Reservation Maps and Prairie Turnips

Res map

 Timpsila map

Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere

Prairie Turnip

Pediomelum esculenta

By Jeremy Trombley

The Prairie turnip, known by a variety of names such as breadroot, Timpsula, prairie potato, and scurfpea, is a staple of the indigenous populations of the North American plains. As a result of its value as a food product, it also carries a strong symbolic and spiritual connotation among many of these groups as well. Indeed, it figures prominently in many American Indian rituals including the Sun Dance of the Blackfoot tribe.


The prairie turnip plant resembles the ordinary turnip (Brassica rapa) only in that it grows underground. The prairie turnip is a legume whose root forms a long, thin, edible tuber about four inches below the ground. It is covered by a thin skin which is easily removed to reveal the starchy white flesh inside. The plant above ground has several medium sized compound leaves and develops large purple flowers in the late Spring. After flowering, the plant breaks off at the ground and blows away like a tumbleweed, spreading its seeds.


The tuber, which is high in protein, starch and vitamin C, is collected in June or July when it is ripe (according to Kay Fleming “in Lakota, the month of June is called tinpsila itkahca wi, meaning the moon when breadroot is ripe.”). It can then be consumed fresh by boiling, baking, frying or roasting or it can be processed and preserved for later. The method of processing usually involves drying and pounding to create a flour-like substance. This can then be added to soups to thicken the broth, or to make a porridge or trail bar. More recently it has been used in some recipes for Indian fry bread, particularly in the northern plains states.

Ritual Significance

According to a Blackfoot legend, the prairie turnip was brought down from the sky by a woman who had married the morning star, but was ejected from the heavens when she dug the root up. Clearly, the importance of the root as a staple food has given it powerful cultural significance and, as a result it has been incorporated into many ceremonies. In the Blackfoot Sundance ritual, the opening ceremony involves the exchange of a bundle which contains many symbolic items representing the importance of the prairie turnip. Additionally, some participants have been known to wear headdresses made from bundles of the root.


Timpsula, Turnip of the Prairie by Kay Fleming

The sacred turnip: dietary clues gleaned from tuber traditions – role of the prairie turnip in the life of the Blackfoot Indians