Extract from Part One: Wild
Bear Root - Colorado, USA
In south-western Colorado I met Karlos Baca, a former chef turned teacher and a man on the front line of a food war, teaching indigenous people to survive the American food system by decolonising their diets. He took me to find a plant which had been part of Native American life for thousands of years, an ingredient for cooking with but also a medicine.
From the Ute community centre, we drove into the forest of the La Plata Mountain in the southernmost Rockies. We climbed past tall oak trees and silver-trunked aspens thick with leaves turning autumnal orange and red. Above the tree line were miles of valleys and mountain peaks stretching far into the distance, rising and falling across 13,000 feet. Deep in the forest and away from the path, Baca led us to a thick, green plant, with parsley-like leaves and small, snowflake-like flowers. He dug his hands into the earth and gently brushed away the soil to reveal a tangle of roots with a chocolate-brown surface. ‘This one’s young, maybe three years old,’ he said, ‘too young to be disturbed,’ and he patted it back into place. Instead, he passed me a piece of leaf to eat. It tasted of crisp celery and fresh carrot with the added heat of pepper and the numbing sensation of a chest rub. The osha plant can take a decade to mature, at which point indigenous people will harvest only some of its roots, allowing the plant to carry on growing, unharmed. Its leaves can be added to soups or cooked with meat but, as with murnong, the real treasure lies beneath the soil. For thousands of years, the plant’s dark brown, twig-like roots have been used not only as a spice to flavour food but also as a potent medicine. There are stories of animals much larger than humans digging up this plant, chewing its roots and rubbing it into their fur. Which is why it goes by the name ‘bear root’.
Legends shared by Native Americans of bears interacting with the root were first put to the test in the late 1970s. A young Harvard student, Shawn Sigstedt (now a professor of biology at Colorado University), had gone to live with a Navajo community in Arizona to study traditional medicine. There, he came across bear root, or osha as they called it. Navajo healers told him how, long ago, hunters learned of the plant’s powers by watching bears wake from hibernation and seek out the plant, dig up the roots and chew them up into a paste which they then rubbed over their bodies with their paws.
Intrigued by the story, Sigstedt took his research to a zoo in Colorado Springs and started to feed pieces of osha to two captive black bears. Their reaction to the root astonished him; the animals did exactly as the Navajo described. But as well as chewing the plant and rubbing the puréed root with their paws, they shook their heads and sprayed the osha from their mouths, creating what Sigstedt described as an aerosol effect. Sigstedt spent years studying bear behaviour and analysing the root which had antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties. It also contained painkilling chemicals and a powerful insecticide. What Stigstedt had been told by the Navajo in the 1970s weren’t legends, they were scientifically accurate observations. Even a sniff of the tiniest flake of bear root has a distinctly medicinal smell. It packs a menthol punch which leaves you with a sharp, cleansing sensation.
Osha is a powerful plant, and it is also a highly regional one, found mostly around the southern end of the Rocky Mountains in the forests of south-western Colorado (it is also called Colorado cough root). One theory is the plant lives in symbiosis with microbes found only in the high altitude of the Rockies and Mexico’s Sierra Nevada, which is why people have so far found it impossible to cultivate. And so indigenous people with access to bear root traded it far and wide, and each tribe who adopted it used it in a slightly different way. The Navajo, Zuni, Southern Ute and Lakota used osha to treat stomach pains and toothache; the Lakota smoked the root to relieve headaches; the Tarahumara of north-eastern Mexico, who are legendary long-distance runners, ate bear root to increase stamina and ease joint pain. Further south, Pueblo tribes used it in a concoction they sprinkled across their maize fields to keep pests away; Comanche elders in Oklahoma tied pieces of the root around their ankles to repel snakes, and if they were bitten, they would chew the root into a pulp to treat the wound. The Chiricahua and Mescelero Apache, meanwhile, added the root to stews to spice up the flavour of meat.
To some indigenous people, bear root was a sacred plant and the places where it grew were often kept secret. Even mentioning its name was sometimes forbidden in the presence of outsiders. But they couldn’t keep it secret forever… Becoming a lucrative wild medicinal plant has helped it become a species at risk.
‘In the mountains it’s foraged on an industrial scale,’ Baca told me. ‘The Forest Service caught one guy with hundreds of pounds of root in the trunk of his car.’
Indigenous knowledge of wild plants such as bear root is something Baca is teaching fellow Native Americans. Knowing these ingredients provides a gateway to traditional ways of cooking and much healthier diets; it can also help dispel some myths. There are a few foods Americans think of as traditional native staples, the most famous being frybread, dough pancakes that puff up as they’re cooked in corn oil on hot skillets. It’s still cooked in homes on reservations in Arizona and New Mexico where it has a strong association with Navajo culture and is sold as an indigenous street food, often described as an ‘American Indian food’. But ‘Navajo frybread’ was never a traditional food – it was created 150 years ago out of desperation.