Consider this statistic: Of all the untold thousands of edible plants on this earth, the world’s population largely subsists on about 20 of those species. 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 in this space 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.
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 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?
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.
Blue camas, 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.
Psoralea 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. 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 bamboo stakes.
Finding 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 edibles?