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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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?
Everyone who has ever eaten yampa
(Perideridia gairdneri) and written about it, including the great
forager Euell Gibbons, waxes rhapsodic about the sweet flavor of this
bulb, which is most abundant in the Rocky Mountain states, although it
does grow here in California. Whole tribes of native Americans used
yampa as a staple food, and the plant was once so popular the state of
Colorado was almost named Yampa.
Camassia quamash, is also native to California as well as the rest of
the West, and there is a wild hyacinth in the East that is similar. Like
yampa, camas comes highly recommended by Native Americans. Camas is
particularly apt for cultivation not only for its beautiful flowers, but
also because in the garden you will never mistake it for the
white-flowered death camas. That would be no bueno.
esculenta, the prairie turnip, also known as the prairie potato, is
loved by those who know it; I've not yet eaten it. It develops large
tubers the size of a medium potato, and they apparently taste like a
combination of potatoes and turnips—thus the dual name, I suppose. The
plant looks a lot like a lupine, and it is indeed a legume. Those who
have attempted to grow it commercially say the prairie turnip's main
drawback is time: It takes more than a year for the tubers to grow to
potato size. We'll see.
My highest hopes lie with a plant that has already been targeted for cultivation,
the American groundnut, Apios americana. This is North America's answer
to the peanut, which is native to South America. Botanists have been
working on this plant sporadically for some time, dating back to the
great Asa Gray in
the 1800s. Groundnuts produce tubers that are as long as your little
finger in a year, and, above ground, are beautiful vining plants; you
also can eat the "peas" that come after their burgundy flowers fade. The groundnut's main problem in terms of large-scale agriculture is that it
needs something to climb on, a problem easily solved in a garden with
I am not restricting myself to tubers and bulbs, either. I've also planted miner's lettuce, orache, and ramps. Ramps are not native to the West, but they will grow from seed. Hopefully.
all these seeds wasn't easy, and I am not sure if they will even
germinate, let alone flourish, here in Northern California. But I've
given it a go.
Why all this bother? It's because I feel drawn to
these plants the same way I feel drawn to the marsh in duck season and
to the ocean in summer. These plants are part of what makes our country
special, and they live all around us—largely unnoticed. You always
hear about scientists hoping to find the cure for cancer in some obscure
plant living in the Amazon rainforest. What I want to do is find—or,
rather, rediscover—are the unique tastes and flavors offered by our
own obscure plants.
I know I am not the only person growing some
of these unusual plants. Does anyone out there grow them, too? What
advice do you have? I know there are whole forums dedicated to growing
tomatoes, or peppers. Maybe we can do the same thing for our own native
Images (top to bottom):Wikimedia Commons, Hank Shaw, Hank Shaw, USDA, Holly A. Heyser