Tag Archives: first foods

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.

Camas — Camassia species

Camassia scilloides, our eastern woodland native camas
Camassia scilloides, the eastern woodland native camas, in all its spring glory.

I have a confession to make. I’m in love. The first time I saw her, my heart skipped a beat. There she was, stretching out in the spring-time sun, dressed in baby blues and be-jeweled in yellow. Her delicate scent was carried by the gentle spring breeze. She was so gorgeous and I fell for her right on the spot. Who is she? She’s a plant, Camassia, of course! What an elegant beauty!

The graceful flowers of the camas open up in the early spring, and unfurl like a wave from the bottom of the stalk to the top. The six tepals range from nearly white to the deepest of blues. The perfect flowers of Camassia are hermaphroditic, bearing both male and female reproductive parts (even though I refer to her as a she), and have ovaries that are pale-green, and yellow pollen-producing anthers. The flowering stalk is anywhere from one- to two-and-a-half-feet high (or nearly four feet in the case of C. leichtlinii!).

Aside from being so beautiful, camas also has a long history as an indigenous first food staple. The word camas (kæ-mus) or “quamash” comes to us from the word qém’es in the Niimíipu language of the Nez Perce, referring to the food bulbs of the Camassia plant, which they traded to the starved crew members of Lewis & Clark’s Corps of Discovery upon Idaho’s Weippe prairie in 1805. That was probably the first experience with this plant as a food that white-faced colonials ever had.

There are six species within the genus Camassia, endemic only to the North American continent. Although more famous in the Pacific Northwest, few realize that of our continent’s five edible species, two are endemic to east of the Rocky Mountains. There are six Camassia species total:

  • Camassia quamash — Common camas, or small camas. Distributed throughout the Pacific Northwest and the northern Rockies. Blooms April-June.
  • Camassia leichtlinii — Greater camas, or large camas. Distributed throughout the Pacific Northwest, California, and the Sierra Nevadas. Blooms April-May.
  • Camassia howellii — Howell’s camas. Endemic to western Oregon where it is generally found around serpentine soils. Blooms April-May.
  • Camassia cusickii — Cussick’s camas. Because of the high level of saponins in the bulb, this is the only Camassia species considered inedible, however, it may be useful to soap-makers. Distributed throughout the Pacific Northwest, California, and the northern Rockies. Blooms May-June.
  • Camassia angusta — Southern wild hyacinth, or prairie camas. Most frequent in the black belt prairies of Texas and into the central mid-West. Bloom is later than C. scilloides, usually June.
  • Camassia scilloides — Atlantic camas, or eastern wild hyacinth. Native to rich woodlands and bottomlands from Georgia to Ontario, and from Kansas eastward to Maryland. Blooms April-May.

Camassia are in the asparagus family, Asparagaceae, and are in the agave subfamily, Agavoideae (formerly its own family, the Agavaceae). The most similar genus to Camassia would be Hastingsia (rushlilies), Chlorogalum (soaproots), and Schoenolirion (sunnybells).  While Chlorogalum, a southwestern native, has generally been harvested for soap rather than food, at least one species, Chlorogalum purpureum (purple amole) has been harvested for the edibility of its bulbs. Among these four genus, edibility seems to depend on the amount of saponins present (which are foaming, soapy molecules).

I’ll be featuring mostly the eastern camas, Camassia scilloides, as it is the species most available to me in my bioregion of the Appalachian Highlands and Piedmont.

Camassia scilloides may be known by several common names. Atlantic camas or eastern camas both describe its eastern habitat. Wild hyacinth or sometimes woodland hyacinth describes its resemblance to the common ornamental garden bulbs. Sometimes you’ll see Indian wild hyacinth used, which is of course referring to the traditional gathering and preparation of this plant by native peoples. Beargrass is another name for C. scilloides, though this one being a little older in its use and not so popular today. The Beargrass Creek outside Lexington, Kentucky, for example, was named for this plant (Camassia scilloides – Beargrass in the Bluegrass [.PDF]). I’m drawn towards calling this plant woodland camas, even though it does well in full-sun too. Lastly, there’s always simply “camas,” with no further distinctions.

Camassia scilloides emerging in the early spring.
Camassia scilloides grows in colonies and resembles grass before flowering. Hence the common name, “beargrass.”
Camassia flower raceme development
Camassia flower raceme development. Camas is in the asparagus family — can you see the resemblance?
Camassia flower development
Camassia flower development. Early spring.
Flowering Camassia
Flowering Camassia in the months of April or May. This photo was taken April 1st, 2017 in northwest Georgia.
Look at that beauty!
Look at that beauty!

Look for the grass-like leaves of camas emerging in the late-winter in the south or early spring elsewhere. Often false garlic (Nothoscordum bivalve) and the woodland camas grow together in the same patch and habitat, and the early leaves can look very similar to each other sometimes. The camas leaves are broader than the false garlic, curl inwards slightly, have a central vein, and radiate around a central point where the flower’s stalk (or raceme) will later grow up. The bulbs of false garlic (also known as crow poison) are mildly toxic, and to distinguish them from the camas there are a couple of reliable indicators. The first is visual appearance. The bulbs of camas are covered in a dark brown skin, whereas the bulbs of false garlic are white like an onion. When it comes to taste, the raw bulbs of camas taste gummy and have a flavor and texture not unlike squash, but the bulbs of false garlic have a harsh, acrid, or bitter flavor which ought to turn you away. Even if it doesn’t, there’s probably not too much to worry about aside from some discomfort and upset!

From a distance, common grasses may also be mistaken for camas leaves. More time in the field and personal experience will quickly lead one to learn how to discriminate the woodland camas from its look-alikes. Once in flower though, the camas is unmistakable and unforgettable!

False garlic (Nothoscordum bivalve) often grows near Camassia scilloides, and in the early spring before any flowering the foliage can appear similar and fool the novice forager. The bulb of false garlic, also known as crow poison, is mildly toxic, but is mostly harmless.
False garlic (Nothoscordum bivalve) often grows near Camassia scilloides, and in the early spring before any flowering the foliage can appear similar and fool the novice forager. The bulb of false garlic, also known as crow poison, is mildly toxic, but is probably mostly harmless.

Under favorable conditions, mature plants of the woodland camas can grow good-sized bulbs. It takes at least five years for a newly germinated seedling to grow into a flowering adult, and the camas may go on to live for many more years after that. When the onion-like bulbs reach a certain size or maturity, they begin to divide and vegetatively clone themselves. Our eastern camas, Camassia scilloides, is probably slightly larger than the western small camas, Camassia quamash, although it is notably smaller than the west’s greater camas, Camassia leichtlinii.

Camassia scilloides is hardy and tolerates a wide range of soil pH and conditioning. It’s major requirements are moist soil in the spring and enough sunlight to do its thing. Interestingly, our eastern woodland camas can grow in the shade of a deciduous forest, having adapted to a spring ephemeral niche. By the time the flowers have finished and the seed is ripening, the forest canopy is just closing in. In the wild, I often see the Camassia scilloides growing in limestone-rich areas. I believe this is more coincidental than causal, but the camas bulbs probably do get a real benefit from the calcium-richness of limestone-derived soils. The species is usually found in rich Appalachian coves, moist bottomlands, floodplains along rivers and creeks, and in some prairie remnants.

Camassia scilloides growing in southern Illinois at Cave Creek Glade Preserve
Camassia scilloides growing in southern Illinois at Cave Creek Glade Preserve

I’ve found it under a diverse canopy of hardwoods and ecosystem types. In some bottomland coves with rich, moist soil, I’ve seen camas growing underneath a canopy of sweetgum, buckeye, ash, maple, basswood, and sycamore. But I’ve also seen it on drier, higher slopes underneath a canopy of poplar, oak, and hickory. The bulbs were smaller in the uplands, but they were growing, and the population was strong and in the thousands. Work with this species and play with it, it may hold even more surprises!

Camassia scilloides range and distribution
Camassia scilloides range and distribution

Our eastern woodland camas is generally found on the west side of the Appalachian mountains, although there are a few scattered populations in piedmont South Carolina, North Carolina, and Maryland, and the blue ridge mountains of western Virginia. I imagine this plant may have been far more abundant, especially in the far east, before the pig and the plow. Unfortunately, scant ethnobotanical records in the eastern woodlands leave us to wonder about what the landscape may have even looked like prior to Europeans.

Eastern camas, Camassia scilloides
Eastern camas, Camassia scilloides.
Bulb of Camassia scilloides
The onion-like bulb of Camassia scilloides

Camas bulbs are rich in inulin, a tough starchy fiber that is normally indigestible to humans. While safe and edible raw — the texture is gummy and the flavor is mild, like squash — they are not recommended. Not only does the indigestible inulin make raw consumption inefficient, but like the similar Jerusalem artichoke, it can result in lots of farting, and if eaten in excess, gastrointestinal upset.

To effectively eat camas, you have to cook the bulbs until they caramelize. With heat, the indigestible inulin is converted into delicious and digestible fructose sugars. However, it can taste a long time to do this. Camas is a true slow food, taking up to 48 hours in a slow-cooker until they turn brown like the wood of walnut.

Traditionally, camas was gathered in the late spring or early summer as the seeds were ripening. At this crucial time, people would dig huge amounts of camas bulbs, enough for a year’s supply. And as they dug each bulb, they would leave behind the smaller bulbs to regenerate the patch, and scatter the seed from the larger bulbs, ensuring future harvests and a healthy population.. After the bulbs were dug, they would be pit-roasted in earth ovens over a period of days until richly brown and caramelized. Once they were fully cooked, the roots would be dried out as an anytime snack, and also for grinding into a flour.

After caramelization, the camas becomes sweet from the sugars. It’s hard to describe the taste, but it’s very good — sweet, firm, and flavorful, almost like if molasses and a vegetable got together and had a baby.

Camas is a high-calorie complex carbohydrate food with some protein and a hint of fat. It is a good source of calcium and magnesium. (https://www.fs.fed.us/) When cooked properly and gathered in abundance, camas is a hearty staple food supplying the baseline of one’s nutritional needs.

The young flower scape is also edible, tasting much like asparagus. It is a succulent and flavorful raw vegetable — delicious — but I wouldn’t recommend trying it unless you find yourself in a large population. While harvesting the stalk won’t kill the plant, it may set it back or prevent it from flowering in that year.

While our eastern woodland camas is still abundant in a few states, it is going to require several years of conscious tending, rewilding, and management to increase any given population to the point where it can be a regenerative food source for individuals, small-families, and groups, and no longer a novelty food.

Camassia scilloides bulbs before slow-cooking
Fresh camas bulbs before slow-cooking with steam.
Camassia scilloides bulbs after slow-cooking
Camas bulbs after slow-cooking for 48 hours with steam.

Camassia sets seed abundantly. Gather as the seed pods turn brown and the seeds turn black in the late spring or early summer. The seeds seem to be tolerant of some drying, but it’s best to err on the side of caution and store in cool, moist conditions if not sowing immediately. The seed is double-dormant by some accounts, meaning if sown in the fall it will not emerge the following spring, but the spring of the year after. The seed needs two cold periods, in other words.

Ripened pods turn brown and split to reveal shiny black seeds. Picture taken May 1st, 2017 in central Alabama.
Ripened pods turn brown and split to reveal shiny black seeds. Picture taken May 1st, 2017 in central Alabama.
Dried pods with ripened seed of Camassia scilloides.
Dried pods with ripened seed of Camassia scilloides.
Seeds of Camassia scilloides.
Seeds of Camassia scilloides.
Camassia quamash seed
Camassia quamash seed
Camassia quamash germinating
Camassia quamash germinating. The black skin is shed and a thin root radicle or two probe for good earth. The first-year seedlings appear like tiny strands of grass.

After germination, it may be another five years at least before the first flowers bloom and set seed of their own. Camas is thus a seven-year investment, and worth every moment.

The greater camas (Camassia leichtlinii) of the west has the largest bulbs of any camas species, and I was given some this year to grow out. I’m excited to see how they do, and also find myself wondering about potential breeding projects or improvements. Will C. leichtlinii and C. scilloides cross to make larger-bulbed, woodland-hardy plants? Will C. leichtlinii also take to a spring ephemeral niche, growing under a woodland canopy? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but that’s what makes plant rewilding so much fun. While I could always grow out these C. leichtlinii in a garden setting, I’m far more interested in their potential to grow wild.

Sizable bulbs of Greater Camas, Camassia leichtlinii
Sizable bulbs of Greater Camas, Camassia leichtlinii

Spring beauty — Claytonia virginica

Claytonia virginica -- the Virginia spring beauty
Claytonia virginica — the narrow-leaved Virginia spring beauty (photo: Wikipedia)

Spring beauty is one of the earliest wildflowers to appear and it really lives up to its name! Look at those beautiful little flowers. The first leaves can emerge in late February and the flowers bloom from March through May. In April the woodlands are alive with a living carpet of spring beauty…

Woodland carpet of spring beauty flowers
Woodland carpet of spring beauty flowers (April 22nd, 2016)

Spring beauty is classed in the miner’s-lettuce family Montiaceae (it was formerly classed in the purslane family, Portulacaceae). In the eastern temperate forests bioregion, there are principally two main species: Claytonia virginica, the Virginia spring beauty, and Claytonia caroliniana, the Carolina spring beauty. The Virginia spring beauty is narrow-leaved; the leaves of Carolina spring beauty are decidely broader. Flowers in both species range from white to pink and everywhere in between.

Carolina spring beauty, Claytonia caroliniana, at The Pocket on Pigeon Mountain in Georgia.
Carolina spring beauty, Claytonia caroliniana, at The Pocket on Pigeon Mountain in Georgia.

Within Claytonia virginica, there are two yellow-flowered varieties. One, Claytonia virginica var. hammondiae, is limited in distribution exclusively to a small area of northwestern New Jersey. Another yellow-flowered variety, Claytonia virginica f. lutea, is endemic to parts of Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Yellow spring beauty, Claytonia virginica var. hammondiae
Yellow spring beauty, Claytonia virginica var. hammondiae (photo: Jim Wright)

To the Ojibwe of the Great Lakes region, spring beauty is known as meeautikwaeaugpineeg in the Anishinaabemowin language. To the Gosiute of the Great Basin, it is known as dzina in the Western Shoshone language.

The western species include Claytonia lanceolata the western spring beauty, Claytonia umbellata the Great Basin spring beauty, and Claytonia megarhiza the alpine spring beauty, and several others.

Claytonia megarhiza, alpine spring beauty
Claytonia megarhiza, alpine spring beauty (photo: Wikipedia)

Tommy Stoughton, a PhD student at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire has an excellent website, Claytonia.org. His website features many of the western species and has research highlighting taxonomy and phylogenetics. I particularly like his page on Claytonia ogilviensis which is found among the Ogilvie Mountains of Canada’s Yukon Territory. Check out its tuber!

Claytonia ogilviensis tuber (photo: Tommy Stoughton, Plymouth State University)
Claytonia ogilviensis tuber (photo: Tommy Stoughton, Plymouth State University)

As a food, Claytonia is simply excellent. Rich in starches as well as the vitamins A and C, the tuber is a staple food and has a cooked flavor much like a buttery potato or a chestnut. Eaten raw, the flavor takes on stronger tones. There is a mild bitterness or spiciness if the brown papery skin surrounding the inner white flesh of the tuber is eaten. The tubers are typically fairly small (it has another common name “fairy spuds,” after all), generally ranging in size from a grain of corn, a garbanzo bean, or to the diameter of a quarter. In the case of ideal growing conditions or long age, the tubers can become larger still. I have found some nearly the size of my fist! Larger and older tubers have many more stems and leaves and flowers than the younger ones.

The edible corms or tubers of spring beauty
The edible corms or tubers of spring beauty

Besides the roots, the stems, leaves, and flowers are all nutritious. Every bit of the plant is edible. My preferred method of preparation is cooked whole: roots, tubers, shoots, leaves, and all. Boiled in water, lightly salted, and served. Mmm!

A springtime meal with Claytonia
A springtime meal with Claytonia

In my experiences with different species of Claytonia, I’ve found there can be substantial differences. The roots of Carolina spring beauty are darker and purpler than the tan or brown roots of Virginia spring beauty seen above. The Carolina’s purple coloration like a beet, comes from a plant flavonoid pigment called anthocyanin. The presence of high anthocyanin content in the root coloration could be an indicator for more phytochemistry happening in the plant, as compared with the Virginia species. The flavor of the broadleaved Carolina spring beauty is superior to the narrow-leaved Virginia spring beauty, in my estimation. It is richer, with less harsh overtones, and has a sweetness to it. Also, the leaves of Carolina spring beauty are decidedly superior to Virginia spring beauty — they are sweet and succulent very much like miner’s lettuce, if that is a reference you can relate to (miner’s lettuce is found within the genus Claytonia too).

Propagation of this springtime wildflower is straightforward, but collection is a little tricky. After the flowers have been pollinated and begin to fade away during the month of May, the petals fall off to reveal a small seed capsule clasped between the sepals.

Spring beauty flower with seed capsules
Spring beauty flower with seed capsules (May 2nd, 2016)
Claytonia virginica seed capsules
Claytonia virginica seed capsules (May 2nd, 2016)

In early May, the seed capsules still need about a week or two to ripen and mature. This happens from the top of the plant downwards. When mature, the capsule splits open, catapulting tiny black seeds in every direction! They can end up two, three, even four feet away from the parent plant. An excellent dispersal tactic.

Claytonia virginica seed capsule about to pop
Claytonia virginica seed capsule about to pop (May 5th, 2016)

To collect the seeds, gather the whole stems of spring beauty after the spherical seed capsule clasped within the calyx has begun to turn brown (these seed capsules are seen in the photo three pictures above). At this point, around mid- to late-May, eruption is imminent, so leave the stems in a bag or a box. As each capsule explodes, the seeds remain caught inside of the bag or the box.

Spring beauty seeds (Claytonia virginica)
Collected spring beauty seeds (Claytonia virginica — May 8th, 2016

Wildflower propagation guides say that Claytonia virginica seeds contain an elaiosome: a small attachment made of fats and sugars attractive to ants who aid in dispersal. On the face of it, I’ve had my doubts. Any elaiosome present may be so tiny as to be scarcely perceptible — is it really there? And why enlist the aid of ants for dispersal when the plant already catapults seeds feet away, anyhow? It turns out my skepticism is unfounded, though: ant foraging behavior of elaiosome-laden seeds has been observed for Claytonia virginica. It seems this is a double-strategy. First they catapult their seeds far and wide, then thanks to the elaiosomes, ensure they find a safe resting place in moist, cool ground prior to germination.

Because of the elaiosome, seeds of Claytonia virginica cannot dry out or they rapidly lose viability. They must be kept moist and in a cool, dark place. (It is worth noting that the western species such as Claytonia lanceolata and C. megarhiza have seeds that do tolerate drying. This makes sense when we consider the habitat of western spring beauty species — dry, hot summers characterized by seasonal droughts.) Virginia spring beauty seed is double-dormant before germinating.

Spring beauty’s value as a food source makes it is a great candidate for ecological plantings and rewilding back into the landscape as a first food. Among the many virtues of spring beauty is its ability to grow nearly anywhere. They will grow in shade, as well as in meadows with full-sun. They grow in lawns and along roadsides. They grow under brambles and thickets. They grow beneath the mature canopy of an old-growth forest. They grow in dry, rocky soils and naked mountain slopes.

In the places where spring beauty is found, its abundance can be overwhelming. In places where it is not, its absence can be eerie. Spring beauty has been removed from the soil seedbank in many landscapes that have been overgrazed by cattle, trodden by pigs, or destroyed through years of plowing and annual agriculture. The recovery in such places of a native seedbank alongside a healthy, diverse, and regenerative ecology is a process excruciatingly slow. Perhaps there will never be a full recovery. With human aid however, we can help rebuild what was once destroyed and strengthen what now remains. Spring beauty can help us do this — and we can help it.

The true lilies — Lilium species

Turk's cap lily, Lilium superbum
Turk’s cap lily, Lilium superbum (West Virginia, July 16th, 2016)

Lilies sure are wonderful! I wish I had words to describe them better. Perhaps I could tell you of my feelings of joy and excitement upon finding some in bloom. Or maybe I could tell you of the sunny summertime days when the lilies flower in their full glory. But it would not be enough.

Canada lily, Lilium canadense
Canada lily, Lilium canadense (Pennsylvania, July 3rd, 2016)

True lilies within the genus Lilium are perennial, though they are relatively short-lived (perhaps no more than 10 years?). Most people are familiar with the garden variety Tiger Lilies (Lilium lancifolium), a native of far east Asia. It’s our native lilies that to me are really fascinating. They can be found all over the continent. In the eastern United States we find Canada lily (Lilium canadense), Michigan lily (Lilium michiganense), Carolina lily (Lilium michauxii), prairie lily (Lilium philadelphicum), pine lily (Lilium catesbaei), Roan lily (Lilium grayi), and Turk’s cap lily (Lilium superbum). In the western United States we find  the western lily (Lilium occidentale), panther lily (Lilium pardalinum), Columbia lily (Lilium columbianum), Washington lily (Lilium washingtonianum), redwood lily (Lilium rubescens), and the coast lily (Lilium maritimum). Doubtless there are more species that I cannot recount. (Additionally there are several related genera with similar structure and ethnobotanical uses such as Calochortus, Fritillaria, and Erythronium; many of these share the same family as Lilium, the Liliaceae family.)

Prairie lily, Lilium philadelphicum
Prairie lily, Lilium philadelphicum (West Virginia, July 19th, 2016)

The lilies may be found in a variety of habitats. The prairie lilies (Lilium philadelphicum) pictured above and below were found in dry upland and prairie meadow habitats such as the plateau of Dolly Sods Wilderness in Monongahela National Forest of West Virginia. They bloom there in July into August and at their peak they dot and paint the meadows with vibrant red color.

Prairie lilies at Dolly Sods
Prairie lilies at Dolly Sods (West Virginia, July 18th, 2016)

The Turk’s cap lily (Lilium superbum) grows primarily in woodland clearings with full or partial sun and the sunny edges along rivers or along roadsides. I have read that they actually require only about 2 hours of full-sun per day, so consider them fairly shade-tolerant. Older Turk’s cap lilies may display dozens of flowers per plant.

Turk's cap lily, Lilium superbum
Turk’s cap lily, Lilium superbum (Maryland, July 13th, 2016)
Turk's cap lilies, Lilium superbum
Turk’s cap lilies, Lilium superbum (West Virginia, July 13th, 2016)
Seedpods of Lilium superbum
Seedpods of Lilium superbum (September 14th, 2016)

The seed pods of Lilium species form after the flower has been pollinated and stops blooming, usually around August or so. The seed pod needs about six to eight weeks to finish ripening around September and the beginning of October. When it has ripened, it turns brown, and dries out (a process called dessication) and splits to reveal numerous teardrop-shaped seeds stacked in vertical columns.

Lilium philadelphicum in flower
Lilium philadelphicum in flower (July 18th, 2016)
Lilium philadelphicum seedpod early formation
Lilium philadelphicum seedpod early formation (August 12th, 2016)
Lilium philadelphicum seedpod ripening
Lilium philadelphicum seedpod ripening (September 13th, 2016)
Turk's cap lily seeds in the pods
Turk’s cap lily seeds in the pod (September 23rd, 2016)

The seeds have a papery coating on them which gives them lift that they may more readily blow about in the wind as a means of dispersal. They are quite easy to store in a cool, dry place out of the light for several months, but they lose viability if stored longer than a year. Germination has some pecularities — when it comes to lilies, folks sometimes talk about “hypogeal” germination. Hypogeal means below ground — in other words, the new plant first focuses on establishing roots before it dare raise a leaf above ground level (but when it does this is called epigeal growth).

Carolina lily seeds
Carolina lily seeds (Lisa Tompkins — North Carolina Native Plant Society)
Carolina lily seeds
Lilium superbum, Turk’s cap lily seeds
Lilium seed germination
Lilium seed germination

In the following two pictures are some of the stages of growth of young Lilium plants. In the picture below, we see the single leaves of new emerging plants. The lilies are monocots, therefore, their first-year leaf presents itself in the singular. In the years following, the plant beings its ascent upwards as a rising stem unfolds a whorl of leaves in distinct circles. By the fourth or fifth year the plant might begin to flower.

Lilium canadense 1st year seedling
Lilium canadense 1st year seedling (Delaware, May 1st, 2016)
Lilium canadense 3rd (?) year seedling
Lilium canadense 2nd or 3rd (?) year seedling (Delaware, May 1st, 2016)

Another way to propagate lilies is by corm division. What’s the difference between a corm, a tuber, and a bulb anyhow, you ask? Good question. A corm is defined as something like the underground swollen base to the stem. From it the roots grow, and the corm itself is covered in little scale-like things that are essentially bud or leaf scars. A bulb is a fleshy spherical organ at the base of the plant that is storage for winter dormancy. A bulb is made up of layers, just like an onion. A tuber, by contrast, is an underground storage organ that doesn’t really fit the description for corm or bulb. Its storage organ is generally more versatile, but also more uniform in structure. One learns to notice the difference between the three, but precise definitions are tricky and sometimes overlapping.


Canada lily corm displaying cormlets
Canada lily corm displaying cormlets
Lilium superbum propagules (photo by Barry Glick of Sunshine Farm and Gardens in WV)
Lilium superbum propagules (photo by Barry Glick of Sunshine Farm and Gardens in WV)

In the pictures above, we can see how each lily corm is covered in dozens of little cormlets. This is an adaptation to disturbances such as digging. When the corm is disturbed, many of these little cormlets break off the mother, and a chemical signal is sent within each of them that will trigger sprouting. In such a way the plant can clone itself dozens of times! This ability practically encourages digging. Indeed, as M. Kat Anderson writes in Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources —

“When California Indians dug up the parent bulbs or corms, the bulblets or cormlets — many of which were tenuously attached to the parent — were detached and remained in the soil to grow. Those that were not knocked off in the digging process were intentionally removed. The digging sticks churned and broke up the soil in the collecting patch, aerating it and dispersing the detached bulblets and cormlets. Thus the little offsets found themselves in ideal conditions for rapid growth into mature plants. This process, carried on for millennia, ensured each successive year’s harvest.”

She goes on to note the research of botanist Frederica Bowcutt, who states that,

“Redwood lilies [Lilium rubescens] occur mainly in forest openings created by limited logging and in berms of loose soil created by annual grading of a dirt road in and near the park. [..] It is conceivable that the redwood lily was at one time more abundant when large bulbs were periodically harvested and bulblets were left to repopulate the tilled soil. The grading may in part mimic the effects of agroecological methods used by indigenous peoples. Grading aerates the soil, as does the traditional digging of bulbs by native people for food.”

As a food source, the cooked lily corms are fantastic. The texture is crisp like a carrot and starchy like a potato. The flavor is faintly sweet but otherwise fairly nondescript. Lilium corms have an ethnographic history as a staple food, and based on my personal experience with this plant it comes as no surprise. I would love to see a nutritional breakdown, but for now I will have to settle for my intuition which tells me that it is healthy and filling.

The lily is a perfect candidate for reintroduction and rewilding for so many reasons. Beyond it’s beauty and ecological function, it serves as a first food and responds well to digging and disturbance.

It must be noted that digging alone ought to be considered not enough action to ensure the regenerative growth of lily patches. It is important that seed-scattering also occur for the sake of genetic diversity. Clones are sexually incompatible with each other on the individual level, and too many clones grown from only a few distinct genetic individuals will over time result in inbred populations. The indigenous way to kill two birds with one stone is to dig the lily corms after the seedpods have turned brown at the end of the summer or beginning of autumn and are already drying and ready to spill their seed. This also happens to be the period of time when the corm is the largest as a result of being allowed to grow all season, as we saw also in the case of ramps or wild leeks (Allium tricoccum). Therefore, while digging each corm, leave behind in the ground the cormlets and make it a point also to intentionally scatter the seed from out of the pods. This is regenerative harvesting; this is symbiosis!

Wild Leeks aka Ramps — Allium tricoccum

Ramp patch
Ramp patch (Pennsylvania, late April 2014)

Everyone who has heard of ramps, loves ramps! Also known as wild leeks, they are one of the most exciting and abundant foods to greet us in the springtime. The flavor is like an exquisite onion — strong, pungent, and healthy as garlic but surprisingly sweet. Every bit of the plant is a premier wild edible, from the tip of the leaves to the base of the bulb.

Fun fact, the name for the city of Chicago comes down to us from the Algonquian word chicagoua, which means the wild leek, Allium tricoccum. “Chicago” — the stinking place of onions!

It is important to understand the anatomy and life-cycle of Allium tricoccum in order to harvest appropriately. As with many onions, these plants have three basic parts:

1) The roots. These grow from out of the base of the bulb from a “nodule” which is technically an underground stem or rhizome. From this rhizome comes the point of growth, expanding vertically. Onions are bulbs, and each layer of the bulb is technically a modified leaf growing off the underground stem or rhizome. (With ramps in particular it is possible to guess the age of the plant, much like one would with tree rings, by counting the layers in the “nodule” or rhizome.) This root nodule or rhizome, if separated from the bulb that grows above it, will grow a new bulb the following year if kept alive or in the ground.

2) The bulb is the storage-organ of the Allium tricoccum plant; it grows seasonally, waxing and waning in size like the moon. Smallest in winter, largest at the end of spring. If undisturbed, the bulb will increase in overall size through the years until it is mature enough to split and divide, thereby cloning itself into two or more plants.

3) The leaves. They emerge from out of the bulb. Younger plants have one leaf; more mature plants have two leaves. Sunlight is absorbed by the green chlorophyll in the leaves, which feeds and powers the rest of the plant’s structures underground. The leaves may be harvested in a sustainable way. However, keep in mind that while removing the leaves will not kill the plant, it will diminish the plant’s ability to gather and store energy.

Root nodule or rhizome, and the bulb of Allium tricoccum.
Root nodule or rhizome, and the bulb of Allium tricoccum.
Early spring ramp growth
Ramp leaves growing from thin, hungry bulbs in early spring (late March 2016)

The most sustainable way to harvest ramps is to wait until they have finished growing for the season. This will be the period of time leading up to just before the foliage begins turning yellow on the tips, marking the beginning of the dormancy stage which will last until the next spring. (The ramp leaves will continue turning yellow and brown down the stem, wilting away until all of their above ground portions have disappeared.)

At this point in the end of their growing season, the bulbs have attained their largest size for the year, and the roots are strongly bound within the earth. Because there is a weak point between the foliage and the roots at the base of the bulb, by gently pulling and tugging at the plant by its leaves, a crack will be heard. This is the sound of the rhizome separating from below the bulb! As the forager continues pulling the plant out of the ground, they are delighted to find that the roots and rhizome have remained in the ground to grow for another year, but the bulb and leaves are harvested and in hand, ready for eating. This is a win-win situation for both human and plant, and the alternative to destructive digging. Harvesting in such a way can be considered regenerative, or symbiotic.

It is also worth mentioning that the ramps are easier to clean when pulled in such a way; with the rhizome left in the ground, the outer skin of the bulb slides off easily, and with it, most of the dirt or mud. See the picture below…

Ramp bulbs with the rhizome broken off and left in the ground (Vermont, June 2016)
Ramp bulbs with the rhizome broken off and left in the ground (Vermont, June 2016)

In 2016, I gathered some snapped-off rhizomes into a pot with good soil, as a test to see how (or if!) they would regenerate. In spring of 2017, I uncovered the roots and was pleasantly surprised to find that around 80% of them had regenerated, and were rooting and growing new bulbs. This is scientific proof that ramps can indeed be harvested regeneratively via the method explained above, carefully leaving the rhizxome and roots in the ground but harvesting the bulb and leaves.

Propagation of Allium tricoccum from leftover rhizomes which were removed from their bulbs.
Propagation of Allium tricoccum from leftover rhizomes which were removed from their bulbs.

When you are gathering ramps for food in late spring, do not collect any that look like the picture below: it is the beginning of a flower stalk. If left undisturbed, the raceme will continue to grow up 4-10 inches high above the litter of leaves, and at its tip will bloom forth a white, spherical umbel of flowers.  These flowers, after pollination, will each go on to develop seeds. These seeds hold within them the future life of the population.

Raceme of Allium tricoccum
Raceme of Allium tricoccum (Pennsylvania, May/June 2016)
Ramp seed head developing
Ramp seed head before the flowers unfold (Pennsylvania, late June 2016)

Pictured above is an umbel of Allium tricoccum before the flowers have opened on a late June day in Pennsylvania.

Ramp flower
Ramp flower (July/August 2016)

Above is a picture of a ramp flower in bloom. Note how within each flower in the umbel is the ovary, and it is made up of three ovules. This means every individual flower has the potential to develop up to three seeds.

Ramp seed heads
Ramp seed heads (mid-September 2016)
Ramp seed head
Ramp seed head (mid-September 2016)

The seeds of Allium tricoccum ripen from mid-September through mid-October.

Ramp seeds
Ramp seeds

If the seeds are kept dry and relatively cool in a space out of the light, they will store well for a few years.

Ramps, much like Trilliums, are double-dormant. This means they will not germinate after a single winter cold period, but instead require two winters. If sown in the fall, expect to see the first grass-like seedlings not the next spring, but the following spring after. From germination to flower takes approximately 5 years. Therefore, a ramp plant from seed to flower is a 7 year investment. Consider this before digging up any portion of a patch!

My philosophy is to scatter ramp seed in the same spot for six years. By the time the seventh year arrives, the first seeds sown will flower and soon set their own seeds, and there will already be six generations more lined up on deck. At this point the patch can be considered effectively self-sustaining.

Ramps grown from scattered seed
4-6 year ramps from 2010-2012 seed (Green Light Plants)

Ramps are an excellent candidate for ecological restoration. They are quite hardy, and will compete well against “invasive” plants such as multiflora rose, japanese honeysuckle vine, and others.

Seed-grown wild ramp patch started in 2010 by Dale Hendricks of Green Light Plants. Picture from 2017.
Seed-grown wild ramp patch started in 2010 by Dale Hendricks of Green Light Plants. Picture from 2017.
Interesting picture where we can see how ramps were dropped on the ground in a line.
Interesting picture where we can see how ramps were dropped on the ground in a line.

I’ve been seeding new ramp patches since 2014. Here’s are what they looked like this year in 2017:

Allium tricoccum in 2017 sown from 2014 seed.
Allium tricoccum in 2017 sown from 2014 seed.
Allium tricoccum in 2017 sown from 2014 seed.
Allium tricoccum in 2017 sown from 2014 seed.