Stalking the Wild Groundnut

Groundnut 450

Once I paid attention to it, the plant appeared everywhere. Its foliage clouded our view of the river. Its vines tangled with my pumpkins, twisted around goldenrod, jewelweed, cow parsnip — in fact, anything with a stalk — and grew so long and intertwined that it was impossible to tease one out to find where it sprouted. In August, I was drawn to its maroon-and-cream-colored flowers, shaped like pea blossoms and smelling of lilies. I picked a cluster and looked it up in a wildflower guide.

The plant was Apios americana, also known as wild bean, Indian potato, potato bean, and, most commonly, groundnut (though other plants, including peanuts, are also called groundnuts). Apios americana is a legume, like peas and beans, and prefers moist soil. Where established, it grows aggressively, its vines spreading up to ten feet each summer. Cranberry farmers hours north of my place in Wisconsin consider “wild bean” a weed and spray it with herbicides. But a University of Maine agriculture bulletin suggests an alternative: “One way to remove the tubers would be to eat them, just as Native Americans and the Pilgrims were accustomed to doing.”

Indeed, for centuries Apios americana was a staple in the diets of many Native Americans, which explains why it grows profusely where they once encamped. Almost every part of the plant is edible — shoots, flowers, the seeds that grow in pods like peas, but, most importantly, the tubers. These tubers (the groundnuts) are swellings that form along a thin rhizome, like beads on a necklace. They can be small as a fingernail or, rarely, large as a melon. And as with other root vegetables, they sweeten after a frost and overwinter well in a cool, damp place, offering sustenance in a time when the land provides little other food. Pilgrims were taught to dig and cook groundnuts by the Wampanoags, and these “Indian potatoes” probably spared the newcomers from starvation. Henry David Thoreau knew and ate the tubers. He wrote in his journal, “In case of a famine, I should soon resort to these roots.”

However, neither Thoreau nor the Native Americans nor the Pilgrims could have known how healthy groundnuts are. Like potatoes, they are high in starch. But they’re also relatively high in protein, containing up to 17 percent — about three times as much as potatoes. In addition, studies from at least two U.S. universities reveal that groundnuts contain a significant quantity of isoflavones, chemicals linked to a decreased incidence of prostate and breast cancers. Plants for a Future, a British organization that educates the public on “edible, medicinal, and useful plants for a healthier world,” ranks Apios americana as the fourth-most-important plant in its database of seven thousand.

Much of this I discovered by searching the Internet long past midnight on the day I picked the groundnut blossoms. And then I lay awake thinking. How could I not have heard of this wild food? After following my parents through the woods looking for morels and fiddleheads every spring? After childhood summers at nature camp by the oxbow? Of course, I was curious to taste it. My partner, David, and I resolved to dig some of the tubers. But we’d wait until after a frost, when they’d be sweeter.

THE NEXT DAY WE VISITED OUR FRIENDS Erin and Dave Varney, who operate One Sun Farm a few miles from our property. The Varneys practice permaculture, which involves the planting of diverse, perennial, interdependent species appropriate for one’s locale. For example, Dave plants strawberries between his hazelnut bushes. Both will coexist happily for years. And he planted the hybridized hazelnuts where he had seen wild hazelnuts grow previously. “I kept cutting these things down, and they kept coming back. Then I thought, ‘Wait! Something’s telling me to grow hazelnuts here!'” A lanky, energetic young man, Dave speaks with the arm-waving zeal of a southern preacher.

We picked up our dozen eggs and stood talking near the chicken coop in the late afternoon sun. I told Dave about the groundnuts, how we found the plant, researched it, and planned to taste the tubers. He rubbed his chin and looked skyward.

“But no one’s cultivated it?” he asked.

“They’ve tried, but it takes two or three years to produce sizeable tubers, so — ”

“It sounds like a permaculture crop! Commercial growers want one season and out. They don’t want to wait, to make an investment.”

Even after our conversation wandered to other topics, Dave would say, “Oh, now you’ve got me excited about this groundnut.” He’d never seen a plant matching its description on his property, so we promised to bring him some tubers, enough to eat and to plant.

The sun was setting when we arrived home. A deer grazed on the hill across the road, and in front of the deer and nearly as tall, a pair of sandhill cranes pecked and stepped their way through the grass.

I went to the shed and found a spade. “We won’t make any judgments,” I told David. “We know they’ll taste better in a few months, right?”

“Okay, we’ll just try them.”

High on the riverbank I grabbed some tendrils and followed them to what I thought was an Apios americana stem. David dug a football-sized clod of dirt from beneath it, then held up the shovelful for my inspection. Yes! Poking out were two strings of dark-brown groundnuts, looking just like the illustrations I’d seen online. We tugged to separate them from the thatch of grass roots and shook off the dirt. Minutes later we had collected about a dozen, ranging from a half inch to two inches in diameter. A few were soft and woody — the older ones, we guessed. Most were firm as knuckles.

We hadn’t brought a bag, so I made a pouch out of the front of my t-shirt to carry them home, where we washed and then examined our harvest in the colander. What to do with them? Depending on the tribe, Native Americans had boiled the tubers, dried them to make a flour, fried them in animal fat, or roasted them with maple syrup. Thoreau also offered hints on their preparation:

October 12, 1852. I dug some ground nuts with my hands in the railroad sand bank, just at the bottom of the high embankment on the edge of the meadow. These were nearly as large as hen’s eggs. I had them roasted and boiled at supper time. The skins came off readily, like a potato’s. Roasted they had an agreeable taste, very much like a common potato, though they were somewhat fibrous in texture. With my eyes shut I should not have known but I was eating a somewhat soggy potato. Boiled they were unexpectedly quite dry, and though in this instance a little strong, had a more nutty flavor. With a little salt a hungry man could make a very palatable meal on them.

But since we’d dug our groundnuts months before their peak, we decided to cook them in a manner that couldn’t fail: fried in butter and salt.

With paring knives and great patience we peeled every one of the groundnuts, even the smallest. The ivory flesh, dense as ginger root and striated with tiny capillaries, left a starchy residue on our knives. We sliced the naked tubers on a mandoline, then fried the slices in a cast-iron skillet until we had a pan full of little brown coins — penny- and nickel-sized chips. After letting them drain on a paper towel, we agreed to take our first bites simultaneously, in case they weren’t good after all. But they were good. Delicious, in fact. A flavor something like a potato, but sweeter, and, as Thoreau had written, a little nutty.

IN THE FOLLOWING MONTH I ASKED EVERYONE I encountered — friends, relatives, neighbors, foresters, checkout clerks at the food co-op — if they’d heard of groundnuts, by this or any other name. I described the plant’s habitat, vines, and foliage, its relation to peas, and its tubers, but no one, not even an acquaintance who boasts of enduring lengthy survival training and uses clamshells as utensils, was familiar with it. How had a once-vital food source become invisible, just another weed?

I contacted Sam Thayer, a wild-edibles expert who lives in northern Wisconsin. He conducts foraging workshops across the nation and recently published a book on the subject. Groundnuts, it turned out, were not only among his favorite wild foods but also his favorite topic of conversation, though Sam chooses to call the plant by its Lenape name, hopniss. I phoned him at lunchtime, and he was munching as he talked. I imagined him before a large bowl of various shoots, roots, berries, and leaves that I would be hard-pressed to identify.

“I don’t have all the answers, but this is something I can explain,” Sam said when I asked why so few people knew about the plant.

His theory was that the first Europeans who arrived in this country found the thought of living like Native Americans abhorrent. Some foods, like corn, they recognized as “super important” for survival and adaptable to European cuisine and methods of cultivation. Those deemed unsuited to the European lifestyle were not only rejected but stigmatized. Sam gave as examples from the Great Lakes region acorns, wild rice, hickory nuts, wapato, also known as arrowhead, and groundnuts. In the southeastern United States, he said, the forgotten food is lotus, whose roots he claimed were delicious. “No European would eat it. Now hardly anyone remembers that it’s edible.”

Sam estimated that he eats a hundred pounds of groundnuts a year, in at least two meals per week. He harvests them in early November before the ground freezes and stores them in a root cellar. One of his favorite ways to prepare groundnuts is to boil, peel, and cube the tubers, let them dry, then grind the dried cubes into a meal, which he later reconstitutes into something that, with some taco seasoning and lime juice, resembles refried beans. He added, “I also like to make a hot dish of hopniss, grated wild parsnip, onions, and wild rice. To be perfect, you should make this with squirrel broth, but if you don’t have that you can use something else.”

I mentioned having read that groundnuts were exported to Ireland during the potato famine, and that many centuries earlier, explorers had tried to transplant Apios americana to Germany and France, but these attempts at domestication failed.

“I wouldn’t say they failed,” Sam said. “They just didn’t produce within the traditional monoculture model. Hopniss are easy to transplant, but they don’t like to be alone. They want to grow under the roots of other things, like elderberry. Or next to Jerusalem artichokes. They’re a twin to Jerusalem artichokes. I imagine them fitting into a three-tier system. In Wisconsin, you could have hickory, hackberry, or sugar maple as the overstory, elderberry in the middle, then hopniss below.”

It was just as our friend Dave Varney had said: Apios americana is a permaculture plant. But Sam wanted to talk about something else.

“I have to tell you, since I’ve been feeding people hopniss all these years, I’ve found out some of them will get violently ill after eating it.” It had never happened the first time someone tried it, he said, but it could happen the second time or even after many years of eating it. “Maybe you need to build up a certain dose of the protein. Maybe there’s more of this allergen in larger tubers. Or it might have to do with the growing conditions.” He estimated that as many as 5 percent of Apios americana eaters would be made sick at some point and, once they reacted, would become ill with every subsequent bite. “That’s the only thorn on this rose. Otherwise, it would be a perfect food.”

That weekend David and I had planned a party to celebrate the completion of our straw-bale wood-shop and thank our friends and neighbors who had helped. After raving about groundnuts for a month, I had promised that I’d prepare some. Two grocery sacks full of tubers waited in our cold garage. But on the morning of the party, as I ran about town gathering provisions, I began to have second thoughts. Was it okay to serve the tubers as long as I warned people about the possible effects? What about the children?

Finally, an hour before the party, I dumped the groundnuts into a sink full of water. I would assume that Sam was right about no one getting sick the first time and that this would be our guests’ first taste. As for David and me, we would take our chances.

According to Sam’s recommendation, I boiled the tubers a long while to loosen the skins, filling the kitchen with a musty steam. After peeling them, I put the groundnuts in a Crock-Pot with a half stick of butter and about three-quarters of a cup of maple syrup, loaded it in the car, and drove to our straw-bale building. By the time I arrived, I was late for my own party, and in the haste of setting up I simply plugged in the Crock-Pot and forgot about it. Later, a friend reminded me of my promise to serve groundnuts. I scooped out a few and put them on his plate.

“Oh, wow. This is delicious!” he said and quickly held out his plate for another helping.

Others circled around, and soon I had a full-time serving position as people lined up for seconds and thirds. Their groundnut questions became more and more specific, until finally I said, “Want to go get some?”

Friends grabbed shovels and followed me to the riverbank. Some wanted to see the vines, but our first light frost had killed them weeks before, and what remained were nearly invisible, brittle tendrils clinging to the weeds. Yet in our area you needn’t follow a vine to the ground to find tubers. The plants grow so densely that sinking a spade anywhere brings up at least a handful.

We and our friends and neighbors and their children huddled in a circle, the evening sun glowing pink on our cheeks and hair, and took turns with the shovels. A mound of freshly upturned dirt prompted outbursts from those who spied the tubers first. “There’s some! Here!”

Just as Sam had predicted, the tubers were nestled between the roots of other plants — in this case, Jerusalem artichokes and the finger-shaped rhizomes of cow parsnip. The kids clawed through the dirt to get at the tubers, which we then passed around, inspected, and cooed over. Once the larger groundnuts were snapped off and stowed in a pocket, we watched expectantly as the next shovelful was overturned.

For a moment it seemed crazy to me that everyone had gone straight to collecting food from the riverbank at my suggestion. But of course this is how people learn about foraging. Although there have been a handful of books, and now websites, describing which plants are edible and how to prepare them, foraging remains anchored in oral tradition — staked on a communal shovel, a trailside tutorial. But oral tradition lasts only as long as teachers and listeners keep communicating. Sam had told me about the time he prepared wapato, historically a staple of the Ojibwe diet, and brought it to Ojibwe friends in northern Wisconsin. They loved the starchy tuber, but confessed they’d never heard of it, much less tried it. Eventually one of the older men said, “You know, I think I remember my grandmother making a dish like that when I was a kid.” But sometime in the twentieth century his clan forgot about wapato, forgot how it was cooked and how it tasted.

Today most of us have forgotten what our forebears surely knew: that we can find our food in the wild if we need to, that we don’t have to rely on those giant tracts of soybean and corn that dominate the rural Midwest. Few of us carry Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus on nature hikes. We seldom look at a prairie or forest and think “lunch.” I wondered if, the next time they walked in the woods, members of our digging party would taste-test anything besides the obviously edible wild raspberries — if they’d snap off fresh basswood leaves for a salad or gather wild parsnips for soup.

From five clumps of dirt, our party collected more sizeable groundnuts than we could carry. Luckily, one of the children was wearing cargo pants with side pockets as big as saddlebags. These were soon filled, and the wearer waddled his way back to our shop, where he dumped the groundnuts into a sack.

In the end, no one fell ill, either from the groundnuts served at the party or those they took home.

GIVEN HOW TASTY, NUTRITIOUS, AND PROLIFIC groundnuts are, I wasn’t surprised to learn that someone had tried to adapt Apios americana to modern agricultural practices. Sam told me about Bill Blackmon, a professor who led such an effort at Louisiana State University from 1984 to 1996. Bill, however, chooses to call the plant simply “apios.” “It’s like a friend once told me,” he said when I called him. “‘You’d better be careful using some of these Indian names. You don’t really know what you’re saying.'”

Bill’s voice is soft and shaped by a southern accent. He spoke with reverent specificity about germplasms, plant strains, propagation techniques, and about his program. “We had a lot of success,” he said. “It took years to domesticate our potato.”

His Apios americana rivals any Idaho potato plant; the tubers in photos he mailed me are burly and thick on the rhizome, making my foraged versions look puny. When I remarked on the contrast he said, “But that’s what we started with.”

Bill and his colleagues bred Apios americana for larger tubers and more tubers per rhizome. Their most productive strains yielded as many as fifty sizeable tubers and up to eight pounds of edible mass per plant. His group also aimed for greater disease resistance and later attempted to develop a non-twining variety, so that plants needn’t be staked or trellised (which requires more labor) and could be cultivated in rows like ordinary potatoes.

Bill’s writings in the 1980s, in publications like the American Journal of Botany and HortScience, reflect almost giddy enthusiasm for the plant’s potential: “We are in search of the golden nugget buried among Mother Nature’s tuber cache” and “domestication would be a benefit to mankind.” An issue of the “Apios Tribune,” a dittoed newsletter published in 1986 out of Bill’s LSU department, lists several recipes for groundnuts, including Joan Blackmon’s Apios Cornbread, which calls for “1 cup cooked Apios, well mashed.” But in the mid-1990s, despite leading phrases such as “the prognosis for developing A. americana as a food crop looks outstanding,” Bill’s apios paper trail came to an end. I asked what happened.

“I left the program in 1996 to take a position closer to my family, in Virginia,” he said. However, he left the program vigorous, under the capable oversight of a research partner and a team of committed graduate students. They had been close to landing big grants, they were on the verge of releasing strains to growers, and then, somehow — it seemed unclear even to Bill — support faltered and funding was withdrawn.

“I thought it was going to go on. If I hadn’t I wouldn’t have left the university.”

His last hope had been a grad student who planned to continue to research Apios americana at another university, but she decided to study horticulture therapy instead.

“A lot of potential doesn’t always equate to realizing something,” he said, adding, “I haven’t been able to let it go.”

When Bill left the program he took approximately forty strains of Apios americana with him. He maintains them in his home garden, where they go on producing tubers like the ones he grew at LSU. There, groundnuts were everyday fare for him and his colleagues. Now he eats them only occasionally.

In his twenty years of working with the tubers, he hasn’t known them to make anyone ill, but he doesn’t deny Sam’s claims. “If I were still working with apios, I’d try to figure out why that happens,” he said, and then added, “Maybe you could put together some assays . . . it takes someone who’ll grit their teeth and stick with it.”

Never had I wished so earnestly to be a horticulture postdoc.

Bill offered to send me five or six strains of his domesticated tubers, but warned that they might not yield as abundantly or even survive as far north as Wisconsin, and because of the shorter growing season, they probably wouldn’t produce seedpods. He also cautioned me to keep them in a cold place until I could plant them in spring. Naturally, he would appreciate it if I shared my observations.

THE FOLLOWING MAY I CLEARED A CORNER of my garden, a fifth of an acre on a bench of fertile land near the river, for domesticated apios. I unpacked Bill’s samples, gritty with Virginia sand, from their plastic bags. I sowed them according to his handwritten instructions and watered them well. Then I carefully penned his lab’s monikers, like “LA-784″ and “LA-7190,” on the corresponding stakes. Would these apios take to our clayey soil? Would they produce prolifically enough for meals as well as for sharing with friends and relatives, as the wild groundnuts had? Bill told me he’d envisioned the market for apios beginning with home gardeners who would tell their neighbors, who would tell their neighbors, and so on, eventually creating a demand for apios that would prompt larger market growers to adopt them. Now I was part of the chain.

Bill, however, was not the only one hoping to introduce groundnuts to a wider public. In 1994, Frieda’s, a distributor of specialty produce that boasts of bringing us kiwifruits and sunchokes (aka Jerusalem artichokes), offered groundnuts as part of its Lost Crops of the Americas collection along with appaloosa beans, quinoa, and other historically indigenous staples. “Apios” were sold, washed and unpeeled, in eight-ounce bags. “We had a release party for Lost Crops in San Antonio,” Frieda’s president Karen Caplan told me, “and we were met with a great big unblinking disinterest.” All the Lost Crops products were discontinued after a single season. They simply didn’t sell. “Apios came and went,” she said. Even a brief mention of apios in a 1994 episode of Food Network’s Iron Chef didn’t boost its popularity.

But that was before the resurgence of farmers’ markets, whose number in the United States more than doubled from 1994 to 2004. It’s here that America has rediscovered many of its lost foods, including heirloom tomatoes, ramps, and garlic scapes — and, in fact, where Frieda’s founder discovered Jerusalem artichokes. Farmers’ markets might be the next best thing to foraging. They have in common free taste-tests, a near guarantee of freshness and local origin, and, most important, a relationship with others who know about preparing, growing, or finding food. One slow morning at our local market a neighboring farmer — and a man who’d been part of our riverbank groundnut expedition — taught us how to inoculate oak logs with shiitake mushroom spores and grow them in our backyard. As we lingered beside his pickup bed, he went on to share advice about milling our own lumber and making our own large-scale maple syrup evaporator, and before we left he was urging us to stop by his place and visit. One day, perhaps, we’ll have similar conversations over tubs of groundnuts, those gathered from near the river’s edge or the larger variety dug from a garden.

BILL’S APIOS DID TAKE TO OUR SOIL. Now, in late summer, beyond the stalwart rows of edamame and the abandoned pea vine trellises, one corner of my garden is an unholy mess. I haven’t pulled any of the weeds there, because they are indistinguishable from the cultivated plants. Wild Apios americana has crept in and overrun or intermingled with Bill’s apios. The wooden stakes I labeled are buried in pyramids of dark-green foliage so thick that not only the distinctions between plants but also their names are obscured. This mess is surely a kind of permaculture crop, one ideally suited to its locale, persistent, vigorous, and indifferent to human designs. Domesticated apios vines sprawl yards north through the fence and into the meadow, where wild groundnuts sprout and climb southward. In and out of the garden food grows, abundant and available. It’s our choice whether to notice, and dig in.

Tamara Dean is the author of the forthcoming book The Human-Powered Home. She lives in Viroqua, Wisconsin.

Comments

  1. I have been eating these delightful nuggets for years as tubers annually erode out of the banks along Merrymeeting Bay. As with any potato they benefit a lot from some salted herbs or other spicy additions. The juice they exude is incredibly sticky stuff that is extremely difficult to remove from pots and other utensils. I’ve used various solvents, abrasives and lots of elbow grease. It has made me wonder if native Americans used this pitch as a sealant or waterproofing. My guess is they must have. And the flowers are beutiful as well as delightfully fragrant. I found a couple last year as big as a tennis ball, a far bit bigger than the norm. Enjoy, but leave plenty behind for the future!

  2. great article. i just wanted to point out that Apios americana is listed 4th in Plants for a Future’s Top 20 because the list is in alphabetical order.

  3. When agribusiness collapses, as it must somewhere around $150/bbl oil, we will need every possible human fuel source that can be grown near our large population centers. Jerusalem artichokes and groundnuts can be grown with little preparation in anyone’s backyard.

  4. I believe I read in Jon Krakower’s “Into the Wild” that the subject of the book (and movie), Chris McCandless, basically weakened and died because of mistaking a very similar, and toxic legume, for the groundnut.

    Also, water hemlock can easily be mistaken for wild carrot–and hemlock kills quickly and without appeal.

    It is great to get closer to the place we live–eating its fruits, drinking its water. But most of us today are naive children when it comes to truly understanding our surrounding world. As in the article on the Mayan garden, wild food is best approached with reverent and wise feet, and a prayer in the heart.

    In simple English, know what you are eating before you put it in your mouth, and never eat a lot of a plant new to you, until you know how it will affect your body.

  5. I would love to try growing some seeds/tubers… any idea how I can get them? I have looked unsuccessfully on the internet.
    Maybe I just don’t know where to look?

  6. We’ve been doing the same work in Malawi (Eastern Africa) since 1997 and have a dried food display that we use to help raise awareness about under utilized indigenous plants and animals. We also use Permaculture in our lives and work. At the moment I’m working with the Ministry of Education to integrate the ideas into the National Curriculum, which includes these foods.

    I’d love to contact the author as we also are from Wisconsin and may re-locate there in the future.

    Thanks for the motivating article, it is great to see my fellow country people moving in the right directions!

  7. Ed,
    I’m happy to hear from another groundnut eater. Thanks for adding your comments. Yes, the “juice” of the groundnuts is a curious substance. Scientists call it latex—it sticks and becomes rubbery just like synthetic latex—and speculate that it’s part of the plant’s defense against gnawing rodents. When scrubbing the latex off utensils and pots, I’ve had varying luck with soaps and vegetable oils. In general, I’ve found it’s best to remove it quickly, before it can dry.

    Your question about whether it was ever used as glue or a waterproofing agent is a good one. A 1939 article, “The Groundnut as Used by the Indians of Eastern North America” by Gretchen Beardsley, mentions only culinary and medicinal uses of the plant, and this article seems exhaustive in its survey of sources from the 1630s to early 1900s. Still, that doesn’t mean there weren’t some uses that missionaries, settlers, and ethnobotanists missed!

    Nicoel,
    Yes, I see the ranking of 4th is alphabetical within the top 20 plants that Plants for a Future lists as the most promising. My mistake, and thanks for pointing it out.

    lweisberg,
    I also wondered whether the legume seeds that Chris McCandless ate were related to Apios americana. In any case, after Into the Wild was published, scientists confirmed that that plant’s seeds did not contain poison. Recently, Jon Krakauer revised his theory of what killed Chris. Here’s a quote from his 09/20/07 interview with Melissa Block on NPR’s All Things Considered: “I still believe he was killed by eating the seeds of the Eskimo potato plant, which isn’t known to be poisonous. But now I’ve come to believe after researching from journals of veterinary medicine that what killed him wasn’t the seeds themselves but the fact that they were damp and he stored them in these big Ziploc bags and they had grown moldy and the mold produces this toxic alkaloid called swainsonine.”

    Your point about the potential for harm in foraging is excellent and so important. Taking a wild edibles workshop with an experienced guide is the probably best way for beginners to distinguish what’s edible from what’s dangerous or unpalatable. The last three Web sites listed under the “Learn More” sidebar to this online article will lead readers to information on such workshops.

    D Courtnier,
    The only source I’ve found for Apios americana tubers (other than the outdoors) is Dr. Blackmon. However, he informed me that researchers from two seed banks had recently requested samples of his germplasms in hopes of maintaining and eventually releasing the domesticated strains to the public. One was Mario Morales of the Medicinal Botanicals Program at Mountain State University in WV. See the program’s Web site at: http://www.mountainstate.edu/usda/

    Stacia,
    It sounds like you’re doing great work. You must be familiar with the work of Noel Vietmeyer, an outspoken champion of underutilized indigenous crops in Africa and Asia. He was also an early, enthusiastic supporter of the domesticated Apios and one of those who inspired Frieda’s to distribute them to grocery stores.

    If you do re-locate to Wisconsin, be sure to check out the southwest corner of the state, where organic agriculture and natural building are thriving. Feel free to send the Orion editors your e-mail address, and they can forward it to me.

  8. Thanls, Tamara, for this wonderful article, and I am glad that I could help you in composing it. I want all the readers to know that this was a labor of love that Tamara had incubating for a number of years.

    A few comments.An Ojibwa woman told me, “White people don’t know how to cook that plant. It’s a slow-cook vegetable, something you put in the crock pot all day – you can’t just fry it up quick and eat it.” I wonder if this is the missing piece, why some people have gotten sick?

    I’m not sure if hopniss is a Lenape name. I think it’s Algonquin. Ojibwa is in the Algonquin family, and the tuber in Ojibwa is “opin” and the plant is “opinashk,” which is very similar to the “opinavk” that our word “hopniss” is said to be corrupted from, according to Pehr Kalm, at least.

    The sticky juice on hopniss is rubber.

  9. Sam,
    Great to hear from you again. Thanks for your contributions to the article and the insights you’ve added here. I hope readers will be inspired to check out your excellent book and expand their eating horizons.

  10. Groundnut was once plentiful along the banks and floodplains of the Connecticut River in western Mass. where I live. Sadly, it is being rapidly displaced by non-native invasive plants such as Jap. knotweed, garlic mustard and swallowwwort. Those who wish to gather this and other “wild foods” should be aware of this grim threat to native plant populations.

  11. Allison,
    As a hopniss lover here in Wiesbaden Germany I was very pleased about this discussion about Apios, yet really concerned to here your problems with invasive aliens displacing the groundnut.
    I ve initiated the Bionic Knotweed Control here in our Natur Reserves for the same reason and just like one may forage the Apios tubers; noxious weeds are part of natures green feast.
    Alliaria petiolata, while severely damaging your soils mycology offers the most delicate leafs with a strong garlic flavour and its seeds are a great addition to your pepper mill. That way, becoming its natural enemy, garlic mustard can be stopped.
    One more thing about the groundnut. Thank to Vickie Shufer I have been able to sow a couple of apios seeds a few years back, but the tubers remain really small. Would anyone know how I can get in touch with Bill Blackmon ?

    Yours

    Peter Becker

  12. Given the latex content of the Apios americana tubers, I wonder if that 5% of eaters who get violently ill are experiencing latex allergies? Something to consider as latex allergies are on the rise in this coutry, as I have been informed working in healthcare settings. Perhaps the long boiling that Sam Thayer refers to somehow denatures the allergen part of latex/rubber. I have heard that A. americana flowers have been used in perfume production. Anyon else?

  13. There has been a lot of field work done with developing groundnut polycultures by Eric Toensmier Co-author of “Edible Forest Gardens” and author of “Perrenial Vegetables” two great books for the subject. For those of you who live in groundnut country check those books out and put the ideas to work, we need more experimentation. Groundnut is indeed a great plant for a permaculture. Good luck all!

  14. That was an excellent article Tamara. I also have a copy of Sam Thayer’s article on hopniss, which is also excellent.

    I have a number of clones of apios. A nitrogen fixing root crop seems like a very good idea. As it is likely that someone from Plymouth, perhaps John Hawkins or Francis Drake introduced the “potato” from Virginia to Britain, it seems kind of appropriate to be growing the plants in this neck of the woods. I am looking for the most cool weather tolerant, northern adapted material to add to my collection.
    Plants apparently produce seed as far north as Massachusetts – anyone know some kindly forager who might be able to supply me? Importing tubers would also be possible with the correct paperwork. There is a clone that occurs on Price Edward Island that I’d like to get hold of…. I too would like to get in touch with Bill Blackmon and any other groundnut nuts in North America, Europe, or anywhere else to exchange knowledge and germplasm.

    It’s a great plant and will make a very useful contribution to food security in a diverse, polycultural cropping system. There aren’t many “minor crops” that taste so good and adapt so easily to western eating habits – I also like hog peanut Amphicarpaea bracteata and Lathyrus tuberosus, the macusson or tuberous pea. I notice that the latter is widely naturalised in the US.

    Peter’s experience with seed grown apios seems pretty much the same as mine – small tubers, paltry yield. The answer might be to get hold of seeds from the northern edge of the range – these could prove to be more suitable.

    There is a competitive sink relationship between stem growth, flowering and tuber development. My understanding is that tuber formation really begins apace following flowering. My seed grown plants don’t flower, too cold/ daylength restrictions? so that might explain why the tubers formed are so small. The triploids flower regularly and bulk up succesfully before the winter. Perhaps the northernmost diploids might be better adapted and could be used to select for a more suitable variety for those of us living at these lattitudes.

    Best wishes

    Owen

  15. If I am going to find this, I need better photos of the leaves & c.

  16. I have been growing ground nuts (apios tuberosa – lately called apios americana) for a few years. I grow them organically, in their own raised beds, isolated from other wild plants. This year for the first time I am offering the sprouted tubers for those who wish to start their own ground nut gardens. I was aware of Bill Blackmon’s efforts but didn’t know his program had ended. I would love to know how to contact him so I could get some samples of his enhanced strains. I live in southern NH and am intent on growing and developing the ground nut as a future food plant as well as a garden ornamental. I also have a pamphlet for sale about the ground nut. My website address is:
    http://www.maryrowlandson.com/groundnuthomepage.html. It is brand new but will be expanding. I have been working on this project for a number of years and would love to hear from other “nuts” of the apios variety.

  17. I became interested in growing apios after seeing them in the Organic Gardening Magazine display at the Philadelphia Flower Show about 12 years ago. I got tubers from the North Carolina address listed in the Jul/Aug 1996 issue of OG. They grew well enough in southeastern PA, but I didn’t have them with any companions. I probably should have left them for two years before harvesting. Digging them up at the end of the growing season, then replainting most of the long strands with golf-ball size tubers, seemed to set them back for the next year. They do well in a microwave. This story reminds me how far we’ve come in agriculture to focus on varieties that need so much support to survive, when apios is thriving on neglect wherever the non-natives haven’t crowded it out.

  18. Oh, I have loved the Groundnut and thought I was alone! About 4 years ago I was in touch with Professor Blackmon. I ordered the plant from Tripple Brook Farm and watched it grow. I wanted to familiarize myself with the plant. It’s been a secret love of mine.

    I was frequently stumbling upon its name “groundnut” in my readings of journals of early settlers and explorers.

    I think its time “is at hand”. Full of protein – let’s all devote ourselves to getting this plant out there. I feel inspired. Thanks for the article. Anyone wanted to contact me, write to: safeinthewoods@hotmail.com

    ~ Nancy

  19. On June 1, I finally found a nice colony of groundnuts. I have been on the lookout ever since I read the Orion article in the fall.
    The ones I found were on a sand dune next to the Ohio River about 30 miles upstream from Cincinnati, at a sunny ledge below a forest of willow trees.
    I have been unable to find them anywhere else, although I explore every weekend by boat or on foot along streams and rivers in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky.
    Of course I started my search in the winter so maybe I was just looking at the wrong time.
    I’d love to know if anyone else has been successful at finding these near the Ohio River or its tributaries.
    I chopped and fried some of the groundnuts last night and was amazed at how much more delicious they were than potatoes cooked the same way (hash browns). Now I can’t wait to try other ways to prepare them.

  20. I recently ordered an LSU strain of groundnuts from Edible Landscaping and it’s growing as we speak in my backyard. Unfortunately I had to grow it in a container, something I’ve not heard of anyone doing before.

    They claim this strain will produce huge tubers quickly. I can’t wait to find out!

    I’ve only just begun searching for this plant on my outings into the woods but so far no luck. I really do hope I eventually come across some.

  21. Hello, I participated in a field experiment out of the U. of MD back in ’91 with James Duke. It seemed to fizzle – they did not collect my produced results or my report.

    Is anyone else doing this research on the groundnut (apiod tribune) at this time? Or could anyone send me some tubors to get started agaih?

    it is really tasty and I’d like to grow some again if only just for our family to eat.

    Thanks Sabrina

  22. Great article. I’ve enjoyed many wildcrafted foods but have not encountered these. I shall have to see whether I can locate them in the NW. We would benefit as a nation from expanding our diets and encouraging stands of native foodstuffs. How wonderful to have this bounty available in hard times like the present.

  23. Everything is great about apios americana…however in your foraging for mushrooms…..kindly use mesh bags to harvest the great amount of mushrooms you seem to find…that way their spores can be released unto fertile ground instead of paper that’s probably recycled or thrown away…Just a thought to keep our wild food productive..

  24. Do you think Apios americana would grow in the Pacific Northwest?
    I’m a permaculture designer living in Dunsmuir, zone 6. We can grow persimmons, golden figs and cardoon. Do you think the Apios would grow here?

  25. This is the vine in my back yard. We have lived here 5 years and it grows in areas that we don’t mow frequently. Prior to that, the land was used to grow corn and soybeans with herbicide. I guess we will have to taste some of these tubers.

  26. Thanks for a really interesting article. I’m a budding Apios grower in the UK, it really is a fascinating crop. 2010 was my second year and for the first time I got some of the secondary tubers, not big enough to eat though. This year I’m going to try growing some in the greenhouse. My only concern is weather it could become and invasive species over hear, does anyone know if that is a risk. I’m being careful anyway just in case.

  27. To Duncan and others:
    To answer your question about whether apios could become an invasive species, the answer is a resounding YES. If you don’t want that to happen and if you want to make it easy to harvest the bulbs(ground nuts) for food purposes then it will be necessary to grow them in above ground garden boxes that are completely separated from the ground soil. Apios roots can grow ten feet or more in a year and each “nut” planted in the spring will grow approximately ten new nuts over the course of a growing season. Like asparagus, apios takes about three years to grow large enough for practical cooking purposes. Any questions? You can write to me at admin@groundnutgardens.com. I believe we are the world’s first and oldest commercial ground nut farm.

  28. Thank you Warren Rasmussen,

    I haven’t seen any signs of invasive tendencies yet, maybe my current variety is not suited for British summers but I will certainly be careful. atm I have it growing in a raised bed. but have a old dustbin of soil standing around, I was pondering what to grow in it this year, maybe it could become my apios new home.

  29. Re: apios being invasive

    You won’t notice any problem in the first year or two. Each bulb you plant will produce, under the ground, approximately ten new bulbs as the root system grows. The following year those new bulbs will almost all sprout and start growing new root systems which will in turn develop many new bulbs. Root systems can grow over ten feet per year. Soon they will spread all over. As the vines sprout they will search for something, anything, to climb up on to get more sun. At first a three foot quarter inch bamboo pole will be sufficient, then around year three you will need something much more substantial like a 6 foot broomstick handle. They will grow to the top and on the way will form “vine ropes” as they naturally braid their vines into thick and powerful ropes that can exert considerable force on whatever they are trying to climb upon. They have been known to pull down small trees in this way.

    Please, only plant them in containers that are well above and seperated from the ground soil. Raised bed gardens will not work as the roots will escape thru the bottom and come up elsewhere in your garden. Once they enter your ecosphere you will have a very difficult time getting rid of them without resorting to poisons.

  30. Just found this article-thanks for keeping it online. It contains a lot of valuable info. I am getting some groundnuts and was wondering about companion planting them with Jerusalem artichokes-now I will.

    Thanks again!
    Joey
    The Sol Kitchen

    ps-you can get them at http://www.localharvest.org if not able to find locally.

  31. Great article. I just wanted to say that I’ve been reading Sam Thayer’s books and have been thoroughly enjoying them. For me he has made foraging a very easy thing to do now. I was always in doubt and never had enough courage or confidence about correctly identifying plants which prevented me from enjoying many foraging opportunities over the years. I read Into the Wild when it first came out and was a big fan of the book but Sam has given me a totally different perspective on that story and the author as well…apparently it wasn’t misidentification.
    Unfortunately the general public has a misplaced fear of wild food. Hopefully one day with the help of more articles like this, eating ‘off the grid’ will be perceived differently. I think we could use a movie where instead of the lead character succumbing to a poisonous plant, saves the day by having a feast on the bounty of nature while trying to figure out how to get back home after the GPS unit died. Pass the Apios please.

  32. Recently found some Apios americana growing along the shoreline of the lake I live on in SC. Loved reading your article. What a remarkable plant!

  33. Right now we are working on the subject and trying to get this beautiful and dlicious “Ground nut” under control and cultivate then put it on Organic Market. We do eat that ground nut and call in Kars/Turkey as “Koçkoz”, Goçgoz”, Koç Kuzu” etc. I would like to prepare and academic article and send it to Orion Magazine if they wish to share with their readers. Best Regards,

    Dr. Aslan
    Ardahan University/Turkey

  34. I repeat the above thanks for leaving this article and complex set of comments on the WEB. We do need the correct native American name for this plant because the term ‘Ground Nut’, written as two words, is confusing. As an example consider the bird seed mix sold by Gardman in England for the European Robin. It lists amongst its ingredients ‘Ground Nuts’. I assume it means ‘chopped peanuts’ which from your article, I understand NOT to be a nut at all! Are most true nuts legumes?. Gardman probably never has heard of the American Groundnut.
    I also hear the caution about this plant being potentially very invasive; but with no restrictions on travel with plants and seeds within the EU, once it escapes in any country here, Ryanair and Easyjet will insure that it is soon in all of them (or perhaps it already is?). I live in Italy will avoid planting it here any in before learning more about this potential.

  35. In Algonquin?
    I think you are looking for ‘watapinik’.

  36. I’ve always known this plant as Potato Bean, and suggest boiling the tubers whole, when they taste something like baked potatoes. I put them in stews – adds protein without meat, or soaking beans.
    Mine never get round to forming seeds, when the flowers die, that’s it.
    I’ve had it surviving winters in the UK, and coming up in the veg bed. But elsewhere they’re liable to slug attack, so I’ve little concern of them escaping to the wild.
    My clone doesn’t respond to hanging on to old tubers: I find they get bigger at the expense of forming new tubers, then they get rotten bits that eventually kill the whole tuber.
    Crop weight always seems disappointing, but they seem a more concentrated root than spuds.
    I like growing them in large containers with Jerusalem artichokes – keeps the tubers of both in one place. If you keep the container in an upside-down bin lid, you can top up with water in the evening to discourage slugs and snails until the plants are tough enough to cope.

  37. Is there a chance Apios might be invasive enough to at least meet Japanese Knotweed in a fair fight? The knotweed has been taking over our stream banks and here in the Northern Catskills of Upstate NY probably Apios will be borderline hardy (Zone 4a) if at all. We are beginning the stages of turning areas of our 220 acres (goat & sheep pasture, woodlot, certified wetlands, pond with steep falls and ravine)into a more organized “Edible Woodlands” and found this article while researching the “Ground Nut” as an option for inclusion…

  38. Mother Raphaela – I recall Apios tubers surviving the UK hard winters of 2009/10 and 2010/11.
    Your suggestion is interesting, but wouldn’t wash where Apios isn’t native, and having foragers digging the stream banks would cause more erosion. Are Apios roots eaten by native animals? Which could also cause some erosion.
    I’ve heard Japanese people eat knotweed, but from what I’ve tasted, it’s likely a minority thing.
    One organic recommendation over here is to keep the knotweed mown – after years it packs up.
    Good luck!

  39. Thank you for the comments and video, Anthony and Christopher — although hearing it does well with poison ivy does not bode well for us. Perhaps with global warming poison ivy will get a foothold here, but thankfully, so far it doesn’t seem to survive our winters. A small patch appeared in the local cemetery, probably from bird seeding, and was gone by the next spring… Still, we will try. Nothing to lose but a few dollars on an experiment.

  40. Mother Raphaela – I’ve just seen some bamboo, think the garden owners (small garden) put it in by mistake. It’s a tall, spreading species – at the moment about 10 foot tall, and looking like a giant Equisetum (horsetail here) because it’s leaves haven’t spread out yet. I guess that would be a serious competitor for Japanese Knotweed. But you’d be replacing one problem with another (if it worked), although you could sell the canes, and if you chose the right species, get edible bamboo shoots.

  41. Saw someone post about Amphicarpaea bracteata. Wonder if with this “hog peanut” if one can make peanut butter with it? I know that with regular peanuts you can grind them up to make peanut butter.

  42. I was fascinated by this article but as new person just starting out learning of this, would truly love to see more pictures of the flowers and vines to have a better idea of what to look for in my area. Thank you so much for leading me in this direction.

  43. Thank you Erik, I looked the flowers and am pretty sure I have not seen this in my area. The leaves could be (on my part) mistaken for the wrong variety of plant. Probably the best way (and safest) would be to look into someone willing to sell some roots. Question, would they grow on the sides of hills that receive the earliest morning sun as ginseng does in my part of the northeast? Probably not a fair question…sorry, I will do research on this but thank you for the link, that will come in handy.

  44. I checked out the Google images link and was pleased to see that they included some from our website.

    In response to some of the other comments here:

    Despite the name, ground nuts are NOT nuts. You can’t make something like peanut butter from them. They are most similar to a potato and when eaten should be cooked just like you would use potatoes. Their advantage is that they have three times the protein of potatoes plus other health benefits. They contain genistine which is a known anti cancer compound, effective against both breast and prostate cancer. New England Native Americans were known to use a poltice made of ground nuts to treat melanomas (skin cancers).

    For info on how to grow ground nuts checkout our website’s page for advice on growing them.

    We’re happy to try to answer any questions regarding ground nuts. Just email us at admin@groundnutgardens.com.

  45. Could someone post what month the leaves are out, (I assume April), and when to look for the flowers? And most importantly, when to harvest the groundnuts, (I assume the end of summer sometime, but does all summer work?)?

  46. Kylin:
    Leaves – when can’t be frosted
    Flowers – autumn
    Tubers – anytime in winter, as you need because they can dry out, much easier than spuds

  47. How do you harvest in the winter with the ground frozen, and no leaves to go by to know which plant is which?

  48. Kylin:

    What time of year the flowers bloom and whether you can harvest in the winter time depends on where you live. If you live in the more northern climes where the ground freezes in winter and the ground is covered in snow and ice then it is next to impossible to harvest them. If you live where the weather is mild during the winter you may be able to dig them up, but there are other issues with digging for ground nuts in the wild in winter.

    The first time I found ground nuts was in the early spring and I choose to did where I saw some slender vines going into the ground. Lucky for me they turned out to be ground nut vines. The trouble with digging and searching for ground nuts large enough to eat in the late winter/early spring is that poison ivy is a frequent companion plant to the ground nut. At this time of the year you won’t know if the roots you are pulling on are ground nut roots or poison ivy roots. Handling the poison ivy roots which are much more toxic than the leaves can give you a systemic reaction which means the toxin gets in your blood stream and the rashes can pop up anywhere on your body, first in one place, then another. The cure is to go to a local ER and get a cortisone shot. This has happened to at least two people I know and it’s not pleasant.

    As far as when the flowers bloom, again it depends on where you are. Up north, like in New England where I am they tend to bloom in mid August. Further south they may bloom earlier and other places later.

    If you’re looking for ground nuts in the wild you should be aware that the more leaves a plant has the more mature it is. Plants with 3-5 leaves per leaflet are only about a year old, those with 7-9 leaves will be 2-3 years old or older and more likely to have “nuts” that are of an edible size.

    Realize also the plants that grow in the wild are growing under less than ideal conditions of moisture, sun and soil composition so they will not grow as large or as fast as cultivated plants growing under ideal conditions.

  49. Kylin:

    The leaves begin to appear soon after the vine sprouts and emerges from the top soil. Once they emerge they will immediately look for something to climb upon. Ground nuts begin to sprout when the moist bulb reaches 55 degrees F. You can hasten the sprouting process by placing the bulbs in a wet paper towel and placing that in an open zip lock bag in a warm place. So once your outdoor temperatures get to be above 55 degrees you can look for ground nut sprouts to appear.

    You can basically harvest ground nuts any time of the year you can dig in the ground. Fall is generally considered the best harvesting time for eating but you can also do it in the spring before the bulbs sprout or even anytime in the summer.

    The flowers appear in mid August here in New England but this will vary depending on your areas climate conditions.

  50. Yes, we do have to be careful not to replace our problems with worse disasters… We can see our small plots playing out on a small scale the environmental threats facing this small planet… If these help us to realize we need keep our elected representatives aware of the dangers and willing to vote responsibly for the environment — and help us to seek out solutions in our own backyard — then they will turn into positives…

  51. re/ allergies: yes, natural products may induce allergies in some people. (Some species in cashew family = poison ivy, mango, sumac, etc. are very effective at this; their irritant is the polyunsaturated *alcohol* complex urushiol). Not connected to rubbery latex sap per se — “natural rubber allergy” is to a *protein* contaminant of rubber, as are many idiosyncratic allergies (compare to idiopathic allergy).

  52. My father would pull groundnuts up to quiet our cries to being hungry while out hiking. Cattails satisfied our thirst and Indian sumac filled us with energy. Both parents and all 5 kids were fed well!

  53. I started growing groundnuts on my 10 acre lot in Maine 3 years ago where I have cut some trees to create clearings for permaculture crops and where I have a camp. I have many small colonies of groundnuts that have been spreading. I would be very interested in getting some of the varieties that Bill Blackmon developed. My land is zone 4 and I also have 1/2 acre in zone 6. My email is wbsurfver@gmail.com – Larry

  54. I was thrilled to run across this article – I Bill and Joan Blackmon were very good friends of mine. In our Adult Sunday School class parties Bill, another LSUP, Bill Lee, and I had some very wonderful conversations. Bill was enthusiastic about life in all its diverse facets.

  55. Hi guys

    Interested in growing groudnuts for the first time. I’ve been reading that they’re very easy to harvest if you pull a mature plant up, and the tubers come up, looking like pebbles on a string, did you guys found that to be true?

    I’m in eastern Europe, do you know of anyone that can ship here?

  56. Yes, Gabriel, the tubers do come out in strings, certainly from tilled ground, although some might get left behind. They’re allegedly a pest in blueberry fields, when tubers get trapped between bush roots; and I wouldn’t plant them near anywhere else you can’t dig.

  57. Yes I’m planning on interplanting with jersusalem artichokes.
    I harvest the sunchokes by hand and I don’t mind finding a piece of the “string” and pulling it up to get more tasty roots :)

    If they really do grow well together, that is.

  58. What a great article! I just finished reading “The Other Side of the Mountain” with my 8 year old daughter where they ate ground nuts in the book. Today my daughter and I were out digging near the creek in our backyard and dug up some ground nuts. She is very excited and we look forward to cooking them up soon. Thanks again for the delightful article.

  59. Good Morning!
    I also live here in Wisconsin – and had never heard of these until recently. I am trying to find some way to get a few tubers to plant and encourage here on my organic 4 acres. I am hoping to get some from someone who is growing it and I am happy to pay. I also will try to find some growing around here. Please feel free to email me. I appreciate your help!
    Have a great day
    Laura

  60. You are a great storyteller! You had me on the edge of my seat because I couldn’t read fast enough. I will go looking for these wonderful plants as soon as warm weather comes! Thanks for sharing this valuable information.

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