Category Archives: Plant Profiles

Sunroot, Sunchoke, or Jerusalem Artichoke — Helianthus tuberosus

The many sides of Helianthus tuberosus —

The Jerusalem artichoke, sunchoke, or sunroot – Helianthus tuberosus

Jerusalem artichoke, Helianthus tuberosus, is not from Jerusalem nor is it an artichoke! Some use the shorthand “sunchoke” as an alternate name; others simply call Helianthus tuberosus “sunroot,” and this is what I prefer. It’s a tuberous perennial sunflower in the Asteraceae family (or Compositae) native to eastern & central North America. It has been cultivated for centuries as a root crop by indigenous peoples and western farmers alike. To the Cree who lived beside Lake Superior, it was called askipaw, and to the Huron north of Lake Ontario it was called skibwan.

Sawtooth Sunflower
Sawtooth Sunflower

Helianthus tuberosus is a hexaploid, meaning it has six sets of chromosomes, and genomic skimming studies reveal that it is probably a recursive hybrid of the diploid sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus) and the tetraploid hairy sunflower (Helianthus hirsutus). Speciation through hybridization — pretty neat!

Hairy Sunflower
Hairy Sunflower
Present distribution
Present distribution

While some of the details in the relationship of Helianthus tuberosus and human beings remain obscure, we know that human planting greatly expanded the range of sunroot outside it’s midwestern origins. Human beings quickly recognized the virtues of the sunroot as a food plant and planted it to great advantage.

The tubers of tuberosus
The tubers of tuberosus

Sunroot has a tuber rich in inulin, a complex sugar which is a prebiotic, meaning that as it passes through the gastro-intestinal tract it changes the composition of the gut microbiota. This quality has lent the sunroot the dubious distinction of inducing flatulence (they call it fart-a-choke for a reason!), as the prebiotic inulin is not comfortably digested by many modern gut biomes — in other words, consumption of the raw tubers can lead to gas and stomach upset. However, if cooked properly, steaming or roasting for long duration, the inulin sugars in the sunroot will turn brown as they convert to fructose. After the caramelization process the sunroot becomes readily digestible to the majority of stomachs. The flavor also becomes very sweet and makes for delicious eating! For those unconcerned about digestive issues, they will find the raw flavor of the sunroot quite delicious, with a crunchy-nutty-juiciness.

Identifying a Jerusalem artichoke or sunroot in the wild is more challenging than it would seem. There are several other wild perennial sunflowers in the Helianthus genus which look similar enough to sunroots to cause confusion. Species such as Helianthus decapetalus, the ten-petal sunflower, and Helianthus strumosus, the pale-leaf woodland sunflower, are fairly close look-alikes. And while H. decapetalus does not form root tubers which definitively rules out H. tuberosus, H. strumosus does have edible tubers much like H. tuberosus so mistaking the two is easy though not a serious problem. (For more information about the identification of H. strumosus the pale-leaf woodland sunflower, see the Arkansas Native Plant Society.)

The Jerusalem artichoke grows best in full sun but persists in partial shade.

 

Sunchoke leaves are a rich green color, broad and oval, with secondary branches growing out of the junctures of stem and leaf petioles.

 

Helianthus tuberosus in flower
Helianthus tuberosus in flower

 

The stem is green to slightly reddish and covered in small, bristly hairs. Branching is usually opposite towards the base of the plant, but as your eyes find their way up towards the crown of the plant there is a change to alternate branching. The plant stands anywhere from 2 to 16 feet feet tall at maturity depending on conditions, but most commonly around 6 to 8 feet high. In the late summer these plants begin to flower profusely with bright yellow blooms, and may continue to do so for a couple months. (see Illinois Wildflowers)

Sunroots are a better source of protein than potatoes, and contain more vitamins and minerals. Sunroots are a good source of potassium, iron, magnesium, thiamin (vitamin B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pyridoxine (B6), folates (B9), and ascorbic acid (vitamin C).

Keep in mind that members of the sunflower family bioaccumulate heavy metals such as lead from the soil in areas where the soil has been polluted. Be aware of the history of any industrial activity where your sunroots are growing. Any heavy metals that get hyperaccumulated inside the tissue of sunflowers like Helianthus tuberosus will also accumulate in your body and poison you if you eat them. The bioaccumulative abilities of sunflowers makes them valuable however in phytoremediation: using plants to remove toxins from soil.

Male anthers of Helianthus tuberosus flowers
Male anthers of Helianthus tuberosus flowers

As an agricultural crop sunroots grow amazingly well on marginal, nutrient-poor soils and persist through drought where annual rainfall is as low as 12 inches per year. Average yield-per-acre is about 15 tons, making sunroots competitive with corn which yields about 20 tons/acre. But whereas sunroots are low- to no-input, corn is high-input energy intensive agriculture and problem child of the industrial food system.

The high inulin content of sunroots makes them great candidates for the production of ethanol as biofuels.  Among Helianthus tuberosus many virtues, it could lead the way into a renewable energy future without petroleum.

Female stigmas of Helianthus tuberosus flowers
Female stigmas of Helianthus tuberosus flowers

Many sources make the claim that Jerusalem artichoke is sterile or that if they are fertile they set little if any seed. These claims are misleading and the result of the limited way in which most sunroots are grown.

Helianthus tuberosus is highly self-incompatible, meaning that it is an outcrossing species requiring a certain level of cross-pollination between genetically distinct individuals. Because most sunroot patches are clonal, started vegetatively from tubers of only one or two varieties, there usually isn’t enough genetic diversity in one spot for fertile seed production.

As sunroots reproduce abundantly from even small broken off pieces of their tuberous roots (making them almost impossible to eradicate), a lack of seed fertility isn’t a problem for most people. But from a perspective that looks at genetic diversity and whole populations, and especially as a plant breeder, this lack of fertility proves problematic.

To get around this, collect as many distinct varieties as you can and plant them together. In 2017 I grew out together a collection of about a dozen named varieties and several additional wild tubers. I also planted out some true seed I had collected from 2016.

The results speak for themselves — a high degree of cross-pollination led to fertilization of nearly every flower in each head. The flower heads swelled in size and grew to double or triple the size of unfertilized Jerusalem artichoke flowering heads.

Large, fully-seeded flower heads of Helianthus tuberosus
Large, fully-seeded flower heads of Helianthus tuberosus
Nearly every disc floret in the flowering head was fertilized and set viable true seed
Nearly every disc floret in the flowering head was fertilized and set viable true seed

Sunflower seeds of the annual sunflower Helianthus annuus are a rich source of oil, being around 21% fat. Annual sunflower seeds are much larger than the seeds of sunroot, but like their large-seeded relative sunroot seeds too are a rich source of oil. This makes viable Helianthus tuberosus seed a hot item in the bird neighborhood. Fertilized sunroots attract tons of birds around seed-time in the fall!

Helianthus tuberosus, left, and Helianthus annuus, right
Helianthus tuberosus, left, and Helianthus annuus, right

You’ll have to bag the seed heads to keep the birds away or pick them early if you want to harvest your seeds. To pick them early, it helps to cut off the flowering heads along the stem below and place the stems in a glass of water like cut flowers. This will help the seeds to ripen a bit more before the seed heads are finally dried, threshed, and winnowed away.

Helianthus tuberosus seed harvest 2017
Helianthus tuberosus seed harvest 2017

Of the few viable seeds harvested in 2016, I was able to grow 17 plants to maturity. Sunroots germinate, grow to nearly half their eventual height, form tubers, and flower (if there’s enough time in the growing season that is), all within their first year. That’s fast!

Jerusalem artichoke seed does not need any special treatment. Store in a cool, dry place. The seeds do not need cold moist stratification but will germinate when soil temperature and moisture levels are appropriate. I sow into the ground in the spring, but I don’t see why they couldn’t be sown in the fall instead.

Helianthus tuberosus germination
Helianthus tuberosus germination
Helianthus tuberosus in the first year
Helianthus tuberosus in the first year
Helianthus tuberosus seed trials 2016
Helianthus tuberosus seed trials 2016

Some of the yields for first-year seed-grown plants were impressive. I kept each plant’s individual yields separated for the sake of citizen science, so that I could show an example of the variations in yield among the 17 different individuals. One plant formed only a dense cluster of root crowns rather than tubers at the base of the stalk, so I left it in the ground to watch next year.

Yield from a single seed-grown Helianthus tuberosus plant after its first year
Yield from a single seed-grown Helianthus tuberosus plant after its first year
Yield from 17 - 1 (not pictured) = 16 Helianthus tuberosus seed-grown plants after their first year
Yield from 17 – 1 (not pictured) = 16 Helianthus tuberosus seed-grown plants after their first year

Growing sunroots from seed has many advantages. Growing from seed in a genetically diverse population allows the evolutionary processes or change and adaptation to unfold. Over time and the generations, seed-grown sunroots will fit themselves to their environmental microclimate and bioregion in better and better ways, eventually settling into a wild-form landrace of phenotypically stable but genetically diverse plants.

As growing from seed also results in a robust, fecund population of plants, this proves useful from a rewilding perspective where the goal is introduction of a wild species that can take care of itself without a lot of human intervention or disturbance.

Cucumber root — Medeola virginiana

A colony of cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)
A colony of cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)

The lily family (Liliaceae) contains many plants that make for excellent edibles, and cucumber root (Medeola virginiana) is no exception. Cucumber root gets it’s name from its flavor — very much like cucumber, but sweeter. The leaves have a flavor also like cucumber. All parts of the plant may be eaten raw or cooked, with a caveat regarding the berries (although non-toxic, they have a taste which may not be the most palatable in the world to us of human persuasion).

The roots of cucumber root are generally fairly small, rarely but occasionally approaching the size of a finger. They have a texture that is firm and crisp. The humble cucumber root, Medeola virginiana, is a slow-growing, long-lived perennial ranging in size from about 3 inches to nearly 30 inches. It is the only species in its genus, one of its closest relatives being the genus Clintonia.

The tuberous rhizome of the aptly-named cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)
The tuberous rhizome of the aptly-named cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)

Medeola virginiana reproduces in two ways. The first way is vegetatively, through underground root-stems called stolons emerging from out of the fattened tuber-like portions of the rhizome or rootstock. When reproducing vegetatively, each fattened tuber-like rhizome produces one, two, or sometimes three lateral stolons in a year. As these stolons send up new suckers with above-ground leaves that start sucking up sunlight of their own in following years, they begin fattening up the area beneath their own portion of rhizome. At this point the stolons may be severed and you’ll effectively have two clonal versions of the plant.

The other way this plant reproduces is sexually, through the production of seed. Medeola virginiana however seems highly-dependent on cross-pollination between genetically individual plants in order to get good fertilization and seed-production, and therefore I believe that populations lacking genetic diversity produce little if any seed at all. *

* (As evidence I could point to the size difference between the stamens and the pistils, the stamens being the much shorter of the two. Called dichogamy, this is a physical mechanism discouraging self-pollination and thus inbreeding.)

Restoring diversity to cucumber root patches is part of the work of ecological restoration. Where I come from, hardly any of the cucumber root patches that I know produce much in the way of berries come late summer. Instead, what I find are relatively small patches which are largely clonal — reproducing for years primarily in a vegetative way. In a region where many of our forests are relatively young and stand before a legacy of clear-cutting, selective timbering, agricultural grazing (or even excessive deer-browse pressure), a lack of genetic diversity in our cucumber root stands is the result of human environmental degradations either directly or indirectly.

Flowering cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)
Flowering cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)

Medeola virginiana — the cucumber root — first emerges out of the ground in the early spring about March or April. With its neat symmetry it is very attractive and beautiful (surely one of my favorites).

Younger, sexually immature cucumber root plants grow above the ground only as a downy stem with a whorl of green lanceolate leaves at the apex. In older plants, those which are sexually mature, a second and smaller whorl of leaves grows above the first one on an elongated stem.

Appearing by late May or June as just a cluster of tiny, round, unopened buds above the smaller secondary whorl of leaves, these are the first signs of flowering. As the buds open to reveal pale-yellow flowers, the pedicels (or stems of the flowers) droop, dangle, or “nod” beneath the top whorl of leaves. Eventually the flowers will curl back upwards again (perhaps after they have been pollinated). And they remain in the upward position above the leaf whorl as the fertilized flowers turn into berries that ripen to the color dark blue-black.

The nodding yellow flowers of cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)
The nodding yellow flowers of cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)
The pale-yellow flowers of cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)
The pale-yellow flowers of cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)

As the berries ripen from green to black, the apex of the plant turns a crimson red (on the flower pedicels and inner leaf margins). This perhaps serves as a guide to birds or other animals, who flying and flitting about through the forest canopy may notice these red centers as target signs, like a bulls-eye guidepost, creating contrast against the black berries and leading to a meal.

Ripened berries of cucumber root (Medeola virginiana) in late August / early September.
Ripened berries of cucumber root (Medeola virginiana) in late August / early September.

The berries ripen in August or early September. Without predation, the berries will sometimes remain upon the plants until they dry out and split, or fall to the ground of their own accord.

Ripened berries of cucumber root on a plant approaching its dormancy in the autumn.
Ripened berries of cucumber root on a plant approaching its dormancy in the autumn.

Inside each berry is anywhere from 2-6 hard, mahogany-colored seeds. If planted fresh they may sometimes germinate the following spring, but in many instances they adopt a strategy of double-dormancy, waiting 18 months or until after the second winter before deciding it is safe to emerge.

The seeds may be stored cool and dry without losing much viability, although like many of our eastern woodland herbaceous perennials, it is generally advisable to sow them quickly, rather than hold onto them for awhile.

Fresh seeds and berry-skins of cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)
Fresh seeds and berry-skins of cucumber root (Medeola virginiana)

The cucumber root seems to prefer slightly-dry, acidic soils underneath a woodland canopy, where it is found most abundantly. They may thrive under a deciduous canopy (where the leaves drop off in the fall and grow back in the spring) or under a mixed canopy of deciduous and evergreen species together. In the wild it is often found on the up-slopes above the moister, wetter soils where more mesic species thrive down in the ravines and valleys and coves. However, the cucumber root is not confined strictly to these drier part of the hillsides — it is also found growing in the valleys and the coves and in moister, boggier areas.

I harvested my Medeola virginiana seed in areas where a high-level of population diversity was present, and the cucumber root grew almost as a continuous groundcover for several acres and along certain elevation gradients, forming a band of herbage encircling the mountains.

Cucumber root hates begin transplanted and once dug, it will in most cases wilt and go dormant immediately, emerging again only in the following spring. And though it expresses a preference for slightly-dry soils, Medeola virginiana is sensitive to too much light and will die in full-sun or mostly-sun conditions.

I don’t have numbers yet of exactly how many years it takes Medeola virginiana to grow through it’s entire life-cycle, from seed to flower, but my guess is that it is in the same category as the slow-growing trilliums and wild leeks. As a rule of thumb, expect two years for germination, and another five years until the plant begins flowering: all-in-all, a roughly seven-year investment.

Where cucumber root grows uncommonly and in small patches, and because it is a sensitive and slow-growing plant, it is advisable not to dig or harvest the roots for food at all. With careful tending and population management through the intentional gathering and planting of seed, Medeola virginiana may be restored to a place of abundance and healthy diversity within our forests, and from there it can serve as a food-source for pollinators and people in coming generations.

The leaves of cucumber root turning color preceding fall dormancy.
The leaves of cucumber root turning color preceding fall dormancy.

Yampah — Perideridia americana & more

Perideridia americana, "eastern yampah"
Perideridia americana, “eastern yampah”

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:

Field of yampah (Perideridia gairdneri) in Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. Photo by Kollibri Sonne-Terrablume.
Field of yampah (Perideridia sp., perhaps P. bolanderi) in Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, July 2016. Photo by Kollibri terre Sonnenblume.

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.

Yampah (Perideridia gairdneri). Photo by Kollibri Sonne-Terrablume.
Yampah (Perideridia sp.). Photo by Kollibri terre Sonnenblume.
Fresh yampah roots. Photo by Kollibri Sonne-Terrablume.
Fresh yampah roots. Photo by Kollibri terre Sonnenblume.
Yampah roots cooked in oil. Photo by Kollibri Sonne-Terrablume.
Yampah roots cooked in oil. Photo by Kollibri terre Sonnenblume.

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.

Rosa Charles and Billy George, a Wintu couple, digging for yampah, 1931. Photo from M. Kat Anderson's Tending the Wild, pg 293.
Rosa Charles and Billy George, a Wintu couple, digging for yampah, 1931. Photo from M. Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, pg 293.

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 tubers 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)

The tuberous roots of Perideridia gairdneri, showing the fascicled structure and growth habit of yampah.
The tuberous roots of Perideridia gairdneri, showing the fascicled structure and growth habit of yampah.

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.

Autumn-gathered roots of Yampah (Perideridia gairdneri). Late November 2016 in southwestern Oregon.
Autumn-gathered roots of Yampah (Perideridia gairdneri). Late November 2016 in southwestern Oregon.

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.

Perideridia gairdneri photo by Ann Kelliott.
Perideridia gairdneri photo by Ann Kelliott.

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

Eastern yampah, Perideridia americana.
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.

Perideridia americana emerging in early Spring as in the months of late February, March, or April.
Perideridia americana emerging in early spring as in the months of late February, March, or April.

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.

White blossoms of Perideridia americana, which flowers in April or May.
White blossoms of Perideridia americana, which flowers in April or May.
Perideridia americana -- eastern yampah -- in its habitat.
Perideridia americana — eastern yampah — in its habitat.

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.

Leaves of Perideridia americana
Leaves of Perideridia americana
Leaflets of Perideridia americana showing their pinnate structure.
Leaflets of Perideridia americana showing their pinnate structure.

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.

Perideridia americana, "Eastern Yampah"
Perideridia americana, “Eastern Yampah”

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.

Eastern yampah going to seed in an oak-hickory woodland alongside a small stream.
Eastern yampah going to seed in an oak-hickory woodland alongside a small stream.

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.

Seed of eastern yampah, Perideridia americana
Seed of eastern yampah, Perideridia americana

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.

Tubers of eastern yampah, Perideridia americana.
Tubers of eastern yampah, Perideridia americana.

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.

Eastern yampah (Perideridia americana) in a remnant black-earth prairie at a pioneer cemetery in east-central Illinois.
Eastern yampah (Perideridia americana) in a remnant black-earth prairie at a pioneer cemetery in east-central Illinois.

Solomon’s Seal — Polygonatum species

Giant Solomon's Seal flowers (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum)
Giant Solomon’s Seal flowers (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum)

Solomon’s Seal (genus Polygonatum) is a really cool native plant of eastern and central North America. It is in the asparagus family, Asparagaceae. The young shoots are edible raw or cooked just as garden asparagus — they are mucilaginous but flavorful and nutritive. The flower blossoms are a real delicacy — tender and sweet. Even the rhizome has been used as a human staple food rich in starch. It is from the rhizome that we get the common name “Solomon’s Seal.” Somewhere down the line, somebody thought that the indented “seals” left behind on the rootstock from last year’s shoots had the quality of a royal stamp to them, so they named the plant King Solomon’s Seal. Go figure! But the name has stuck.

Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) in its native woodland habitat.
Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum) in its native woodland habitat.

Although Solomon’s Seal is usually found in mesic forests under a deciduous canopy, they grow quite happily in full sun as well. The shoots emerge in the early spring, reach stature and flower by the late spring, and grow into ripened fruits by the late summer. The shoots die back in the fall and remain dormant until the following spring.

The two main North American species of Solomon’s Seal are Polygonatum biflorum (Smooth Solomon’s Seal) and Polygonatum pubescens (Hairy Solomon’s Seal). Additionally there is Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum, sometimes simply called Polygonatum commutatum, which is known as Giant Solomon’s Seal. It is my favorite of the bunch.

P. pubescens has hairs on the underside of the leaves and this is one way in which it can be distinguished from P. biflorum. Polygonatum biflorum is also generally larger than P. pubescens, but not as large as P. commutatum. Polygonatum commutatum may be distinguished from P. biflorum by its stalk which is straight and leafless for almost two feet above the ground before it begins to curl and unfurl with leaves.

There are several east Asian Polygonatum species, as well. One of the most popular of these is the variegated Solomon’s Seal, commonly seen in gardens. It is a varietal of Polygonatum odoratum. There’s also dwarf Solomon’s Seal, Polygonatum humile, among others. All have more or less the same culinary properties and are cultivated in the same ways.

The tender blossoms of Solomon's Seal are a delicacy.
The tender blossoms of Solomon’s Seal are a delicacy.
The young unfurled shoots of Solomon's Seal are another spring-time delicacy. Harvesting the shoots does not seriously hurt the plant, which sends up new replacement shoots after the first are cut (much like asparagus).
The young unfurled shoots of Solomon’s Seal are another spring-time delicacy. Harvesting the shoots does not seriously hurt the plant, which sends up new replacement shoots after the first are cut (much like asparagus).
Rhizome of Solomon's Seal showing the "seals." These rhizomes may serve as starchy staple food.
Rhizome of Solomon’s Seal showing the “seals.” These rhizomes may serve as starchy staple food. The rhizomes may also be  cut and up and divided and replanted for further propagation.

I love gathering seed of Solomon’s Seal and rewilding it into new woodland areas, or even intentionally sowing into dense patches. Solomon’s Seal is very valuable as a food crop. Whether or not the rhizomes are being consumed, the shoots and flowers alone are fantastic, and because they grow even under a closed deciduous canopy, they could be ideal for farmers who wish to provide more vegetables to their customers, and have some wooded areas to garden in. Imagine a whole hillside of Solomon’s Seal — that’s a huge amount of springtime food! And it’s a perennial requiring little management, no weeding, and no hoeing… A big improvement over conventional agriculture, in my opinion.

Giant Solomon's Seal (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum) with ripened berries in the late summer.
Giant Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum) with ripened berries in the late summer.
Ripened berries of Giant Solomon's Seal.
Ripened berries of Giant Solomon’s Seal.
Each berry contains about 5-8 seeds.
Each berry contains about 5-8 seeds.

I gather the ripe berries of Giant Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum var. commutatum) around mid-September. The seeds contained inside are double-dormant, requiring two winter cold periods before germination. It may take up to several years before maturity and flowering depending on the species and the conditions. While the seeds are probably tolerant of some drying, I always sow immediately or store in a soil mixture for later sowing.

Nashville breadroot — Pediomelum subacaule

The Nashville breadroot -- Pediomelum subacaule
The Nashville breadroot — Pediomelum subacaule

Not much is written about the Nashville breadroot (Pediomelum subacaule). It’s listed in a few field guides as a plant with an edible root, but that’s about it so far as I can find. The plant seems to be very under-studied. There is no ethnobotanical literature specifically related to this species. My personal experiences with it suggest this to be a highly important plant, with further investigations warranted.

Pediomelum subacaule blooming in early April.
Pediomelum subacaule blooming in early April.

Nashville breadroot (Pediomelum subacaule) begins blooming in early April in the cedar glades with a center of distribution around middle Tennessee. The plant can also be found in cedar glades in nearby Georgia and Alabama. It takes the common name from its more well-known, larger sibling, the Indian breadroot or prairie turnip (Pediomelum esculentum). The Indian breadroot was an important first foods root to indigenous groups of the Great Plains. Known as timpsula to the Lakota, it was so important that they named the month of June after it: tinpsila itkahca wi, meaning the moon when breadroot is ripe. I have used the information on the Indian breadroot, Pediomelum esculentum, as a guide to understanding the Nashville breadroot from an ethnobotanical perspective, compensating for the dearth of literature regarding this specific plant.

The genus Pediomelum, in the bean family (Fabaceae), is a large group containing many geophytic plants with edible starchy roots. Additional examples include Pediomelum cuspidatum, P. hypogaeum, P. megalanthum, P. californicum, P. castoreum, P. argophyllum, and more.

Nashville breadroot (Pediomelum subacaule) in bloom.
Nashville breadroot (Pediomelum subacaule) in bloom.

The Nashville Breadroot, also known commonly as white-rim scurf-pea, blooms for a month from about the beginning of April until the beginning of May. It is quite abundant in its native habitat in limestone cedar glades, where it can flower as thickly as clover blossoms in a meadow. It even grows thickly along the roadsides and in people’s yards. This is encouraging to witness! The flowers wither away around the beginning of May and the seeds ripen around the middle of the month.

Pediomelum subacaule growing abundantly in shortgrass prairie.
Pediomelum subacaule growing abundantly in shortgrass prairie.
Pediomelum subacaule growing in rocky, limestone soils.
Pediomelum subacaule growing in rocky, limestone soils.
Nashville breadroot seen bloomly thickly like clover blossoms.
Nashville breadroot seen bloomly thickly like clover blossoms.

The Nashville breadroot’s main virtue from a human standpoint lies in its tuberous root, which is edible raw or cooked. The Pediomelum subacaule plant is a classic geophyte, meaning that it stores away nutrients underground in the form of starches, as a supply for times of difficult climate and drought. The thin soils and exposed bedrock characteristic of the limestone cedar glades result in hot and dry summertime conditions, and the Nashville breadroot’s life-cycle has evolved in accordance.

The Nashville breadroot begins to wake up from its summer dormancy around October, when the tuberous underground root begins to bud, much like a spudding potato. At this time there is a relative abundance of moisture in the cedar glades, and the roots begin soaking it up. The bud grows slowly throughout the winter, and then begins to accelerate as the soil begins to warm in March and the late winter and early spring rains come. The tuber is located about 3-6 inches underground, and so it is by March that the plant’s shoots and lupine-like foliage first emerge above the ground, ready to flower in the coming month of April. After flowering and setting seed in May, the plant dies back again entirely around June, hibernating underground to wait out the hot and dry summer months.

A typical root of Pediomelum subacaule. The root forked because it was growing above a large subterranean limestone rock -- this is common in the cedar glades.
A typical root of Pediomelum subacaule. The root forked because it was growing above a large subterranean limestone rock — this is common in the cedar glades.
All of these roots were harvested from a roughly eight inch by eight inch square patch of earth.
All of these roots were harvested from a roughly eight inch by eight inch square patch of earth.

To consume the roots, first they must be peeled of their outer bark layers, revealing the white fleshy starch inside. The flavor, aroma, and texture is very much like coconut — delicious! Anecdotally, eating even just one raw root on an empty stomach left me feeling satiated, energized, and focused.

Peeled tuber of Nashville breadroot.
Peeled tuber of Nashville breadroot.

When dried, the roots may be stored indefinitely. The Lakota would braid the roots of their timpsula (Pediomelum esculentum) together into a chain. After drying, the roots could be ground into a flour for later use in baking bread and cakes or as a thickener for soups. Nashville breadroot may be treated and processed the same way.

Braided chain of timpsula (Pediomelum esculentum)
Braided chain of timpsula (Pediomelum esculentum)

As the flowers die back, they dessicate and ripen their small, bean-like seeds.

Dessicated flowers hold ripened seeds.
Dessicated flowers hold ripened seeds.

Seeds of Pediomelum acaule.
Seeds of Pediomelum acaule.
Seeds of Nashville breadroot (Pediomelum subacaule)
Seeds of Nashville breadroot (Pediomelum subacaule)

Once ripened, the seeds will store for many years dry. Germination seems to be fairly easy and straightforward, being dependent largely on temperature and amount of moisture in the soil. The seeds need no cold stratification.

Gathered and winnowed seeds
Gathered and winnowed seeds
Germination of Nashville Breadroot (Pediomelum subacaule). 6/19/2017 in southeastern Pennsylvania. All I did was sow the seeds in a flat... nature did the rest!
Germination of Nashville Breadroot (Pediomelum subacaule). Picture from 6/19/2017 in southeastern Pennsylvania, sowed around May 20th. The seeds were put in a flat with soil… the rain and sunshine did the rest!

The Nashville breadroot is hardy down to zone 5, according to the USDA. Barry Glick of Sunshine Farm and Gardens in Renick, WV, reports the following:

“[I]t’s one of the easiest plants I’ve ever grown, takes full blistering sun, is perennial and long lived, has no insect pest or disease problems, is not invasive or aggressive and looks good all the growing season long, even when it’s not in flower. And……….it’s THAT blue blue blue.

[..]

Hardiness has never been an issue either. In the ground they’ve scoffed at below zero temps without a blanket of the white stuff or even a decent mulch. I’ve also left them in pots, unprotected all Winter and they’ve easily handled 9 degrees with no snow cover. Neither is heat tolerance a problem, as I have friends in Austin TX growing them now for several years and if you know anything about Austin besides the great music scene, believe me the heat is brutal.”

Nashville breadroot prefers to be dry in the summertime and moist in the winter, and with ample sunshine! Ideal environments outside of the native cedar glade environments could be the rocky scree on the sides of mountains, gravelly areas, serpentine barrens, other areas with exposed bedrock, sunny shortgrass prairie or meadow, and possibly even reclaimed parking lots or tennis courts (concrete mimics the landscape and climate of flatrock cedar glade barrens — how that’s for a post-industrial food system idea)!

The tubers of Nashville breadroot can grow to be quite large.
The tubers of Nashville breadroot can grow to be quite large.

These large roots pictured above were growing in areas of the glades where growth was not impeded or re-directed by rocks. Here they found ample soil to live in. It is difficult to estimate the age of these roots without more information about growth rates, but my guess is at least 8-10 years old. While that may seem like a long time, when you consider that ramps take at least 7 years to mature, the Nashville breadroot doesn’t seem so impractical. Pediomelum subacaule is undoubtedly a long-lived perennial, and generally slow-growing, but its hardiness, and potential abundance in suitable habitat mean this is one plant we should be looking into as a food source. Especially when we consider the increasing drought and desertification caused by climate change. This is a drought-hardy, cold-hardy, no-input, no-effort food. I will be rewilding this one into a wide-range of suitable habitats.