To indigenous groups around the Rocky Mountains and Great Basin, Yampah was one of the most useful and cherished root foods. In 1843, an early explorer of the American West, John Frémont, described the root as “a common article of food,” and said that the Native Americans took “pleasure in offering the root to strangers.”
During the Lewis & Clark Expedition, near present-day Lewiston, Idaho, awaiting the snows to melt allowing their continued passage back eastward, Captain William Clark logged in his journal, dated May 18th, 1806:
“The Squar wife [Sacajawea] to Shabono busied her Self gathering the roots of the fenel [herbium specimen confirmed as Perideridia gairdneri] Called by the Snake Indians Year-pah for the purpose of drying to eate on the Rocky mountains. those roots are very paliatiable either fresh rosted boiled or dried and are generally between the Size of a quill and that of a mans fingar and abot the length of the latter.” (source)
Writing some more about yampah, from the west fork of the Laramie River in Wyoming, on August 2nd, 1843 John Frémont penned the following:
“At this place I first became acquainted with the yampah, (anethum graveolens,) which I found our Snake woman engaged in digging in the low timbered bottom of the creek. Among the Indians along the Rocky mountains, and more particularly among the Shoshone or Snake Indians, in whose territory it is very abundant, this is considered the best among roots used for food.” (source)
The fields of yampah described by early white explorers would have looked more-or-less like this:
Imagine acre upon acre of moist to slightly-dry meadow covered with white-blossoming wildflowers in May-July, and you’ll have some understanding of yampah’s habit. Yampah is rich in carbohydrate energy along with vitamins and minerals, and so from out of the thousands of plants which may be found in some places only one or two dozen are needed for a hearty day’s meal.
What makes yampah so good? In it’s raw state, the root tastes rather like parsnip or carrot. And there’s a certain nuttiness or crisp, crunchy quality to the texture — not unlike water chestnut. If harvested in the late fall or early winter after frost, the flavor becomes incomparably sweeter and draws the appetite like a kid to a candy shop.
Yampah may be harvested at any time, but generally the time to harvest is after the plant has flowered because at this point vegetative growth has ceased, the tubers have achieved their maximum size for the year, and the roots begin to conserve their energy in preparation for the dormant season which lasts through the end of the summer until the following spring. Many indigenous groups however would gather yampah early in the year, before flowering. Early-dug roots are sweeter.
Gathering roots after the seeds have ripened is a simple and powerful way to ensure more yampah will grow into the future. By breaking up the ground (such as with a digging stick) and scattering seed, or leaving behind some seeds in the hole where a root was dug, the human gatherer is able to increase the plant population’s ability to thrive. Such actions draw a line of distinction between the passive forager, and the active wild-tender.
In Tending the Wild, M. Kat Anderson suggests that Gairdner’s Yampah (Perideridia gairdneri), may have been genetically influenced by human harvesting:
It often has branching, spindle-shaped tuberous roots. In digging, these tubers break at the thinnest and weakest point. The remaining tuberous fragments are often composed of both root and stem tissue. According to the eminent botanist Lincoln Constance, who has studied the Apiaceae (the family in which yampah belongs), “roots of Perideridia when put in the ground reproduce tubers. . . . They’re classified as ‘tuberous roots'” (pers. comm. 1989). By gathering these subterranean before flowering and breaking them off to leave pieces behind, humans may have favored those tubers that leave the largest number of fragments. (pg. 303)
Luther Burbank, the famous California botanist and plant breeder, stated that “There are places where the plant [yampah] grows almost like grass, so that hardly a shovelful of dirt can be turned over without exposing numerous roots.” Given the long history of symbiosis humans have shared with the yampah, we should not take such cases as accidental. There were no coincidences here — yampah thrived in California ecosystems in response to human actions favoring its abundance in the landscape.
Gairdner’s Yampah generally flowers in April or May across its range in California, the Pacific Northwest, the Great Basin, and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana. The seeds ripen May through July. The dead and dried stalks of dormant plants may be found into the winter, guiding the gatherer to where the roots may be dug from the ground.
Yampah is an herb in the parsley or carrot family, Apiaceae. The scientific name for the genus is Perideridia. It has fascicled tubers in groups of two, three, or sometimes more, which are each no bigger than a human finger. Growing above the ground from the roots is a single stem, hollow on the inside, with finely serrated leaves like parsley and generally one or two whimsically-erupting branches off the central stem. Every branch terminates in an umbel of delicate white flowers.
The English botanist Thomas Nuttall originally named the genus of these plants Eulophus meaning “many crests,” a reference to the multiply branching umbels, seen below.
Yampah can look similar to Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota) to the inexperienced eye. Because all parts of Queen Anne’s Lace are edible and non-toxic, confusing it for yampah is not a serious mistake. However, be warned, because both poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) and water hemlock (Cicuta spp.) — two deadly-poisonous plants — bare white-flowering umbels of similar appearance to yampah. When in doubt, don’t! Or find an expert you can consult.
There are several species of yampah. Gairdner’s Yampah, Perideridia gairdneri, is known by several common names. To the Niimíipu (whom the French called the Nez Perce), Perideridia gairdneri was known as cawíitx [saw-weet] in Niimíipu or sawítk [sahw-it] in Sahaptin. The name yampah comes to us from the Shoshone and it is the most commonly used name today. Another species with peanut-sized rounded tubers, Perideridia oregana, has been known as ipos (ee-pohs) or eppaw (eh-pah) or epo. Perideridia bolanderi, Bolander’s Yampah, may be known as late yampah or olasi.
I will focus in this article only on Perideridia gairdneri and the eastern yampah Perideridia americana as these are the two I have direct personal experience with.
Eastern Yampah, Perideridia americana
Today eastern yampah may be found as far eastward as central Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Alabama. It exists all throughout the Great Plains, such as Illinois, Indiana, southwest Wisconsin, Minnesota, Nebraska, and South Dakota, and in places like Missouri and Arkansas too.
Eastern Yampah blooms in April or May, and its seed ripens by the end of June and into July. The blossoms of eastern yampah are white and composed of smaller umbellets on a larger compound umbel. When mature, Perideridia americana achieves a height anywhere from one-and-a-half to three-feet in stature.
Eastern yampah has leaves much like parsley. They are toothed and lobed, having leaflets arranged on both sides of the stem — pinnate being suitable botanical jargon. Early in the season the leaves are wider and blunter, but as the plant’s growing season progresses the leaves elongate and narrow.
Not only do the leaves resemble parsley leaves physically, but they resemble parsley in flavor too. It is worth mentioning that every part of the eastern yampah plant is edible, from the flowers and seeds down to the roots. The stems are thin and hollow but may be chopped and eaten in a manner like celery. The ripened seeds may be used as a spice or consumed like caraway.
Eastern yampah can grow in a variety of habitats. While enjoying sunny prairie environments, it also forms strong colonies in woodland spaces that experience some dappled sunlight. Eastern yampah thus can thrive along woodland edges alongside streams or meadows. Eastern yampah seems also to associate somewhat with calcareous areas rich with limestone substrate.
I have seen eastern yampah growing in oak-hickory woodlands where maple, beech, tulip poplar, and pawpaw were present. This is encouraging, because such habitats are ubiquitous throughout the east, and suggest the possibility that eastern yampah could be spread to a variety of new locations throughout Appalachia, the Ohio valley, and Piedmont ecoregions.
The seeds of yampah dry when mature and will store in a cool, dry, and dark location for two or three years before losing viability. They require a period of cool stratification, and thus seeds sown in the summer or fall will not germinate until the following spring. Yampah plants take about 3 or 4 years until they have reached maturity and begin flowering.
The roots of eastern yampah are almost the same size, shape, and flavor of Gairdner’s yampah, Perideridia gairdneri. Eaten raw and in the summer, the flavor is like parsnip or carrot. Eaten raw and in the fall, winter, or early spring, the flavor is augmented by intensely sweet overtones. One significant difference is that the roots of P. americana are less spindle-shaped than the roots of P. gairdneri. Otherwise, the two species are extremely similar, from stature, structure, bloom time, tuber shape, and flavor.
Because of the legacy of colonization in North America, we may never know fully what the pre-colonial distribution of eastern yampah was throughout the Mid-West. In my research, I have not found ethnobotanical record of the use of Perideridia americana by indigenous groups, but of course absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. What does strike me is how much eastern yampah there still is to find!
For example, consider the state of Illinois. One popular analogy goes, that if the state of Illinois was an 8.5″ x 11″ sheet of copy paper, the amount of unplowed native prairie still remaining in the state would be the size of a printed period (‘ . ‘). Today most of the state has converted its rich black-earth prairies into endless fields of corn and soy. Yet a visit to a one or two acre pioneer cemetery (unfortunately some of the only remaining unplowed places) reveals a presence of eastern yampah.
Other species which exist quite ubiquitously in unplowed areas are plants such as the prairie turnip, which the Lakota called timpsula (Pediomelum esculentum). Is it a stretch to imagine a pre-colonial Illinois landscape loaded with eastern yampah and timpsula, results of the wise and judicious management of plant symbionts by humans through a living and shared experience which may have lasted thousands of years?
You decide. Whatever the case may be, this is one amazing plant that has a lot to offer us as human beings.