“My work is about plants and people.” – Dr. Kelly Kindscher
Kelly Kindscher is a Senior Scientist with the Kansas Biological Survey and a Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Kansas, where his students call him “Kelly.” Many Kansans know him as “Mr. Prairie.”
A lifelong Kansan, Kindscher is a founder of the Kansas Land Trust, a statewide conservation group, and KU’s Native Medicinal Plant Research Program, which bio-prospects for medicinal compounds in native prairie plants. Somewhere in there, he found time to map coneflower populations in Wyoming; study wetlands in New Mexico; chart the plants in Kansas’ state parks; and publish dozens of papers and two books: Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie (1987) and Medicinal Wild Plants of the Prairie (1992); both published by the University of Kansas Press.
In 2006, Kindscher and University of Arizona ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan published Renewing the Native Food Traditions of Bison Nation, a manifesto calling for the large-scale restoration of free-ranging bison to large tracts of the Plains, and the renewal of food traditions unique to the region. Immense herds of bison modified the prairie landscape for thousands of years, creating rich habitat for many plants and animals, which in turn provided highly nutritious food for Native Americans–a population now plagued, like much of the nation, with diabetes.
Kindscher knows full well the wealth of the prairie. Thirty years ago he and a friend walked across Kansas, a 70-day trek in blazing summer, tracking the changes in vegetation.
Prairie turnip (Psoralea esculenta), chokecherries, lambsquarter, wild licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota), prickly pear cactus, leek-flavored Yucca blossoms and wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa; “The best prairie mint.”), were once used as food and medicine by Plains natives. Kindscher is powerfully fond of lambsquarter (Chenopodium album), a quinoa relative weedy enough to infuriate gardeners. He cooks big pots of it with olive oil. “I wish more restaurant chefs would catch on to lambsquarter,” he says. “It’s a hearty, flavorful green, a sweeter version of chard, and it grows wild everywhere. It gets a nine out of ten for flavor.
He also favors the puckery chokecherry (Prunus virginiana), once a dietary staple of Plains tribes, combined with bison jerky to make pemmican, the native American equivalent of a mega-energy bar. In the creek-laced woods are leafy stands of LINK pawpaws (Asimina triloba) with green, oblong fruits with a golden, custardy pulp that mingles tastes of pineapple and banana. “The pawpaw is the only tropically related fruit that has made it this far north,” Kindscher notes. He praises the buffalo currant (Ribes odoratum), especially “Crandall”, a Kansas cultivar prized by rural jelly-makers. “Jelly and preserves are a great way to capture phytonutrients,” he adds.
The wild prairie is abundant in edible roots, bulbs and tubers rich in complex carbohydrates–a trade-off for their often subtle flavors. “Most native root crops–prairie turnips, hog peanuts, Jerusalem artichokes–are too bland for modern palates,” Kindscher observes, “though they generally offer superior nutrition. You have to choose between healthy food and junk and sometimes that means different tastes.”
The concept of food as medicine looms large in Kindscher’s work with the Native Medicinal Plant Research Program (NMPRP). The NMPRP was granted a U.S. patent in 2012 for the discovery of new chemical compounds in the wild tomatillo (Physalis longifolia), a prairie fruit significant to the Indian diet. “Dried, they taste like sweet cranberries,” says Kindscher. The compounds in wild tomatillos also show promising anticancer activity in melanomas, thyroid and breast cancers, and certain leukemias.
The NMPRP’s work on the lonesome prairie has not gone unnoticed by the mainstream. In spring of 2013, Kindscher was contracted by Kellogg’s “to prospect prairie plants for healthful cereal products,” he says, “looking specifically for fiber and protein.” Someday there might be a taste of the wild prairie in your breakfast bowl.
Kindscher’s knowledge of prairie plants takes him to the classroom and the field, the kitchen and the community pot-luck, the laboratory and the dais, the courtroom and the publisher. “I’m a jack-of-all-plants,” he laughs. And how does a jack-of-all plants unwind at home at the end of another flora-filled day? He tends a vegetable garden that most people would call a small farm.