The World-Class Local Foods That Gardeners Have Overlooked

An ode to crops that could have become locavore favorites: the yampa, the Jerusalem artichoke, the American groundnut, and more

Consider this statistic: Of all the untold thousands of edible plants on this earth, the world's population largely subsists on about 20 of them. And of those, wheat, rice, soybeans, and corn dominate the rest.

Now consider this: Of those 20 species, only corn, and to some extent beans, are native to North America; both are from Mexico. None of these über-plants are native to the United States, despite our nation's myriad candidates for inclusion in that august group. The reasons why are various, but for most plants they boil down to a lack of effort. Why improve the prairie potato when we have the "regular" potato?

Last September I wrote that I would eschew those garden plants that could not pull their own weight. My beloved brassica family, with its arugula and broccoli and cabbages and cauliflower, will have to go. There are just too many predators in my yard to grow these without heavy tending.

Yampa? Prairie turnip? What the hell are they, you say? Tubers. Or, more accurately in the case of yampa, bulbs.

Over the winter, I immersed myself in all the wonderful edibles that live across this nation. I devoured books on desert plants, plants of the South and Texas, plants of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains and the boreal forests of Maine and Minnesota. Most of the edible plants in these regions are curiosities at best. But not all.

A few of our native plants can legitimately be called world-class foods already. Cranberries, anyone? Many more show the potential to become so, with a little love.

So, as winter ebbed into spring, I determined that I would try to grow some of the finest of these edibles in my little garden here in Northern California. Goodbye tomatoes, farewell potatoes. Hello yampa, and howdy there, prairie turnip.

Yampa? Prairie turnip? What the hell are they, you say? Tubers. Or, more accurately in the case of yampa, bulbs. Many know that North America is among the most richly endowed continents when it comes to wild berries, and a few foragers know that we are similarly lucky in the nut department, too—walnuts, pecans, hickory, hazelnuts, butternuts, beech nuts, and pine nuts all grow here in abundance. But very few people know that we are equally blessed with starchy tubers, the "potatoes" to our meat-and-potatoes diet.

Real potatoes are from South America, but north of the Rio Grande we have Jerusalem artichokes, hopniss (or groundnut), the prairie turnip, the yampa, the camas, the hog peanut. Our swamps are a practical paradise for starch, with the rhizomes of cattails and bulrushes, wapato (or arrowhead) tubers, and lotus roots every bit as delicious as those from China.

I began my wild garden years ago, with Jerusalem artichokes. These tubers are native from the Great Plains eastward, from the South to Canada. They have been a semi-familiar garden plant in the Western World for several centuries. I love the flavor, but Jerusalem artichokes contain lots of inulin, a starch most people cannot process well. The result? Fartichokes. Delicious, but definitely not something to base a diet on.

Last year, I also started growing tepary beans, native to the great Sonoran Desert. Again, these beans are wonderful and are completely care-free: They actually don't like to be watered more than a few times a season. The drawback? They are small beans (about the size of an adzuki bean) and the individual plants don't yield that well.

But overall, both have been successes. Now I am hoping to repeat that success with some of America's wildlings that appear to have the most promise: yampa (the flowers of which are pictured at the top of this post), the prairie turnip, the blue camas, and the American groundnut. Why these?

Presented by

Hank Shaw runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in 2009 and 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. More

A former line cook, veteran political reporter, and fisherman, Hank Shaw is a freelance food writer who runs the website Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, which chronicles Shaw's search for what he calls the Forgotten Feast: The seasonal foods--mostly wild--we once delighted in, but are now curiosities at best. Game, wild mushrooms, seafood, and wild plants all have a place in modern cooking, and Shaw spends his days exploring their possibilities on the plate.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook was nominated for Best Food Blog by the James Beard Foundation in both 2009 and 2010 and by the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 2010. He is the author of the recently released Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast. His work has appeared in magazines such as The Art of Eating, Field & Stream, and Gastronomica. He hunts, fishes, forages, and gardens in Northern California with his girlfriend--and photographer--Holly A. Heyser.

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