Tag Archives: Apiaceae

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.

Harbinger-of-Spring – Erigenia bulbosa

The tiny flowers of harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa) emerge in late winter above the leaves.
The tiny flowers of harbinger-of-spring (Erigenia bulbosa) emerge in late winter above the leaves.

Erigenia bulbosa is a charming little plant. It is one of the earliest blooming wildflowers in the eastern United States, lending the common name Harbinger-of-Spring. The name Erigenia means “early born.” Depending on the climate, the tiny flowers of harbinger-of-spring may be found emerging above the leaves in woodlands as early as late January, though typically in February or early March. Harbinger-of-spring is dormant by April or early May, and all traces of the plant aboveground are gone, making Erigenia a truly ephemeral plant.

Flowers before fully opening
Flowers before fully opening
Flowers before fully opening
Flowers before fully opening

Harbinger-of-spring is a geophyte found most commonly on the west side of the Appalachian mountains, from New York to Georgia, and westward into eastern Kansas and Oklahoma. It seems to be especially abundant in calcareous areas where there is limestone bedrock and neutral or alkaline conditions. But it is by no means confined to such areas, and can thrive anywhere there is rich, well-drained soil as found in deciduous woodlands. Erigenia bulbosa appears to prefer mesic or moist conditions, such as floodplains along creeks and rivers, bottomlands, and Appalachian cove forests.

Erigenia bulbosa is in the parsley family, Apiaceae. The flowers are umbels, spreading open like an umbrella, with the stalks radiating from a central point. The red anthers on top of the stamens, later fading to black, make for a lovely contrast above the symmetrical white flowers. Another name for Erigenia bulbosa is pepper-and-salt describing the faded black anthers over the white flowers.

The umbelliferous flowers of Erigenia bulbosa
The umbelliferous flowers of Erigenia bulbosa
Harbinger-of-spring's anthers fade from red to black
Harbinger-of-spring’s anthers fade from red to black
"Pepper-and-salt" is a common name for Erigenia bulbosa, referring to the black anthers against the white flower petals.
“Pepper-and-salt” is a common name for Erigenia bulbosa, referring to the black anthers against the white flower petals.

The parsley family – Apiaceae – is known for its umbels of perfect flowers. Perfect flowers are those which have both pollen-producing anthers, and pistils which contain the ovaries. Thus the flowers are hermaphroditic, being both male and female. As a consequence, they can be quite promiscuous to the point where sometimes a flower even pollinates itself, or a nearby flower on the same plant.

Another characteristic of the Apiaceae family is “sheathing” at the points where the leaf stems are attached to the main stalk of the plant. In botanical lingo this is referred to as petiolate. This sheathing can be observed in the pictures below.

Flowers sheltered inside the folds in the stem
Flowers sheltered inside the folds in the stem
Underground flowers sheathed in the fleshy white stem.

The sheathing even protects the flowers of Erigenia bulbosa as they develop below the ground and facilitates their later emergence above ground. This delivery mechanism enables harbinger-of-spring and other parsley family members to send up their flowers first before any leaves. First come the flowers, then the leaves.

The thin, delicate leaves taste rather like parsley and can be used in numerous culinary ways.

Leaf growth really kicks off only until after the flowering stalks have already emerged.
Leaf growth really kicks off only until after the flowering stalks have already emerged. The leaves taste like parsley and can be used in all the same ways.

Among the many wonderful traits of this plant is it’s ability to form colonies, blanketing the forest floor in parsley leaves and salt-and-pepper flowers. In the last couple of weeks of growth after the flowers have been pollinated and have begun to form seed, the stems lengthen and begin to sprawl out in every direction. This ensures that when the seeds ripen and fall off, they will be several inches away from the parent plant. It’s this habit that enables harbinger-of-spring to so effectively act as a groundcover.

Erigenia bulbosa forms into loose colonies that cover the ground.
Erigenia bulbosa forms into loose colonies that cover the ground.
Erigenia bulbosa stretching out to disperse its seeds
Erigenia bulbosa stretching out to disperse its seeds

Each branch in the umbel forms about 2-6 fruits (which have the seeds) per umbellet. There is usually an equal amount of sepals as fruits, but not always. The fruits are schizocarps, which means that they split into two equal halves when ripe, called mericarps. Each fruit seen in the picture below is two seeds.

Four developing fruits and four sepals on Erigenia bulbosa. Each fruit is a schizocarp made up of two seeds.
Four developing fruits and four sepals on Erigenia bulbosa. Each fruit is a schizocarp made up of two seeds.
Swollen seeds on the end of an umbellet.
Swollen seeds on the end of an umbellet.

As the tips of the sepals, along with the rest of the foliage, begin to turn yellow and brown, the seeds are nearly ripe and will soon fall off the plant to the soil below. If the fruits have begun to turn slightly yellow and drop off the plant with gentle handling, they are mature enough for collection. This is the point when you’ll want to come through and begin collecting seed by hand. Once gathered, keep the seeds moist to ensure their viability when sowing. I store them in moist soil, like from the forest where I gathered.

In northwest Georgia in the spring of 2017, the first few seeds became fully ripe and began to drop around March 21st. I first saw Erigenia bulbosa emerging at the same location on February 4th, so it’s about 6-8 weeks from first flowering to seed.

The browning tips of the sepals and slight yellowing of the fruits indicates the seeds are ripe, and they will soon fall off. This picture was taken March 21st, 2017 in northwest Georgia.
The browning tips of the sepals and slight yellowing of the fruits indicates the seeds are ripe, and they will soon fall off. This picture was taken March 21st, 2017 in northwest Georgia.
The foliage begins turning yellow and brown. The seeds begin to turn palely yellow, and fall easily off the plant when touched.
The foliage begins turning yellow and brown. The seeds begin to turn palely yellow, and fall easily off the plant when touched.
Ripened seed fallen on the ground
Ripened seed fallen on the ground. April 1st, 2017 in northwest Georgia.
Seeds of Erigenia bulbosa. Mid-April, Tennessee.
Seeds of Erigenia bulbosa. Mid-April, Tennessee.
The mericarps or seeds of Erigenia bulbosa after collection
The mericarps or seeds of Erigenia bulbosa after collection
The mericarps or seeds of Erigenia bulbosa after collection
The mericarps or seeds of Erigenia bulbosa after collection

Harbinger-of-spring also has a starchy, edible tuber. Though small, ranging in size from a lentil to a ping pong ball, the roots pack a lot of nutrition and quite the flavor. It is edible raw, or cooked if desired. If gathered before the leaves have emerged, the root is emerging out of its einter dormancy and the sugars are highly concentrated. It has a pronounced sweetness to it, and an underlying nutty flavor. If gathered later in the season during its vegetative phase, the sweet overtones subside somewhat and the flavor may be described simply as “starchy.”

A smaller specimen of Erigenia bulbosa.
A smaller specimen of Erigenia bulbosa.
The structure, roots, and tuber of Erigenia bulbosa. This is the typical size of harbinger-of-spring.
The structure, roots, and tuber of Erigenia bulbosa. This is the typical size of harbinger-of-spring.
A large tuber of Erigenia bulbosa.
A large tuber of Erigenia bulbosa.

It is unknown how old Erigenia bulbosa can get but it is clear that they grow slowly and can take years until they are matured. Such lengths of time are not uncommon when it comes to spring ephemeral wildflowers. Respect and caution needs to be exercised during harvest. The most regenerative way to harvest is to dig when the seeds have ripened and fallen of their own accord, using the withering foliage as your guide to finding the root.

T
Erigenia’s gustatory virtues: though tiny, the tuber is delicious raw with a sweet flavor and nutty texture. Peeling away the brown skin reveals the white inner flesh of the tuber. However, no preparations are required in the consumption of this plant. The leaves taste like parsley. Every part of it is safe, edible, and tasty.

Based on the habit and ecology of this species, the seed is most likely not tolerant of drying. However, I did find some dried seeds on the tops of the plants, and above the leaf litter before making their way to the damp soil below. I will do a trial with a small amount of dried seed to test for viability in 2018, and will report back then.

Erigenia bulbosa seed
Erigenia bulbosa seed
Harvested seed of Erigenia bulbosa stored in damp, loose soil.
Harvested seed of Erigenia bulbosa stored in damp, loose soil for future viability.

Now for an aside, and some taxonomical speculation. It appears to me that Erigenia bulbosa bears some striking resemblances with plants in the Selineae tribe of Apiaceae, showing closest physical similarities to the genus Lomatium and Orogenia. Common west of the Rocky Mountains, many Lomatium species, known as biscuitroots, are important indigenous foods of their regions. Like Erigenia, they are geophytes with starchy, nutritive tubers edible raw or cooked. Also like Erigenia, first the flowers appear, and then the leaves emerge later. And like Erigenia too, first the anthers are red, and then they fade to black. This characteristic lends the common name “salt and pepper” to both the biscuitroot and the harbinger-of-spring. I could go on with more similarities, but a picture is worth a thousand words.

The plants which bear the most similarity to Erigenia bulbosa are those in the genus Orogenia. Indeed, Orogenia was named in homage to Erigenia, and means “born of the mountains.” Emerging at almost the same time of year, with the same flowers, growing to the same height, Orogenia would be a dead-ringer for Erigenia if it weren’t for the differences in leaf shape and structure. Lomatium gormanii (known as sycan [see-chin] or chewaucan [shay-wah-kahn] to some Great Basin indigenous groups) is also strong look-alike.

Orogenia fusiformis. Known as sycan (see-chin) or chewaucan (shay-wah-kahn) to tribes of the Klamath lake region, or "Indian potato" in English.
Orogenia fusiformis. Known as sycan (see-chin) or chewaucan (shay-wah-kahn) to tribes of the Klamath lake region, or “Indian potato” in English.
Orogenia linearifolia, known to English speaking folk as the Great Basin Indian potato.
Orogenia linearifolia, known to English speaking folk as the Great Basin Indian potato.
Orogenia linearifolia including root.
Orogenia linearifolia including root.
Lomatium gormanii, known as salt and pepper, biscuitroot, "sycan," and "chewaucan."
Lomatium gormanii, known as salt and pepper, biscuitroot, “sycan,” and “chewaucan.”

Within the Apiaceae (parsley) family, the tribe which contains genus like Lomatium and Orogenia is the Selineae. Going by morphology alone, I would have placed Erigenia among them in the Selineae tribe too. Indeed, that is what many botanists have done in studies past. However, modern phylogenetic analysis reveals that Erigenia diverged at an earlier time than the Selineae, and places the genus as the solitary member of its own tribe, the Erigenieae (http://www.life.illinois.edu/downie/DownieITS.pdf). Just goes to show you that you can’t always go by morphological characteristics alone, at least not when it comes to taxonomy!

Phylogenetic tree of the Apioideae from http://www.life.illinois.edu/downie/DownieITS.pdf
Phylogenetic tree of the Apioideae from http://www.life.illinois.edu/downie/DownieITS.pdf

But outside of taxonomy, in terms of the the structure, habit, and gustatory qualities of Erigenia bulbosa, it could rightly be considered an eastern analog to the western biscuitroots.

I am lead to wonder whether Erigenia might cross with Orogenia or with Lomatium. And I wonder at what other potentials Erigenia might have in store.


Considering that Erigenia is a delectable geophyte that grows natively in deciduous woodland habitats, it is pretty exciting. I hope to be an advocate for more widespread planting of this attractive wildflower. While I encourage the gathering and sowing of native seed, it is worth pointing out that harbinger-of-spring does transplant successfully if done with care, or especially if done late in its season as the plant turns dormant. It is also available from a few select nurseries.

Well anyway, I sure do love this little plant, but that’s a wrap on this article I guess!