought the fire of less consequence than it really was: having frozen his feet slightly the day previous, he refused to move or be moved. Morin did his best to drag him out, but could not. Whereupon, he rushed to the foot of the stairs and shouted for help, but the only person above that could render assistance was busily occupied in saving [Bte?] Goifon—the unfortunate priest who had one of his legs amputated a few days go. [illegible: This poor … whose … associate … who will be of more … than myself?” …?] Thus, the poor old man was left in the kitchen. Three or four minutes after this, assistance was at hand, but the flames were already playing through the doors in a manner that quite defied entrance. [Rev.?] Goifon was not two minutes out at the front door when the fire burst furiously after him. Father [illegible] who had not slept the night before, waiting upon Rev. Goifon, had just retired to rest, and it was with the greatest risk that his room was reached, and the alarm given which saved him.
The progress of the fire was something positively appalling: so rapid, indeed, that nothing—literally nothing—was saved. Chairs, tables, sofas, desks, boxes, pictures, clocks, clothing, bedding—everything, everything went! Large, massive oil paintings—portraits of the late Bishop Provencher, and of the present worthy prelate—also, of Sir E. P. Taché (uncle to the Bishop), of Louis Napoleon, and others, though hanging loosely on the walls, were left. There were about £100 in gold and £60 in paper—lying in a drawer in the Bishop’s bedroom, and belonging to the funds of the Diocese, besides various private sums. All the records of births, deaths. and marriages; all the papers and documents belonging in any way to the Parish and the whole Diocese of St. Boniface, were consumed. The deeds of the mission lands throughout the Settlement, and many important papers belonging to settlers also went. Of a magnificent library of about 5000 volumes, not a single book was saved. About 1000 were choice standard works, and among the rest was a large number of books intended for the Indian missions in the interior. The total loss of property in the Bishop’s private room is estimated at £1000. Of provisions there were in the house nearly 60 cwt. flour; about 1600 lbs, pork; 600 lbs. butter; 80 to 100 bushels potatoes; and sundry other articles.
The dwelling house had an underground storey—the only on in the Settlement except Mr. Harriot’s. It had two storeys above ground, and presented a very symmetrical appearance. Its total length was 70 feet; breadth, 40 feet; and height of wall, 20. In it resided the Bishop of the Diocese and the Priests of the parish of St. Boniface. Unfortunately, this fine residence was attached to the Cathedral. Had it been otherwise, this latter would not, in all probability, have shared in its fate. The two buildings were, indeed, not only attached, but a large room extended from the house underneath the sacristy of the church; and it was this that gave the fire such a hold on the latter.
As soon as it seemed hopeless to save anything out of the palace, all efforts were turned to the Cathedral. The soldiers of the Royal Canadian Rifles did good service here. Most of the benches and pews were saved. The organ, the holy vessels, the great altar, and all the pictures were also saved. Mush was rescued from the vestry by Sister Gosselin, who rushed three times into it, amid suffocating smoke. The third time she herself partially caught fire. The two side altars and the pulpit had to be [missing line]
At this stage all fled. The flames were now circling around the beautiful, massive pillars supporting the side-galleries, and waving up along the arched ceiling that had cost so much money, time, and skill to finish, o anybody standing in front, the scene presented a wild grandeur—flames rolling hither and thither—sweeping upwards 50 or 100 feet, and enveloping the edifice. In a little, the roof fell in with a tremendous crash. Fanned by a strong south wind, the fire burned around the steeples fiercely. At length, the great belfry began to totter, and away went one steeple, to be soon after followed by the other. The three bells that chimed so beautifully Sunday after Sunday, had actually melted in their places. Their collective weight was 1,600 lbs.
This Cathedral was beyond all comparison the largest and grandest edifice in Rupert’s Land. Its dimensions were:—length, 100 feet; breadth, 60; height of walls, 40; height of spires, 108. The foundation was laid in 1835, and it was not until the present year it was completely finished! The taste exhibited in the ornamenting of the interior did credit to Art. The labors of the Sisters of Charity in the painting of the pillars and the general decorations were such as would have satisfied the aesthetic faculties of the most refined. We have seen St. Michael’s Cathedral, Toronto, and we must pronounce that of St. Boniface to have been vastly superior in symmetry and elegant finish.
And thus has gone in a few hours the results of labor, more or less continuous, for a quarter of a century! His Lordship the Bishop of St. Boniface is absent in the far north on a visit to his various missions, and will not be back for two or three months, It is not as yet quite decided where religious service is to be held—whether in the Convent or in the Brothers’ establishment; nor can anything be decided until the return of the Bishop, as to the steps to be taken to replace what the fire has destroyed. The Priests will for the present winter take quarters in the garret of the College Building. The feeling throughout the Settlement—among Protestants as well as Catholic—is very properly one of great regret in witnessing such an immense destruction of property.
We were this Monday morning shown specimens of the melted gold and silver, discovered among the ashes; and we were informed that some of the bones of the old man were also found.”
~ •• ♦ •• ⊕ •• ♦ •• ~
Featured illustration: P. S. Boccone, “Polyporus-tuberaster,” Museo di fisica (1697), 300, showing the European variety. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Myth and Mycological Mystery
Imagine: a story told about Manitoba, after the demise of Red River as a Métis settlement in 1870, holds that Tuckahoe was the name given to lumps of organic matter commonly dug up in the course of ploughing new ground in the Red River region. Original residents of Red River Settlement (most of whom were Métis), apparently delighted in pointing out such lumps to newly arrived farmers (most of whom were non-Indigenous), claiming that a sample of ancient, preserved pemmican had been unearthed. Said lump, however, was actually a fungus. The story supplies a joke that can go either of two ways: seasoned locals were pulling one over on a ‘Moonias’; or the locals were yokels ignorant of their own material past and present.
One problem with the story is that, although the scenario has been alleged to have played out in Manitoba, no documented instance of Tuckahoe discovery accompanied by mis-identification as ancient Red River pemmican has been found—nor is it clear that such mis-identification ever actually took place elsewhere. Various writers merely assert it did, without listing any sources, or divulging whether the source was merely a rumour (for a version of the story that made its way into popular Canadian history see “1950s’ Account of Pemmican making,” this site.)
Further, if the story is assumed to refer to some actual incident somewhere, it is equally unclear exactly which fungi might have been presented in a purported jest as ossified pemmican—both Wolfiporia extensa and Polyporus tuberaster having been posited by mycologists. The confusion is only compounded by the circumstance that the name Tuckahoe—which traces back to Eastern Indigenous languages (Algic), then spread widely throughout fur-trade regions—may be applied to any number of roots and tubers as well as to fungi.
Origin of the Name Tuckahoe/ Tuck-a-hoe
In 1612 in Virginia, William Strachey recorded of the Indigenous people in his area: “In June, July, and August they feed upon roots of tockohow, berries, groundnutts, fish, and greene wheate.”
This early reference to Tockohow was missed by one account (1870), which asserted the word Tuckahoe had been derived from Tockawhoughe/ Tockwhogh—variant spellings of a term that had been recorded in Virginia by Captain John Smith (1624). The word referred to round corms or roots of plants that were eaten by Indigenous peoples (translated literally, the word tockawhoughe meant ‘something round’ or ‘globular’). According to Smith:
“The chiefe root they have for food is called Tockawhoughe. It groweth like a flagge in Marishes. In one day a Salvage will gather sufficient for a weeke. These roots are much of the greatnesse and taste of Potatoes. They use to cover a great many of them with Oke leaves and Ferne, and then cover all with earth in the manner of a Colepit; over it, on each side, they continue a great fire 24 houres before they dare eat it.”
Being a plant (or plants), Tockawhoughe/ Tockwhogh was obviously not the fungal Tuckahoe that figured in the much later mythic Manitoban accounts of Red River hoaxes.
There are other accounts, however, that assert the name Tuckahoe was derived from a Mahican dialect (a.k.a Mohican—an Algic language, so related to Cree and Anishnaabemowin), in which Tauquauh was the word for ‘bread.’
Reputedly, migrant colonists from Europe who settled in Virginia and North Carolina adopted the Mahican word to name an edible fungus (often identified in texts as Sclerotium giganteum—a.k.a. Wolfiporia extensa). Mahican lexicon spread widely, both by adoption of Mahican terms within the fur trade and as a result of historical migration (much of it forced, and including into Canada). Presumably, then, the name Tuckahoe could have travelled to the Red River region during the 1800s and been applied to a fungal organism.
Note, however, that the word—or one sounding like it—does not appear to have been recorded as in use at Red River Settlement.
Instead, something round or globular would have been known as:
- Woweyaasin, or Woweya-sew, Woweya-yow, Wow-isew, Wow-eyow (Cree)
- Wawiieminagad, Bikominagad, Babikominagad, Wawiieminagisi, Bikominagisi,
the word for round being:
- Waskah (Cree)
with a ball being:
- Toohoowan (Cree)
whereas bread was commonly known as:
- Ayukoonow, or Pukasikun (Cree); ‘loaf bread’ being Peswaayukoonow
- Pakwejigan (Anishnaabemowin); ‘leavened bread’ being Wembissitchigusod pakwejigan
while a mushroom/ fungus could be called:
- Pesimookan (Cree)
- Pikwadjish, wajashkwedo (Anishnaabemowin).
Tuckahoe does not appear to have been a word in use in Manitoba until well into the first decades of the 1900s. One early mention appeared in 1912, in “Handbook of Indians of Canada,” printed in the Sessional Papers of Canadian Parliament, vol. 15, on page 170: “Tuckaho and other fungi were used for food by the eastern Indians; ‘tuckaho bread’ was well known in the S.”—the quote being a direct lift from Frederick Webb Hodge ed., Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, vol. 1 (1912), 467. A definition offered in 1913, in a version of Handbook of Indians of Canada, printed that year under the auspices of the Geographic Board of Canada, identified Tuckahoe as “Indian Bread … Scelerotium [sic] gigantium.”
Subsequently, there was a Canadian scientific mention occurring 1919; another in 1922. ; and a 1938 find credited to George Mayer (in a publication of 1994). During this period, though use of the word (as anything other than a place name) seems limited to mycologists, they asserted it was common parlance. Yet no record of ‘popular’ use has been found in searches of contemporary newspapers or books published, or likely to have been read, in Manitoba.
Among Canadian mycologists, it is evident that the name Tuckahoe was problematic, different researchers applying it to different organisms (the problem having already been apparent as of 1891).
Varieties of ‘Tuckahoe’ (so-called)
Peltandra virginica/ Arrow Arum/ Green Arrow Arum/ Hog Wampee/ Indian Bread/ peltandre de Virginie/ Santee Club/ Taw-ho/ Taw-king/ Tockohow/ Tockwhogh/ Tockawhoughe/ Tuckah/ Tuckahoe/ Tuckahoo/ True Tuckahoe/ Virginia Wake-Robin
Other scientifically attributed names include: Arum viginianum/ Peltandra Raf. (1819)
William Strachey and Captain John Smith’s early recorded instances of a food named with a Tuckahoe-like homonym are thought to have referenced a perennial, tuberous, flowering, herb plant widely distributed in wetlands of eastern North America, but not found in Manitoba.
The plant, Peltandra virginica: has large rhizomes that tolerate low oxygen levels; produces many large leaves that vary in form, but are often arrowhead-shaped; has male, female, and sterile flowers ranging from whitish to greenish to yellow; bears a brown berry containing a few seeds in a clear gelatinous pulp.
Indigenous peoples were able to use most parts of the plant for food by cooking it for hours, thereby neutralizing its calcium oxalate crystals (which, if the plant were eaten raw, would render it an unpalatable poison).
There are other, identical and similar-sounding Indigenous names for other plants, however. For example, Elaine Nowick, “Historical Common Names of Great Plains Plants, with Scientific Names Index,” vol. I (2015), lists:
- Tucaha (the word vaguely attributed to ‘Southern tribes’), identified as Apios americana Medik./ Apios Tuberosa. [Other names include: Ahe kamassa (Choctaw)/ Ahpenya (Fox)/ Akkalv (Creek)/ American groundnut/ America-hodoimo/ Blo (Teton)/ Chaplet (New France)/ Cinnamon Vine/ ?c’akame’li (Tunica)/ Groundnut (which is not to be confused with other plants sometimes known by that name)/ Hanke (Oregon)/ Hapniss (Delaware)/ Hobbenac (Delaware)/ Hobbiness (Delaware)/ Hodoimo (Japanese)/ Indian Potato/ Its (Pawnee)/ Kan-shack ahe (Choctaw)/ Ko’nan a’yip (Atakapa)/ Mdo (Dakota)/ Mûkwo’pini (Potawatomi)/ Noa (Missouri)/ Nu (Omaha-Ponco)/ Nu’na igatehi (Cherokee)/ O?penya (Shawnee)/ Ochnenáta (Onondaga)/ Ocká:hî (Mikasuki)/ Okeepenauk (Algonquin)/ Omen-e-cha/ Openauk (Algonquin)/ Ophen (Menomini)/ Oppin (Ojibwa)/ Ouhpunnauk (Powhatan)/ Pénacs (Algonquian)/ Penninaugh (Powhatan)/ Potato Bean/ Potato Pea/ Ppan (Penobscot)/ Sagabon (Metoac Algonquin)/ Schoneschironon (Iroquois)/ Tdo (Winnebago)/ Tucaha (reputed)/ Uli (Cherokee)/ White Apple/ vh-aklowahe (Creek)/ Wild Bean. For additional information, see the entry for Hopniss on the “Uskepwawe” page, this site.]
- Tuckah (attributed to even more vague ‘Indian tribes’), being Peltandra Raf./ Arrow Arum (see entry for Peltandra virginica above); and
- Tuckáh (attributed equally vaguely as ‘Native American’), being Hexastylis virginica (L.) Small/ Heart Leaf/ Little Brownjug/ Tuckahoo/ Virginia Heartleaf/ Virginia Tea Root. Other scientific names include: Asarum memmingeri Ashe, Asarum virginicum L., and Hexastylis memmingeri (Ashe) Small. This perennial herb belongs to the Birth-wort family (Aristolochiaceae). It is found in deciduous and mixed forests of the mid-eastern United States from Maryland and Virginia, south to North Carolina and Tennessee. The leaves are evergreen, stiff, and heart shaped; glossy and dark green when new, with colours ranging from dark-green, to purple and bronze as they age, some becoming mottled with white or having silvery veins; and give of a ginger scent when crushed. The plant flowers from as early as March, through June, but because growing very low to the ground, blossoms are often covered over by leaf litter. The unusual flowers are brown to reddish-purple cylinders with three tiny lobes. Reputedly, Cherokee peoples made a medicinal tea from Hexastylis virginica, which was drunk “to stop blood from passing” (Paul B. Hamel and Mary U. Chiltoskey, 1975; Daniel Ellis Moerman, 1986).
- Tuckaho/ Tuckahoe: • Nuphar lutea (L.) Sm. subsp. advena (Aiton) Kartesz & Gandhi/ Common Spatterdock/ Yellow Pond Lily. A perennial herb/ forb of Tidal waters, pond margins, and swamps in Eastern North America—Labrador and Nova Scotia, south to Florida, Texas and Utah. The root is edible raw or cooked, and soaking in water will remove the bitter taste. The taste of boiled root has been compared to sheep’s liver. Dried then ground to a powder, the root can be used to thicken soups or added to flour for baking. The seeds are likewise edible raw or cooked. The seed can be toasted like popcorn, or roasted then ground to a powder to thicken soups etc. The roots also have medicinal applications: fresh, as an astrigent; dried and powdered, as a means of arresting bleeding; made into tea, for treating dysentery and diarrhea; as a poltice to treat swellings, boils, tumours, and inflamed skin.; • Zamia pumila L./ Coontie Palm. Found in Florida, this low-growing, cycad plant has a trunk that can grow 3–25 cm. high, but is often subterranean. It can form a multi-branched cluster, with a large, tuberous root system—an extension of the above-ground stems. The plant is poisonous, producing a toxin, cycasin, which affects the gastrointestinal tract and nervous system. Indigenous peoples (including Tequesta, Mayaimi, Seminole, and Maroons) removed the toxin by careful leaching, then used the roots and half-buried stems to make a starch (at one time marketed as Florida arrowroot).
- Tuckahoo: Lycoperdon tuber L./ Tuber gulonum/ T. gulosorum/ T. cibarium/ True Truffle, which is actually not a plant, but rather a fungus that grows in England and France, only mistakenly identified as present in North America.
The [North American] Fungi:
Wolfiporia extensa/ China Root/ Fu Ling/ Fuh-ling/ Hoelen/ Indian Bread/ Matsuhodo/ N*****-Head/ Pe-fuh-ling/ Poria/ Pu-fuh-ling/ Tuckaho/ Tuckahoe/ Tuckhoes/ Tuckahoo/ Southern Tuckahoe/ Virginia Truffle
Other scientific names include: Daedalea extensa Peck/ Lycoperdon cervinum/ L. solidum/ Macrohyporia cocos/ M. extensa/ Pachyma cocos/ P. coniferarum/ P. hoelen/ P. solidum/ Poria cocos (Schw.) cob. nov./ P. cocos F.A.Wolf/ Porios cocos (Schw,) Wolf/ Sclerotium cocos/ S. giganteum/ Wolfiporia extensa (Peck) Ginns.
NB: Lewis David von Schweinitz, credited with founding American mycology, named Sclerotium cocos in 1821, applying the genus name devised c. 1890 to indicate ball-like fungi, and adding cocos (from coconut) to describe its typical form and size. The fungus was named Macrohyporia cocos in 1979, then Macrohyporia extensa in 1983. In 1984 it was first designated Wolfiporia cocos, but later that year became Wolfiporia extensa—which remained the preferred botanical name.
Wolfiporia extensa is a a wood-decay fungus in the Polyporaceae family notable for a large, long-lasting underground sclerotium, with a white interior and a dark brown exterior that may look much like tree bark.
By some accounts, penned by writers working with little more than local legend, the edible Mahican Tuckahoe was described as truffle-like, growing several feet under the ground without stems or leafy appendages and resembling a loaf of coarse brown bread. Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century accounts commonly described this version of Tuckahoe as growing within or on the roots of trees.
John Clayton, in Flora Virginica (1743), who seems to have been the first to refer to the fungus as Lycoperdon solidum, described it as “a very large tuber of the ground; outside rough, white within,” reputedly used “for making bread, commonly called Tuckahoe.”
One study conducted in 1819, described this Tuckahoe as containing no gluten, but a substance similar to what was known at the time as “Fungin,” which was said to be found in mushrooms. It was said to be nutritious enough to be valued as a ‘starvation food.’
Scientists decided this Tuckahoe was a fungus, though they had some difficulty classifying the exact species, largely because samples were relatively scarce, and were described (in written texts) in ways that meant knowing whether or not one organism, or several different organisms, had been analysed by different researchers.
A study conducted in 1872 described a Tuckahoe sample from Virginia as: “In external appearance it was rough, dark brown or brownish-gray in color, covered with a thin, hard cuticle, and penetrated by cracks in every direction. The substance internally was extremely hard and dry, and pinkish in color.” By chemical analysis, the study concluded there was little by way of nutritive value.
Because this sclerotium, in many accounts known as “Indian bread,” was said to be used by some Indigenous peoples as a source of food—in Florida “routinely collected”—even though of low nutritional value (providing some carbohydrate, but virtually no protein, and, as a lone food source, not adequate to sustain life), potentially it was not a ‘survival food’ in times of scarcity so much as it was a delicacy in times of plenty, when energy expended on finding, harvesting, and processing the hidden commodity was not a problem. It is also possible that there were medicinal uses (as in China).
Scientifically-minded observers recorded the fungus as found as early as 1800 “in the northern deciduous forests of eastern North America,” typically occurring “as a trunk and butt rot of mature, old-growth trees.”
By 1929 the geographical range—based on reports from widely scattered localities in the United States—included Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Pennysylvania, Virginia, Maryland, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Kansas, and Texas. The fungus was described as associated with roots of cedar, citrus trees, eucalyptus, fir, magnolia, oak, pine, and sumac.
By the early 1950s, in Canada, the ‘above-ground’ features of the fungus were described as associated with Yellow Birch (Betula lutea Michx. f.) in eastern Nova Scotia, and with poplar pulpwood cut on Manitoulin Island, Ontario. It seems the underground, bulbous sclerotia of Macrohyporia extensa had not been found in the deciduous forests of northeastern North America or in the coniferous forests of the western mountains.
By 1967, the fungus had been reported in North America (as Poria cocos) from coast to coast and from the southern United States into the southern one-third of Canada. Some of the reports were afterwards considered suspect, given two fungi had similar looking sclerotia that shared the common name, Tuckahoe, and so could have been confused. This is apparently the case for the report of Dow V. Baxter (1949), describing P. cocos as occurring in Manitoba and Saskatchewan (though he does not cite a source for this information), his report subsequently informing other papers, but the report being rejected by some later mycologists, they being certain that Polyporus tuberaster was in fact the fungus that Baxter had described (seemingly, however, a report from Alberta still stands).
Because no samples were preserved, it remains unclear from early 20th-century written reports of fungi from the Red River region whether they were actually Wolfiporia extensa or ‘the Canadian tuckahoe‘ (Polyporus tuberaster—see below). To date, however, Wolfiporia extensa does not seem the most likely candidate for a Red River fungus described as petrified pemmican.
Polyporus tuberaster/ Boletus tuberaster/ Canadian Tuckahoe/ ‘Fossilised faeces of the lynx’/ Fungo di pietra/ Indian Bread/ Pietra fungala/ Pietra jungaia/ Stone Fungus/ Tuckahoe
Other scientifically attributed names include: Grifola Tuckahoe, Polyporus tuberaster jacq. ex Fries
The fleshy Polyporus tuberaster fungi have a fruitbody composed of two parts, one that grows above the ground, the mushroom, and the other a solid body of sterile tissue which grows below ground and is called the sclerotium. The generic name Polyporus means ‘having many pores’; tuberaster means ‘with tubers’, ‘like a truffle.’
Although this fungus has been described as growing in western North America, including “in the prairie black soils in conjunction with aspen,” most stories relating to it trace to overseas sources penned in Western Europe (not Britain). And, although it was once thought that this was the species of fungus known as Tuckahoe that was eaten by Indigenous peoples of North America, currently that food is believed to be another polypore (Wolfiporia extensa, above).
The mushroom ‘fruits’ of Polyporus tuberaster are edible, but are tough unless young, fresh, and thoroughly cooked. The underground sclerotium is inedible because full of dirt, ranging from sand and soil particles to small stones. In 1560, Pier Andrea Mattioli described it as the “fossilised faeces of the lynx.”
In Europe, farmers have dug up the sclerotium when ploughing, finding a hard, dark grey to almost black, tuber-like structure, approximately round or lightly flattened, with a slightly wrinkled surface, and about the size of a fist (though reportedly a few specimens were up to 40 em across and weighed up to 4.5 kg). The fleshy interior can appear very dark green in fresh specimens before becoming dark grey with a marbled aspect, then drying white. The dirt particles contained in the interior make it hard to cut. The sclerotium are sold in southern Italy as ‘stone’ tubers, to be planted in flower pots as a source of fresh mushrooms. If left to grow, the mushrooms have a pale yellow to brown cap, up to 15 cm across, covered with buff/brown scales, convex and centrally depressed to a funnel shape, and borne on a whitish to brown, tough, stalk.
A Canadian study in 1914, which analysed a Manitoba specimen “dug up in a field formerly a poplar bush,” thought it was related to the legendary Mahican Tuckahoe fungus. The author decided it differed enough from the European Polyporus tuberaster, to justify naming it Grifola Tuckahoe, observing that, at that time, such organic bodies were “popularly known as Tuckahoe.”
A study from 1951 related that a number of specimens had been found in the Canadian West—most in Saskatchewan. By this point in time ‘Canadian Tuckahoe’, was known by the scientific name Polyporus tuberaster jacq. ex Fries. The authors noted the sclerotium was inedible; They found “the Canadian fungus and the European P. tuberaster are heterothallic, have the tetrapolar type of interfertility, and are interfertile.”
Because this stone-particle-filled fungus has been found in Manitoba, it is the most likely candidate for a fungus mistaken for petrified pemmican—though exact details regarding by whom it was found, and when, remain a mystery.
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Featured image: Claus Casperi, lithograph, “Schwefelporling: Laetiporus sulphureus (Bull. ex Fries) Bond, et Sing,” (Kronen-Verlag, Erich Cramer, Hamburg, 1964).
A Healthful Red River Delicacy (for those in the know)
This edible mushroom is known as Chicken of the Woods because of its flavor and texture when cooked.
The Chicken of the Woods mushroom feeds on cellulose (so is known as a ‘brown rot’ fungus), the cellulose derived from mature or dead deciduous hardwoods and some conifers of Pan-America (including Hawai’i and the Caribbean), East Asia, Europe (including the British Isles), and South Africa (the mushroom may also be present in the Indian Subcontinent, Australia and the Malay Archipelago).
Other common names for the Chicken of the Woods mushroom include: Bracket Fungus/ Chicken Fungus/ Chicken Mushroom/ Crab-of-the-woods/ Pollo del bosque (Spanish)/ Polypore soufré (French)/ Rooster Comb/ Schwefelporling (German)/ Sulphur bolete (French)/ Sulfur polypore/ Sulphur Shelf/ Unra-sa (Cayuga: general name for edible polypore fungi)/ Una-sa (Onondaga: general name for edible polypore fungi)
Scientifically, Chicken of the Woods has been known as Polyporus sulphureus and, up until recently as Laetiporus sulphureus (though additional names are being added as research progresses, see below).
- Laetiporus comes from the Latin word laetus, meaning ‘fat’ or ‘rich’ when speaking of animals and ‘fertile’ when speaking of land or of plants. Laetiporus means ‘a wealth of pores.’ The pores of Laetiporus sulphureus distinguish it from any similar-looking mushrooms that have gills—e.g. Phyllotopsis Nidulans, which can be found in western Canada, growing shelf-like on rotting poplar logs, of an orange to light tan colour, with light orange gills.
- Sulphureus is Latin for sulfurous, referring to sulphur, a yellow-hued element. Chicken of the Woods is known for its yellow pigmentation—especially that of the pore surface, on the underside (though in some varieties the surface might be white, see below).
Among reasons to expect that the mushroom was eaten by people of Red River Settlement, are the accounts by Arthur C. Parker, “Iroquois uses of maize and other food plants,” Bulletin of the New York State Museum (1910): 94, and F.W. Waugh, Iroquis [sic] Foods and Food Preparation (1916), 121, who mention “tree fungi” and Polyporus sulphureus as figuring among the mushrooms harvested by Iroquois peoples. Wilma F. Aller, “Aboriginal food utilization of vegetation by the Indians of the Great Lakes Region as recorded in the Jesuit Relations,” Wisconsin Archaeologist 35, 3 (1954): 59-73, mentions the fungi as possibly eaten by peoples of the Great Lakes region. Many people from both Iroquoian and Great Lakes territories entered the fur trade, some of whom settled at Red River and points further west. Additionally, Harriet V. Kuhnlein and Nancy J. Turner, Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples: Nutrition, Botany and Use (2009), indicate that Polyporus sulphureus was harvested by Okanagan peoples in the Interior Salish area of British Columbia. Okanagan individuals who settled at Red River include Sarah ‘Sally’ Timentwa-Ross, who may very well have taught her children, and even neighbours, how to find and utilize the mushroom.
People familiar with the mushroom would have known to look for its distinctive colour in Muskowatik (Oak) groves where it fruits from spring through fall, particularly after a good rain. The mushroom might sometimes be chanced upon growing on Maskawattickus (Ash) trees as well. Once located, if judiciously harvested, the mushroom could be expected to reappear at the same site year after year (though they may have been abundant only every other year)—supplying a reliable resource for supplementing home-cooked foods and medicants.
The exact species of Chicken of the Woods mushroom present in the Red River region is currently difficult for non-mycologists to ascertain. Conventional belief held that all Laetiporus in North America were one species—Laetiporus sulphureus—and virtually identical to fungi of the same name in Europe (so appear to have relied, during the 19th century, on illustrated botanical texts published in Europe, producing very few showing North American specimens, hence the predominance of images of European samples posted on this page). From 2001, however, biological studies have revealed significant differences among collected fungal specimens. By 2009 at least 11 genetically-defined groups were distinguished worldwide. A year later another species was proposed, and the Laetiporus of North America were found to represent at least 6 separate species. Scientific research is ongoing, attempting to clarify relationships and evolutionary lineages among the species (including tracing historical geographical origins—pre-Miocene North America appearing to be a possibility), with an expectation that newly found specimens will yet be added.
Although it is now known that there are several distinct species of Laetiporus in North America, many field guides and Canadian websites do not yet reflect the ongoing changes in taxonomy.
The Various Chickens of the Woods on Turtle Island
Laetiporus sulphureus: The ‘Mother species’-in-terms-of-naming, previously thought to cover all of North America
Laetiporus sulphureus is a heart-rot fungus that can affect standing and fallen trees—typically Oaks, but sometimes other hardwoods (including Ash, Elm, and Hickory). Currently the range is described somewhat vaguely as ‘east of the Rocky mountains,’ or ‘the Midwestern U.S.’ In some regions the mushrooms may appear in spring, but usually are reported as seen in summer through the fall. They are found above the ground line on a tree trunk—frequently high up. Their presence indicates the tree has been thoroughly compromised, perhaps killed, by this parasitic and saprobic fungus.
Laetiporus sulphureus is distinctively yellow-orange in colour and usually grows in overlapping, shelving clusters (or sometimes rosettes) of individual, overlapping caps, some clusters becoming very large, with up to 50 caps (so far none have been reported to be as large as specimen found in England, 2003, which was more than sixteen feet in circumference, with an estimated weight of nearly nearly 700 pounds).
The caps range in size from 5–25 cm across; up to 20 cm deep; and up to 3 cm thick. They can be fan-shaped, semicircular, or irregular in appearance; more or less planoconvex; smooth or finely wrinkled; with a suede-like surface. They have no stem. The caps, when fresh, are usually coloured bright yellow to bright orange (in some instances approaching red)—often yellow-orange overall, with a bright to dull yellow margin/ outer edge; fading to dull yellowish and, eventually, nearly white when long past maturity.
Typically, the pore surface is bright to dull yellow in colour (though a white-pored version also exists: see Linder and Banik, 2008; who call for further research).
When dried, the cap and pore surfaces can retain the yellow hue for at least 8 years.
The mushroom’s white to pale yellow flesh is thick, soft and watery when young, becoming tougher with age, until eventually it turns chalky and crumbles away.
The mushroom is nutritious: a rich source of carbohydrates and proteins, it also contains sugars (mainly Mannitol and trehalose); polyunsaturated fatty acids; Oxalic and citric acids (as well as others); and has antioxidant properties.
This mushroom is best harvested right after it rains. Having absorbed the rainwater, they will be nice and plump.
To prepare for eating, they are chopped, then boiled to clean and soften to a chicken-like texture. The pieces can then be used in soups or they can be cooked over an open fire.
The mushroom is not suitable for pickling in vinegar as it suppresses the growth of the bacterium Leuconostoc mesenteroides, which is responsible for the desired fermentation and, in turn, inhibits the growth of toxic bacteria.
The mushrooms can also be dried or preserved in oil for later use.
Reputedly, smoldering a small piece of the dried mushroom works as an effective mosquito repellent in enclosed spaces such as a tent.
The mushroom can be preserved for medicine by drying in thin slices and later decocting a tea. Potential medicinal properties being studied include:
- Laetiporus sulphureus is said to support the immune system (e.g. inhibiting HIV-1 reverse transcriptase; see Mlinaric et al., 2005); and to counter Type 2 diabetes by lowering the blood sugar level.
- There is some evidence that Laetiporus fungi inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria, notably Staphylococcus aureus (responsible for staph-infections), and Candida species.
- Compounds derived from Laetiporus sulphureus are being investigated as possible treatments for various human cancers.
- Eburicoic acid, a main bioactive component in Laetiporus sulphureus, has been investigated for anti-inflammatory and tumor-inhibiting effects on gastric ulcers.
Laetiporus sulphureus? The Manitoba variety
Chicken of the Woods found in Manitoba is still referred to as Laetiporus sulphureus, though it appears to diverge slightly in appearance from the common characteristics described for the Laetiporus sulphureus species above.
In the Red River region, the mushroom is most often seen growing on Green Ash and Bur-Oak trees. On an Oak tree, Laetiporus sulphureus is usually growing not particularly high up a tree trunk, often near ground level, close to, or out of, damaged or punctured bark at the base of a tree.
Fruiting bodies have been reported in spring, in addition to the ‘normal’ summer, and fall seasons of the species above.
Reported clusters of overlapping caps in Manitoba are apparently considered ‘largest’ at a diameter of about 15 inches.
The rubbery caps, up to 20 cm wide, range in colour from sulphur yellow to orange, with some having an added distinction of bright orange tips.
The pore surface on the underside of the caps can range in colour from white to bright yellow (suggesting two varieties of one species, but possibly species divergence).
The interior flesh, white or yellow tinted, is firm, with softer portions towards the edges. When cooked there can be a mildly lemony hint of flavour in addition to the chicken taste.
Newly differentiated species:
Laetiporus cincinnatus: ‘Eastern North America’
Laetiporus cincinnatus/ Laetiporus sulphureus var. semialbinus is an oak-inhabiting, butt-rot or root-rot fungus—biologically distinct by virtue of mating incompatibility with other Laetiporus species and by its DNA.
Laetiporus cincinnatus may be found growing from late spring through fall; fairly widely distributed from Eastern North America (where it overlaps in geographical habitat with L. sulphureus), to the Midwestern Great Plains.
A difference between Laetiporus cincinnatus and L. sulphureus is the manner in which nutrients are extracted from the host tree. L. cincinnatus extracts nutrients from the tree’s roots or from the butt of the tree (the part adjacent to the roots). The mushroom is usually found growing at the very base of a tree trunk, but may be found as high up a tree as five feet, or, even fruiting from soil a fair distance from a tree (the fungus emerging from roots below ground). Because of its ground-level fruiting location, L. cincinnatus normally develops as a rosette of several to many individual caps, only rarely arranging itself in shelving clusters on vertical surfaces.
The rosette may grow up to 45 cm across. The individual caps range in size from 4–20 cm across; 6–20 cm deep; and up to 2 cm thick. They may be shaped like fans, or be semicircular, kidney-shaped, or irregularly lobed. The caps range from smooth to wrinkled and have a suede-like texture. Caps range in colour from pale to bright pinkish orange (involving less yellow than Laetiporus sulphureus), frequently with vague concentric bands of alternating shades; but the colour may fade with maturity or in direct sunlight; the edges are often whitish.
Laetiporus cincinnatus has a white to cream-colored pore surface, a feature separating it from yellow-pore-surfaced Laetiporus sulphureus. This difference may persist even when dried (both the cap and pore surfaces dry to a dull to pinkish orange or dull brownish orange and can retain these shades for at least 20 years).
The flesh is white; thick, soft and watery when young, turning chalky with age until it crumbles easily. In odor and taste Laetiporus cincinnatus mushrooms are like other Chicken of the Woods.
Laetiporus huroniensis of the Great Lakes, a.k.a Pine Chicken of the Woods/ Polypore de Huronie: ‘Northeastern North America’
Laetiporus huroniensis is found from the northern Midwest to the northeastern United States into the Great Lakes region, including up into Canada (Ontario and Quebec).
Laetiporus huroniensis is visually almost identical to L. sulphureus. The two fungi are best distinguished, therefore, by where and on what they are growing—L. huroniensis differing in that it fruits only on conifers, while L. sulphureus is limited to deciduous hosts.
Typically Laetiporus huroniensis grows as solitary or overlapping clusters on older and dead, large-diameter conifer trunks, often in areas dominated by Canadian Hemlock/ Eastern Hemlock/ Eastern Hemlock-Spruce/ Pruche de Canada/ Tsuga canadensis (a tree not native to Manitoba).
The conifer diet of Laetiporus huroniensis may account for the greater number of reports of distress after eating this mushroom than there are for L. sulphureus—given that the chemical make-up of any species is a direct result of what it takes in from its environment.
Laetiporus conifericola and Laetiporus gilbertsonii: Further to the west of North America
True Laetiporus sulphureus does not occur in the far west of North America, but at least two lookalikes do (and they are similar in appearance to L. huroniensis):
• Laetiporus conifericola grows only on conifers. Specimens have been found growing in Alaska, British Columbia, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. The mushroom grows on mature Fir (Red Fir in California), Spruce, and Hemlock, or on dead stumps and logs (including utility poles), and sometimes even from roots.
Laetiporus conifericola fruits in the fall and takes about four weeks to fully develop. It is most often found growing in overlapping clusters made up of plates shingled one on top of another. Clusters may be up to a square meter or more in size. Individual plates may semicircular to fan-shaped; up to 25 cm (10 in) wide, 15 cm (6 in) deep, and 3 cm (1 in) thick. The surface may be smooth or suede-like, and is often uneven or wrinkled.
The cap colour ranges from bright yellow or orange to salmon orange. The margin/ outer edge is often yellow. Cap colour may fade with age to yellowish, buff/ brownish, or dull whitish. The pore surface on the underside is yellow.
The white to pale-yellow to salmon-tinged flesh is thick, soft, and watery when young and fresh (and may exude yellow or orange droplets); later turning tough and then chalky and crumbly.
Laetiporus conifericola is considered edible for about 90 percent of human beings, but, as with L. huroniensis some people have reported having gastrointestinal upset after eating the fungus. As is the case with all varieties of Chicken of the Woods, it is safest to harvest young specimens with soft flesh, or the fresh margins of older mushrooms (with age the tougher portions can become unpleasantly sour to the taste), and be sure to thoroughly cook them.
• Laetiporus gilbertsonii is visually indistinguishable from L. sulphureus, though it is biologically distinct. L. gilbertsonii is found growing along the West Coast south from California to Mexico, in Arizona and Texas, and to the north in Oregon and Washington.
A closely related mushroom identified as Laetiporus gilbertsonii var. pallidus grows in the Gulf states and the Caribbean, and a variety that may turn out to be a new species has been reported in Brazil.
Laetiporus gilbertsonii is distinguished from L. conifericola by growing not on conifers, but only on the deadwood of Oak and of Eucalyptus trees. Fruitings can repeat year after year from the same stump or log.
The mushroom fruits in bright-orange clusters of multi-tiered velvety shelves that persist for several weeks, then fade to greyish-white, until they crumble and fall to the ground.
Laetiporus gilbertsonii is edible, but more frequently implicated in reports of sickness after eating than L. huroniensis or L. conifericola—possibly due to growing on Eucalyptus (incidentally, old fruitings of Chicken of the Woods found on Eucalyptus trees are frequently infested with termites).
Laetiporus persicinus a.k.a White Chicken Mushroom/ Spring Chicken: ‘Southeastern’
Laetiporus persicinus/ Polyporus persicinus is most commonly found in North Carolina and Florida, but has been reported in Maryland, Texas, and even the Pacific Northwest. It is also found in Africa, Australia, Asia, and South America.
In North America, this salmon-pink mushroom grows on mature and dead hardwood (Oak) and softwood (Pine) trees. The mushrooms is most often found on the ground next to tree stumps (growing up from the underground tree roots), though they sometimes appear directly on the wood.
Laetiporus persicinus mushrooms appear from late spring to late summer, lasting for weeks in hot dry weather. Rain, however, can inhibit the growth of spring mushrooms, while rainy spells later in the season will see parasites rapidly infest the mushrooms, leading to complete decomposition within days.
Although Laetiporus persicinus has been grouped as a member of the same North American species as the various Chicken of the Woods mushrooms, it is not visually similar, and molecular studies indicate it is so distantly related that it may require a new scientific name.
Some field guides describe this mushroom as edible, but there is not total agreement. Reportedly the mushroom can have an unappetizing, unpleasant odor (even after having been dried).