By Raleigh Burleigh, KDNK
In Colorado, we rely on countless plants as foreign to the area as our ancestors.
Before our time the Ute peoples roamed these mesas and fertile valleys, gathering their sustenance and materials from indigenous plants that have lost significance as the Utes, carriers of this knowledge, have been separated from their land.
On the edge of the Mesa County Fairgrounds is a living laboratory, honoring the ancestral wisdom of the Ute People. The Ute Learning Garden, residing on 2.5 acres of land next to the Mesa County Fairgrounds, is divided into four zones, each representing an ecosystem within the seasonal migratory routes that Ute families traversed for over a thousand years.
In February, the Bureau of Land management in Colorado awarded the Grand Junction Ethnobotany Team the Heritage Hero Award for bringing Ute Tribal Leaders and youth to their ancestral lands to share knowledge and traditional plant uses.
“My name is Mike Calabro and I am a volunteer with the CSU Extension Office. Ready to go into the Garden?”
Mike Calabro, my guide to the garden, explains that to the Utes living on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation in northeastern Utah, this is the old country of nostalgic reminiscing, in much the same way that Sicily is the old country to Mike’s Italian ancestors.
“This is a Pinyon Pine tree, and you’ve probably got a lot of them around your place…”
We begin our tour in the Pinyon-Juniper Zone, historically a springtime destination for Ute families.
“Now these trees are still a little bit too young. But when it gets to about 100 years old, they’ll start getting a good crop of Pinyon nuts and they’ll keep growing for 7 or 8 or 900 years…”
“Wow! It takes 100 years before they produce Pinyon nuts?”
“A good supply of Pinyon nuts, they’ll provide some but not a lot. It’s also very high calorie food, a pound of pinyon nuts will have 3000 calories, that’s similar to a pound of steak.”
Mike shows me the Mormon tea, brewed for kidney and bladder disorders…
“And I understand that it tastes pretty awful, but if you add enough lemon juice to it and some sugar it’s not bad, y’know?”
The woods rose, producing a fruit high in vitamin c, medicinal roots and strong branches for making arrows…
“And then they would just pull this branch through that hole and it would strip off all the branches and all of the thorns off of that and then they would have their arrow shaft…”
“Gambol oak is great because it produces an acorn and the acorn is a good food source not only for just eating the nuts but also for mashing it up and making it into a flour…”
“The powder on the Aspen tree…”
In the Aspen Zone, Mike demonstrates using white powder from the bark of an Aspen Tree as sunscreen…
“In the springtime you’re gonna have cattails hanging off of these and some groups will eat those… now I’m not saying you should eat them because now we’re putting a lot of pesticides on stuff..”
In the Desert Zone of colder months, Mike shows me the four-wing saltbush…
“It’s saltbush because when it gets leaves on it… and you might be able taste…” tch… “they’ll be salty…”
“The Yucca Plant… and this plant is really interesting because of this really tough thread … the Indians would make their moccasins and their leggings, they would weave this together.. but the other part of this plant is the roots of this plant have safranin and when you take safranin and add it to water you get soap suds and that becomes their shampoo… Now the other thing is it’s gonna get a stock in the center here… and that stock is edible just like an asparagus… it’s gonna get a flower on it… and that flower is gonna produce a fruit and that fruit is edible…”
“So these are a couple of cool plants right here…”
This project, conceived in 2009 is a collaboration between Colorado State University Extension, Northern Utes of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation and the BLM. It serves to connect current residents of Colorado, as well as Ute descendants, to the ancestral history of this land.
For KDNK News and Western Slope Resource Reporting, I’m Raleigh Burleigh.
Western Slope Resources Reporting is a collaborative of 5 stations across the Western Slope of Colorado that provides in-depth coverage of how people and organizations are finding creative and positive ways to overcome natural resource-related challenges.