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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on local landscape and natural history of Pend Oreille County, Washington. A partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department has allowed us to expand this program through EPA funding to include more classes, a newsletter and this website.

Looking for Wild Carrots

by Jack Nisbet

On a parched August afternoon, walking through the sagebrush country southwest of Spokane, I spotted a plant that looked much like fresh garden dill. Almost waist high and spindly, its umbrella clusters of tiny white flowers were still blooming at the height of summer's sun. When my daughter tugged at the top of one plant, a single root not much bigger than a pencil stub popped right out of the ground. We peeled the skin off the tuber and nibbled on crunchy white flesh that tasted like a sweet parsnip. There were so many of these flowers nodding among the bunchgrass that we couldn't resist tugging up a few more. Some had multiple roots that nudged and twisted around one another, growing into fanciful shapes almost like ginseng. Because of the look of its seeds, this wildflower of the American West is called wild caraway in many plant books. and some tribal people call it wild carrots. But it most commonly goes by its Shoshone name, Yampah. Although the heart of yampah range lies well south of our corner of northeast Washington, there is evidence that the plant used to thrive here. When the explorer David Thompson traveled through the Colville Valley in 1812, he traded for baskets of what he called "wild carrots," and said that their roots when cooked were "black and sweetish." Native Americans of Spokane and Kalispel descent who grew up along the Colville at the turn of the 20th century said they dug wild carrots around the swampy valley floor. Yet I never recalled anyone I knew having seen yampah north of Spokane. My curiosity piqued, I decided to stuff a few of the yampah roots into a plastic bag to show and see what Alice Ignace had to say about them. She is an elder of the Kalispel tribe who over seven decades has accumulated a vast store of native plant knowledge.

"Oh yeah," Alice said after she examined the plants. "I know what these are. Some people call them wild carrots, but in Indian they are Little Fingers. See?" She held one double root up so I could see how the shrunken, elongated tubers twined around one another like tiny digits. "I haven't seen any of these around here for a long time," Alice said. She pointed toward the black water of the Pend Oreille River behind her house. "You know before that dam raised the river, there was an island right out there. Every year in early summer, that's when my grandmother would call me to go with her. We'd row over to Frog Island in her little boat and on the high grassy bumps find plenty of those wild carrots, just coming up. Their roots would be big then. My grandmother would get right to work with her stick and keep at until she had almost a gunny sack full. They were so much easier to dig than camas. When she decided we had enough, she'd tie up her sack with a cord, then tie the cord to the boatline. While we rowed back home she'd let the sack drag underwater, and the river would wash the roots all the way across." As she spoke, Alice used her hands to show the action of the water, one hand closing against the open palm of the other, back and forth, back and forth, washing the soil away from the roots.

"By the time we reached our side of the river, they'd be all cleaned off. My grandmother would open the bag right there and we'd eat wild carrots--didn't roast them or anything, just ate them raw. After we'd had as much as we wanted, we would spread the rest out on a tule mat to dry. In a few days they would shrivel up, all skinny and twisted, almost as small as these that you have here. When she wanted to eat some over the winter, she'd drop them in a jar of water and you could watch them blow back up until it was like they had just come out of the ground.

"Some people would roast them like camas, but my grandmother would just pound them down and add them to the little cakes that she patted up in her hands. You could never tell what she'd put in those things. Deer meat. Choke cherries. Camas. A little dried salmon or whitefish. Dried huckleberries. Bear fat. These little fingers here. They were always good."

Alice stuffed the roots back into the plastic bag. Listening to her, it was easy to see the wild carrots sprouting up through the grass on her grandmother's island, or along the worn path walked by David Thompson between the boggy Colville River and the open slopes of ponderosa pine. It was easier to understand how they might have disappeared in the Colville after the ambitious dredging projects that began there in 1912, and how dam projects changed the mix of things in the Pend Oreille. But more than anything else, her words made me want to look around a little more carefully this summer, when the sun gets hot and most of the wildflower fade. Somewhere along the Pend Oreille River, perhaps on one of the islands that still dot the water come July, a few Little Fingers might still be still hanging on.

Editor's note: CAUTION! Wild carrots are very similar to poison hemlock and water hemlock.

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