Vashai Gakithag Mashath
Huhugam Heritage Center
Dry Grass Month marks the ending of summer and the beginning of fall. After the Autumnal Equinox, the days slowly begin to get shorter and nights longer.
In the aftermath of the record breaking summer rains, we have witnessed a huge growth of different plants within our community. Our Hekiu O’otham have named native and introduced plants on our landscape. Some plants observed belong in the vashai (grasses) category, while others belong in the sha’i (brush) category of plants.
We will take a closer look at a few of the plants readily observed on any given day. Chu:huggia, Palmer’s Carelessweed, Palmer’s Amaranth. Some O’otham still gather the fresh small leaves and cook as wild spinach.
The tiny black seeds on the seed-head spikelet’s gathered and parched. The roasted seeds mixed with other foods as a thickener. Some of our southern relatives still make use of this important wild plant.
Vi:bam, Climbing Milkweed, can be observed in certain parts of the community growing on fences, brush and trees. In former days O’otham collected the white sap and slow-boiled it into chewing gum. When in bloom, the spiked flower-heads are not hard to miss. The fragrant blossoms attract hummingbirds and insects that feed on the nectar the tiny flowers provide.
Vakoa ha’hainig (cracked bottle-gourd), White horse-nettle. The name refers to how the dried berries easily crack when they fall off the plant in late fall. The light-violet colored flower petals form the shape of a star and the bright yellow stamens are easily identified.
The dried fingernail-sized round fruits were formerly used in the cheese making process. Today, it’s considered a nuisance plant on the landscape. With the abundance of rain, large stands line the roadways.
A’al Hi:vai, Desert-sunflower, are shorter than Wild-sunflower. Their name means that they are the children of Wild-sunflower, due to their short stature. The plants rarely exceed twenty-four inches in height.
The flower-heads and petals are much smaller than those of Wild-sunflower. O’otham recognize a’al hi:vai due to its strong overpowering odor, they tend to leave them alone. Because of the strong odor, parents remind their children not to gather the flowers.
Ka:nyu Chu’igam (sugarcane it looks like), Johnson Grass. This introduced plant resembled the sugarcane plant, hence its O’otham name. With the abundant summer rainfall, we can see how the tall stands of Johnson Grass resembles the sugarcane plant.
In the desert southwest it’s considered an invasive and noxious weed due to the damage it can cause to cash-crops and livestock. The tall plants eradicated from fields, as they use nutrients and water that crops need.
Kothdop, Sacred Datura, Jimsonweed. The plant and flowers are toxic and O’otham tend to leave them alone. They are recognized as a dangerous plant on the landscape.
We encourage you to learn the plant names in O’otham. Speak with an Elder or Speaker and learn to say the names. Some plant names may be slightly different between villages. The word match will test your identification skills of a few plants by their appearance and flowers.
Information for this article related from, At the Desert’s Green Edge: An Ethnobotany of the Gila River Pima by Amadeo Rea, 1997, University of Arizona Press. Answers to word/picture match found on page 8.