The Moon of the Wild Onion
North Dakota is fortunate compared to other states in the amount of natural, native prairie which still remains within our borders. We have three types of prairie here, tallgrass, mixed-grass and shortgrass. Tallgrass prairie, that of pioneer lore, tall enough to conceal a horse and rider, is nearly gone now. Scattered bits remain, mostly around pioneer cemeteries and old railroad grades. Mixed-grass prairie is just that, a mix of tall and shortgrass prairie species. And shortgrass is what we see in western North Dakota, stubby, stubborn grass species always waiting for the next rain shower.
As in other states to the east and south, most of this prairie east of the Missouri River would have been put to the plow were it not for the rocks and rubble of the Missouri Coteau which run from the Southeast to the Northwest across the state.
We live here, on this stretch of rock, clay, gravel and potholes called the Coteau, and we are surrounded by native, mixed-grass prairie. These days we call it “pasture,” too rocky to till but fine range for cattle, with lush grasses every summer and fat cattle in the fall.
As with everything in the natural world, native prairie has its seasons, with predictable appearances of grasses and forbs (those broad-leafed plants and flowers) which keep their own prairie calendar. There is little doubt you could drop a prairie botanist onto a patch of northern prairie and they could tell you the date within a week by simply observing the vegetation around them.
We know that pasque flowers, or crocus, are the first flower to appear in the spring, their faint purple blooms providing welcome relief against the dry, brown grasses revealed by April’s melting snow.
Scattered purple locoweed comes next, and soon after we will begin to see ground plums in their usual locations. These fruit-like vegetables grow on a thin vine, appearing as if someone spilled a bowl of plums in the short grass. They will turn from green to purple but even when purple they still taste like green beans rather than sweet plums. Prairie smoke plants will soon add more wisps of pink and purple to the landscape in late spring.
Add some heat and rain and by mid-summer the prairie ecosystem is firing on all cylinders and the coneflowers and sage, the chokecherries and wild plums, and the buffaloberry are all repeating the sequence of growth, reproduction and dormancy which has occurred each year for tens of thousands of years.
Which brings us to late July and early August, and the “Moon of the Wild Onion”. Unfortunately most people will never see a wild prairie onion, much less taste one, unless you have access to native prairie. Prairie denizens know when the tops of the goldenrod start to take on a golden tinge, the onions are not far behind. And once the gaudy purple blazing star makes its late summer entrance, the onions are ready too.
The prairie onion is a hardy plant, seeming to welcome dry, rocky soil. And when the time is right, entire slopes might be covered with their light pink blossoms, each sitting atop a hard, green, onion stalk.
In his journal, the commander of North Dakota’s frontier Fort Stevenson, Philippe de Trobriand, described a unique gourmet meal provided by the prairie in the 1860s: “Dined on fresh buffalo tongues and a beaver tail seasoned with small wild onions, table delicacies that an Epicurean could not get in Paris even for gold.”
Although a French aristocrat himself, he raved about the meal, noting “…the celebrated gourmets of Europe cannot imagine what they missed or what they will miss in dying without a taste of them.”
High praise for the front and back end of a bison and beaver respectively. Of course it was the onions that sealed the deal and spurred the commander’s culinary exhortations.
These delicious wild onions, which some describe as tasting like shallots, or perhaps a cross between and onion or garlic, are about the size of a “cocktail” onion. So while they pack a welcome punch of savory goodness, it takes some time and digging to assemble a bowlful. Prairie onions don’t grow deep, but you won’t pull them out by grabbing the tops and pulling; use a knife or spoon to loosen the bulb before tugging it out of the soil. Unlike your garden-variety onions, these wild cousins maintain a tenacious grip in the hard soil.
Although uncommonly tasty, wild onions are thankfully very common on native prairie and not considered a threatened or endangered plant. Only the Western Prairie Fringed Orchid is considered at-risk in North Dakota. So, if you can find them, try them.
While two-legged omnivores like them, the four-legged bovines working through our pastures must like wild onions too. We move cattle through a dozen different pasture cells over the course of a summer, and our active cell this time of year is always devoid of the familiar purple onion tops. In fairness, anything without thorns or prickles which can’t crawl away is fair game for these hungry Angus. And so the native purple prairie clover and sedges and leadplant go the way of the onions and wild licorice and grass – disappearing down these 1,200 pound food processors only to emerge later as the domestic equivalent of buffalo chips.
Late summer, when the moon hangs low and golden in the hazy evening, is a time of plenty on the wild prairie. The nights are cooler now, and the days already shorter. Although the juneberries are done, the raspberries are in, the chokecherries are hanging heavily, and the real wild plums will soon be taking on their own ruby tinge.
And finally, after many weeks of nurturing, the farm garden is kicking out tomatoes and peppers and summer squash with regularity. And there are potatoes to dig, and farmstead gooseberries to crush into fruity elixir. The hay has come down and harvest season has begun, with crops of wheat, canola and flax falling before hungry combines. The corn is tasseled and the bean pods swelling.
And for now, there are wild onions to eat, with a salad, perhaps as a side dish with beaver tail, or as in our case, a healthy “found” snack while fixing pasture fence. In late summer, life is good on the prairie.
(For more stories of North Dakota's central prairie see Mad Grass: A Warrior Returns, the true story of the Battle of Grand Coteau near Dog Den Butte, North Dakota, now available on Kindle and other eBook retailers.)