Tag Archives: geophytes

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.

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.

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

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!

Exploring central Florida’s fire-dependent ecosystems

At the beginning of March I had the opportunity to join Edwin Bridges, Alex Griffel, and Eric Ungberg down in central Florida for a weekend of botanizing throughout the region’s varied ecosystems, all of which are managed through prescribed fire. Edwin runs his own botanical and ecological consulting business, and his encyclopedic knowledge of the area’s flora is impressive. His work in ecosystematics presents a comprehensive picture of the ecological workings of the region. Alex is a graduate of the University of Central Florida and has worked with The Nature Conservancy’s Tiger Creek Preserve burn crew. Eric Ungberg is with Duke University’s plant lab, and was down in Florida for some of the same reasons I was, such as curiosity and the love of botanizing. All were great people to be around and to learn from.

Along the way we noted several rare, endangered, and endemic species found only in central Florida’s sandhill communities. A few species had even narrower distributions, being found only within the county we were at, Polk county, and neighboring Highlands county.

Florida slash pine savanna
Longleaf pine savanna.

The first site we looked at was a longleaf pine savanna adjacent to two slash pine plantations on the Avon Park Air Force Range. The savanna with longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) in the canopy had an understory of saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), dwarf live-oak (Quercus minima), wiregrasses (Aristida spp.), bluestem grasses (Andropogon spp.), several forbs, and other grasses and sedges.

Serenoa repens, "saw palmetto"
Serenoa repens, “saw palmetto”

The savanna had been burned January 12th, 2017. Edwin and Alex were taking measurements and systematically studying the growth rates and flowering and fruiting times (phenology) of resprouting species in the plot post-fire. The object of their study was to document the effects of fire-seasonality and determine the ideal times for burning.

Quercus minima, "dwarf live oak." The roots are stoloniferous and run along the ground forming a groundcover of highly clonal plants.
Quercus minima, “dwarf live oak.” The roots are stoloniferous and run along the ground forming a groundcover of highly clonal plants.

Central Florida does not experience the four seasons like much of the rest of the continental United States does. Instead, there is a wet season, and a prolonged dry season. The wet season is generally from May-October and is characterized by almost daily afternoon thunderstorms brought about by the warm sea breezes along the coast. During the dry season, from around October until May, cold fronts from the north push away the humidity of the sea breezes, and the result is seven months with little rain. While there may be occasional rain during the dry season, such rains are brief or erratic and pass overhead quickly carried on the fast-moving cold fronts.

Aristida beyrichiana, "three-awn wiregrass," a dominant species of longleaf pine savannas. Photo by Mary Keim.
Aristida beyrichiana, “three-awn wiregrass,” a dominant species of longleaf pine savannas. Photo by Mary Keim.

Central Florida’s climate during the dry season is exceptionally xeric, or dry. There is not much soil to speak of in central Florida, but there is an abundance of white beach sands. Because sand does not hold onto moisture, even during the summer wet season with its abundance of rain, the landscape of the sandhill communities remains largely arid. It is a different situation, however, in the cypress swamps found in low-lying areas.

Bald cypress swamp
Bald cypress swamps are frequent in low-lying areas

Historically, central Florida’s savanna communities have been maintained by fires caused by lightning strikes that ignite dried plant materials during the dry season. Because the dry season lasts October-May, the first lightning strikes would perhaps come immediately prior to the year’s first thunderstorms in late spring. This leaves a narrow window for the fire from a lightning strike to do its job before hard rains come following in the wake of the storm, and this raises some questions. When exactly did the lightning fires usually burn? How extensive was the burning? How regular was the burning? These questions guide our understanding of what is called fire-seasonality.

If fire comes too soon, say in November, it can destroy the developing seeds of the grasses, impairing the landscape’s ability to regenerate post-burn. And if fire comes too late, say in July, it will destroy actively growing grasses, shrubs, and forbs. One component to fire-seasonality is ground moisture levels, and another is the availability of dried fuels on the surface available as incinerants. Burn at the wrong time, and the fire won’t move properly across the landscape in a tidy and efficient way. It may stop constantly and have to be re-ignited, or the fire may fail to ignite certain patches, leaving some areas untouched by flame. Burn at the right time however, and the fire makes a clean sweep across the ground in one effective action and gets the job done.

Studies in fire-seasonality suggest that the ideal time for fire is during the transition between the dry and the wet seasons, usually around April and May when combustible materials are at their highest accumulations, soil moisture and air humidity are at their lowest, and many grasses and forbs are dormant. When the first thunderstorms come in May, there is a brief window in time where the lightning strikes preceding a storm can burn smoothly across the landscape.

Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) site post-burn. Photo by Edwin Bridges.
Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) site post-burn. Photo by Edwin Bridges.

Some suggest that anthropogenic fire-management by indigenous peoples may have maintained the savannas more effectively and more regularly until our present era of fire-suppression. This is a point of controversy and I’ll leave the question open. I will only remark further to say that I think the most practical answer is that there has been a combination of both phenomena, the natural lightning strikes being augmented by anthropogenic fires.

What we do know is that lightning strikes have been the force driving the evolution of fire-adapted plant species in central Florida. This is known because the age and antiquity of fire-dependent trees such as the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) and sand pine (Pinus clausa) precedes human occupation of North America’s southeastern coastal plain.

To landscape managers, an understanding of fire-seasonality is important because it informs the decision of when to do a prescribed burn in an area, and how frequently. Prescribed fire is a form of biomimicry, so it is important that our interactions with the land produce results that reflect or fulfill the trajectory of natural processes.

Florida has many species which have evolved special adaptations to frequent fire. Longleaf pine (Pinus palustris) is perhaps the most famous. Longleaf pine has a range across the southeast, from southern coastal Virginia, to eastern Texas, and down into central Florida. Unfortunately, the remaining longleaf pine forests of today are threatened and occupy only 3% of their former density before the age of European colonization and widespread timbering.

Longleaf pine can live for many years in a low shrubby or grass-like form called the grass stage. The needles come in bundles (or fascicles) of three and can be up to a foot-and-a-half in length. They are especially long when the tree is in the grass stage, because they offer protection to the fuzzy white growing tip shielded in the middle, known as the “candle.” If the growing tip is destroyed by fire, the tree dies. By encircling the candle in bundles of needles, the density and moisture of the longleaf pine’s foliage keeps the candle safe from open flame. Longleaf pine may persist is its grass stage for many years, investing its energy into a strong taproot. Then, when conditions are right, the longleaf pine experiences a grow spurt, and will shoot up rapidly, as much as 6-10 feet in only a couple years. Their spurt takes them to heights just beyond the licking tongues of flame across the ground below, ensuring the safety of the tree’s canopy and growing tips.

Young longleaf pine growing tip or "candle"
Young longleaf pine needles encircling the growing tip or “candle.”

Longleaf pines can grow to be well over one-hundred feet tall and they can live for half a millenium. In one early European encounter in the longleaf pine forests of the southeast, it was said that four men hand-in-hand could not wrap around the base of one of these primeval trees. We are left wondering about the magnitude and majesty of these forests before the age of logging.

In central Florida, however, frequent hurricanes during the wet season are enough of a disturbance to mature longleaf pines that few of the trees survive beyond about 150 years in age, and they do not seem to grow to the same towering heights that may be found in coastal areas further north and inland. The prime habitat for towering, impressive forests of longleaf pine would have historically been areas of southern Georgia, Alabama, and South Carolina. Despite the harsher environment of central Florida, the longleaf pine savannas we encountered here had a beauty and order entirely their own.

Two years after burning.
Longleaf pine forest with saw palmetto (Serenoa repens) in the understory. The most recent burn was two years prior.

Sand pine, or scrub pine — Pinus clausa — is another fire-adapted pine of the region. It grows shorter and branchier than its longleaf cousin, Pinus palustris. Sand pine has small cones that remain tightly closed after dropping from the tree, only to open with heat as a response to fire.

In the herbaceous layer, many plants adapt to fire by forming thickened rhizomes, corms, bulbs, or tubers which serve as long-term storage organs. These plants are known as geophytes, and they have adapted to harsh conditions in their environment by becoming dormant under ground until conditions improve. Their starchy, fleshy roots not only ensure survival after fire, but also act as an energy storehouse throughout the long dry season.

Lygodesmia aphylla, "rose rush."
Lygodesmia aphylla, “rose rush.”
Lygodesmia aphylla is a geophyte with a deep, fleshy taproot. Photo by Edwin Bridges.
Lygodesmia aphylla is a geophyte with a deep, fleshy taproot. Photo by Edwin Bridges.

Rose rush (Lygodesmia aphylla) is an example of a geophyte. It is a beautiful wildflower that was seen growing in the burned slash pine plantation (maybe surviving from a time earlier than the plantation) and also in the longleaf pine savanna. It is a member of the sunflower family, Asteraceae, and is grouped in the chicory tribe, Cichorieae. Rose rush will look familiar to anyone who has seen the common chicory (Cichorium intybus). Lygodesmia aphylla is a southeastern outlier in a genus that exists primarily in the American southwest.

In the desert southwest, there is ethnobotanical documentation of Lygodesmia usage as food, spice, and medicine. I did not sample any parts of the plant, but these facts should be of interest to anyone interested in a bioregionally appropriate diet or native garden in central Florida.

Toothache grass, Ctenium aromaticum. In the grass family, Poaceae. One of the more interesting plants for its numbing qualities.
Toothache grass, Ctenium aromaticum. In the grass family, Poaceae. One of the more interesting plants for its numbing qualities.
Chewing the base of toothache grass produces a numbing sensation, and it also tastes good!
Chewing the base of toothache grass produces a numbing sensation, and it also tastes good!
Meadow beauty (Rhexia mariana) and yellow hatpins (Syngonanthus flavidulus)
Meadow beauty (Rhexia mariana) and yellow hatpins (Syngonanthus flavidulus)
Nuttall's meadow beauty, Rhexia nuttallii
Nuttall’s meadow beauty, Rhexia nuttallii

Many other flowers were starting to come out in force at the burn site, encouragingly. We saw lots of meadow beauty (Rhexia mariana & Rhexia nuttallii), queen’s delight (Stillingia sylvatica), coastal blackroot (Pterocaulon pycnostachyum), blue-eyed grasses (Sisyrinchium nashii), yellow star-grass (Hypoxis juncea), hatpins (Lachnocaulon anceps and Syngonanthus flavidulus), and milkwort (Polygala setacea), among others.

Meadow beauty is an aptly-named attractive plant that blooms in meadows where there is some seasonal moisture. It is in the meadow beauty family, Melastomataceae. We saw Maryland meadow beauty (Rhexia mariana) and also Nuttall’s meadow beauty (Rhexia nuttallii).

Queen's delight, Stillingia sylvatica var. sylvatica (euphorbia family, Euphorbiaceae).
Queen’s delight, Stillingia sylvatica var. sylvatica (euphorbia family, Euphorbiaceae).
Coastal blackroot, Pterocaulon pycnostachyum. A relative of rabbit tobacco, the tuberous root yield a poisonous black sap, and the leaves of the plant have been used as an herbal smoke and contain coumarins. Sunflower family, Asteraceae.
Coastal blackroot, Pterocaulon pycnostachyum. A relative of rabbit tobacco, the tuberous root yield a poisonous black sap, and the leaves of the plant have been used as an herbal smoke and contain coumarins. Sunflower family, Asteraceae.
Jeweled blue-eye grass, Sisyrinchium xerophyllum. Iris family, Iridaceae.
Jeweled blue-eye grass, Sisyrinchium xerophyllum. Iris family, Iridaceae.
Yellow star-grass, Hypoxis juncea, family Hypoxidaceae.
Yellow star-grass, Hypoxis juncea, family Hypoxidaceae.
Yellow hatpins, Syngonanthus flavidulus. Hatpin family, Eriocaulaceae.
Yellow hatpins, Syngonanthus flavidulus. Hatpin family, Eriocaulaceae.
Yellow milkwort, Polygala rugelii. Milkwort family, Polygalaceae.
Yellow milkwort, Polygala rugelii. Milkwort family, Polygalaceae.
Bearded grass-pink orchid, Calopogon barbatus. Orchidaceae.
Bearded grass-pink orchid, Calopogon barbatus. Orchidaceae.

 

By keeping the undergrowth down and maintaining savanna grasslands alongside the pines, fire-management also provides benefit to the growth of orchids, such as pine pink (Bletia purpurea) and bearded grass pink (Calopogon barbatus) which require open meadow, savanna, and other habitats that experience periodic disturbance. As we explored a low-nutrient seepage fen, we saw dozens of Calopogon barbatus orchids. There could have been hundreds, or even thousands throughout the fen. A fen is a low-lying around that frequently floods. They are often marshy and open, like meadows. In the fen we also saw many carnivorous plants: hooded pitcher plants (Sarracenia minor), sundews (Drosera capillaris), and butterwort (Pinguicula caerulea).

One of the earliest flowering pine pink orchids, Bletia purpurea. Orchidaceae.
One of the earliest pine pink orchids we found flowering, Bletia purpurea. Orchidaceae.

Some of the most incredible habitats of the trip were at The Nature Conservancy’s Tiger Creek Preserve. The preserve is located on a geological feature known as the Lake Wales Ridge.

Lakes Wales Ridge is a holdover from a time long ago when ocean levels were over one-hundred feet higher than at present. Lake Wales Ridge was one of Florida’s “ancient islands” which used to exist surrounded by the Atlantic ocean. The islands were long but narrow, and were home to a xeric, maritime community of plants and animals.

During the last glacial maximum, as sea levels dropped, Florida’s ancient islands began to swallow up more land around them and grow, giving shape to the Florida landmass we know today. The ancient floral and faunal communities of the Lake Wales Ridge expanded outward and colonized the new barren, sandy landscape around them. The only remnant of the ancient islands today is a long chain of sandy ridges running down the center of the state. This forms the Lakes Wales Ridge.

The incredible sandhill savannas of the Tiger Creek Preserve in Polk county, Florida. The preserve sits atop the Lake Wales Ridge, central Florida's oldest and highest land mass.
The incredible sandhill savannas of the Tiger Creek Preserve in Polk county, Florida. The preserve sits atop the Lake Wales Ridge, central Florida’s oldest and highest land mass.
Savanna grasses made of bluestem (Andropogon spp.) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium spp.).
Savanna grasses made of bluestem (Andropogon spp.) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium spp.).
Quercus geminata, an evergreen "sand live oak", and Pinus palustris, among other trees in a sandhill savanna landscape.
Quercus geminata, an evergreen “sand live oak”, and Pinus palustris, among other trees in a sandhill savanna landscape.
Seasonal depression marsh dominated by tall grasses.
Seasonal depression marsh dominated by tall grasses.

The Tiger Creek Preserve is an incredible place for a variety of reasons. It preserves the natural legacy, history, and ecology of Florida’s ancient islands, but it has also been managed wisely for many years. Prescribed fire has been used here for forty or fifty years. The resulting landscape is one that simply flows — from the wet (or hydric) swamp forests, and the mesic hardwood hammocks, to grassy depression marshes, and out across the xeric sandhill ridges with their longleaf pine savannas and oak scrub. The Tiger Creek Preserve is a place that oozes “natural,” and is a wonderful example of successful management. It has not been chopped up into private property or plantation plots unlike so much of the rest of the state, but has been allowed to develop across all of its ecological gradients, forming smooth, continuous ecotones.

Map of the Tiger Creek Preserve's ecological mosaic
Map of the Tiger Creek Preserve’s ecological mosaic

The savannas of the Tiger Creek Preserve had me imagining what the African landscape human beings evolved in may have been like. Reading through The Old Way: A Story of the First People by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas provided mental fodder for comparisons. The savanna of the African Kalahari desert is, like the Florida sandhills, a xeric, sandy environment shaped by fire and sun.

Blackwater stream the Tiger Creek seen at its namesake preserve on the Lake Wales Ridge. This area was naturally sheltered from fire and featured more mesic species.
Blackwater stream the Tiger Creek seen at its namesake preserve on the Lake Wales Ridge. This area was naturally sheltered from fire and featured more mesic species.

Even with frequent burning, not everywhere is shaped by fire — a few hills or hardwood hammocks naturally sheltered by the Tiger Creek on one side and depression marsh on the other, allowed more mesic species to thrive in the shade of oaks (like Quercus hemisphaerica, Q. nigra, Q. virginiana)  and scrub hickory (Carya floridana), such as bigflower pawpaw (Asimina obovata) and red bay (Persea borbonia).

Down lower along the creek were some swampy areas with baldcypress (Taxodium distichum), swamp tupelo (Nyssa biflora), swamp red maple (Acer rubrum var. trilobum), groundnut (Apios americana), spider lily (Hymenocallis latifolia), and marsh plants like spatterdock (Nuphar advena) and bulltongue arrowhead (Sagittaria lancifolia).

Bigflower pawpaw, Asimina obovata. Custard-apple family, Annonaceae. Generally fruits in May or June.
Bigflower pawpaw, Asimina obovata. Custard-apple family, Annonaceae. Generally fruits in May or June.

I really enjoyed getting to see some of Florida’s native pawpaw species. Being from the mid-Atlantic, the fall pawpaw harvest is always an exciting time. Asimina triloba is the pawpaw most are familiar with. It is a large-fruited, medium-sized tree that grows in rich soils along riverbanks and in the understory of deciduous forests from Georgia to New York and westward through Missouri. It is the northernmost outlier of a largely tropical genus and family. But when you get as far south as Florida, there are eight species of Asimina to be found! I’m happy to have seen two of them, bigflower pawpaw (Asimina obovata), and netted pawpaw (Asimina reticulata).

Netted pawpaw, Asimina reticulata. Custard-apple family, Annonaceae. Growing in a longleaf pine savanna.
Netted pawpaw, Asimina reticulata. Custard-apple family, Annonaceae. Growing in a longleaf pine savanna.

Here’s the full listing of Florida native pawpaws:

  • Bigflower pawpaw – Asimina obovata
  • Smallflower pawpaw – Asimina parviflora
  • Netted pawpaw – Asimina reticulata
  • Four-petaled pawpaw – Asimina tetramera
  • Wooly pawpaw – Asimina incana
  • Dwarf pawpaw – Asimina pygmaea
  • Slimleaf pawpaw – Asimina angustifolia
  • …and last, but not least, the common pawpaw – Asimina triloba
Savanna at Tiger Creek Preserve
Savanna at Tiger Creek Preserve

We saw some interesting signs of animal life too. Here’s the entrance to a gopher tortoise den! These tortoise can burrow as far as thirty feet, seeking safety, moisture, and cool temperatures deep under the sands.

Gopher tortoise den
Gopher tortoise den

As well as some native lichens in the Cladoniaceae family…

Cladonia leporina
Cladonia leporina
Cladina evansii
Cladina evansii

Finding hog plums (Ximenia americana) was a tasty treat. That’s the funny thing about the a-seasonality of the tropics… one can fine some fruit trees only in flower, and some trees nearby dropping fruit. Fruit is ready, whenever it is ready. In the case of hog plum, we found the shrubby trees in all stages of growth.

Hog plum was quite tasty and I would consider growing it in a climate suitably warm enough for them. According to the USDA, they are hardy down to 20 degrees F, which puts them in zone 9 or warmer. The pit seeds are very lightweight and would probably float in water — this is a possible adaption to seasonal flooding for seed dispersal.

Flowers of Ximenia americana, in the family Olacaceae.
Flowers of Ximenia americana, in the family Olacaceae.
Ximenia americana, commonly known as hog plum, tallow wood, or sea lemon.
Ximenia americana, commonly known as hog plum, tallow wood, or sea lemon.
Ximenia americana fruits
Ximenia americana fruits

Another interesting native plant was the silk bay, Persea humilis. It’s in the laurel family, Lauraceae, which is known for its aromatic qualities. Other well-known members of the family include sassafras (Sassafras albidum) and California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica). Persea humilis‘ aromatic qualities were no less striking! The undersides of the leaves were also beautiful – hairy and golden, like gilded velvet in the sun. But perhaps most interestingly, this plant is in the same genus as avocado (Persea americana). And its fruit looks like a miniature avocado, with the green flesh and large central seed. It tastes just like one too, though there is hardly anything there to taste! It may be that the avocado was once as small as this is now, and grew larger over time through a domestication process. Perhaps plant breeders could do the same with Persea humilis. It could be interesting to produce a cross of Persea humilis x americana.

Silk bay, Persea humilis. In the laurel family, Lauraceae.
Silk bay, Persea humilis. In the laurel family, Lauraceae.
The fruit of Persea humilis. Like a miniature avocado!
The fruit of Persea humilis. Like a miniature avocado!

Cartrema floridana (syn. Osmanthus megacarpus), scrub wild olive, is another botanical curiosity. In the olive family, Oleaceae, it looks very much like an olive, but is larger, fleshier, and more bitter. It would be a worthwhile experiment to process a collection of these much as one would process kalamata olives and taste the results. First they’d need to be leached of their bitterness for several days in changes of water. Then, they are brined in salt water for a couple weeks until ready.

Cartrema floridana, a wild olive in the Oleaceae endemic to the southeastern coastal United States and common among the Florida scrub.
Cartrema floridana, a wild olive in the Oleaceae endemic to the southeastern coastal United States and common among the Florida scrub.

More than a few of the plants we encountered are narrow endemics to the region and even just to the county we were in. Most are rare and endangered. Their primary threat is suburban development and groves of citrus trees. It was disappointing to see the legacy of so much blatant disregard and wanton degradation of central Florida’s ecology. I would love to see an example of a bioregional and native garden for human food production, to stand as an alternative to the pine plantations, citrus groves, cattle pastures, and suburban lawns which have proven so ecologically destructive. I’ll provide a list of plant leads at the end. For now, here’s more plants:

Short-leaved false rosemary, Conradina brevifolia, one of central Florida's many narrow endemics, and federally listed as "at risk." In the mint family, Lamiaceae.
Short-leaved false rosemary, Conradina brevifolia, one of central Florida’s many narrow endemics, and federally listed as endangered. In the mint family, Lamiaceae.
Floss flower, Chromolaema odorata. Asteraceae.
Floss flower, Chromolaema odorata. Asteraceae.
Florida scrub bluecurls, Trichostema suffrutescens. Lamiaceae. A narrow Florida endemic listed as critically imperiled.
Florida scrub bluecurls, Trichostema suffrutescens. Lamiaceae. A narrow Florida endemic listed as critically imperiled.
Lewton's milkwort, Polygala lewtonii. Polygalaceae. A rare plant narrowly endemic to Florida's central ridge, listed as "at risk."
Lewton’s milkwort, Polygala lewtonii. Polygalaceae. A rare plant narrowly endemic to Florida’s central ridge, listed federally as endangered.
Savanna at Tiger Creek Preserve
Savanna at Tiger Creek Preserve

Continuing our journey through the Tiger Creek Preserve’s sandhill savannas, we came across several more fascinating plants, like these Florida endemic lupines, Lupinus cumulicola. The sky-blue flowers on these beauties graced the distant ridges across the sandhills.

Sky-blue lupine, Lupinus cumulicola. Bean family, Fabaceae. Recently described to science and not yet ranked.
Sky-blue lupine, Lupinus cumulicola. Bean family, Fabaceae. Recently described to science and not yet ranked.
Lupinus cumulicola. Fabaceae.
Lupinus cumulicola. Fabaceae.

 

In the scrublands and xeric-scapes, we encountered prickly pear cactuses (Opuntia austrina) and Yucca filamentosa with some frequency.

More plants:

Florida prickly pear cactus, Opuntia austrina. Cactaceae.
Florida prickly pear cactus, Opuntia austrina. Cactaceae.
Spanish bayonet, Yucca filamentosa. Asparagaceae.
Spanish bayonet, Yucca filamentosa. Asparagaceae.Some more plants:
Tradescantia roseolens
Longleaf spiderwort, Tradescantia roseolens. Iridaceae.
Coastal plain honeycombhead, Balduina angustifolia. Asteraceae.
Coastal plain honeycombhead, Balduina angustifolia. Asteraceae.
Pineland scalypink, Stipulicida setacea. Pink family, Caryophyllaceae.
Pineland scalypink, Stipulicida setacea. Pink family, Caryophyllaceae.
Feayi's Palafox, Palafoxia feayi. Asteraceae. In the tropics, aster's can grow into woody shrubs!
Feayi’s Palafox, Palafoxia feayi. Asteraceae. In the tropics, aster’s can grow into woody shrubs!
Dwarf hawthorn, Crataegus lepida. Rosaceae.
Dwarf hawthorn, Crataegus lepida. Rosaceae.
Early whitetop fleabane, Erigeron vernus. Asteraceae.
Early whitetop fleabane, Erigeron vernus. Asteraceae.
Narrowleaf silkgrass, Pityopsis graminifolia. Asteraceae.
Narrowleaf silkgrass, Pityopsis graminifolia. Asteraceae.
A Hypericum species, perhaps Hypericum edisonianum. St. John's Wort family, Hypericaceae.
A Hypericum species, perhaps Hypericum edisonianum. St. John’s Wort family, Hypericaceae.
Fetterbush, staggerbush, Lyonia lucida. Heath family, Ericaceae.
Fetterbush, staggerbush, Lyonia lucida. Heath family, Ericaceae.
St. John's Wort, Hypericum tetrapetalum. Hypericaceae.
St. John’s Wort, Hypericum tetrapetalum. Hypericaceae.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Florida is also a bird watcher’s paradise. I was able to get some good photographs of Anhinga, Limpkin, and Tricolored Heron. Also an alligator, which is kind of like a bird, if you consider that it’s a dinosaur. 😀

Limpkin, Aramus guarauna
Limpkin, Aramus guarauna
Tricolored heron, Egretta tricolor
Tricolored heron, Egretta tricolor
Anhinga anhinga
Anhinga anhinga
Alligator mississippiensis
Alligator mississippiensis

 

 

 

One of the most exciting plants to encounter during our excursions was Britton’s beargrass, Nolina brittoniana. It is a member of the Asparagaceae family, as you may notice the similarity to Asparagus officinalis from the photo. Britton’s beargrass is another outlier species from a genus usually found in the desert southwest. There, other Nolina species have documented ethnobotanical usage as foods. The young shoots are edible as a cooked vegetable much like asparagus. The plant is highly fire adapted, and will disappear from the landscape if fires are not frequent enough. Today, populations of Nolina brittoniana are vulnerable to extirpation because of shrinking habitat and fire suppression. It is considered rare in the wild and is a federally-listed endangered species, but fortunately is also being propagated by native plant nurseries.

Britton's beargrass, Nolina brittoniana. Asparagaceae, Nolinoideae tribe. A species from a typically southwestern desert genus, this narrow Florida endemic is very rare and vulnerable to extinction.
Britton’s beargrass, Nolina brittoniana. Asparagaceae, Nolinoideae tribe. A species from a typically southwestern desert genus, this narrow Florida endemic is very rare and vulnerable to extinction.

The following is a listing of plants native to Florida which have value in human habitat food systems. Utilizing these in an integrated ecological garden such as in a permaculture food forestry setup could yield some interesting results.

  • Nelumbo lutea — American lotus. Common in Florida wetlands.
  • Sagittaria latifolia, S. kurziana, S. lancifolia — Wapato or arrowleaf. Common in Florida wetlands.
  • Nuphar advena — Wocus or spatterdock. Common in Florida wetlands.
  • Apios americana — Hopniss or groundnut. Common throughout Florida.
  • Asimina species — Pawpaw. Eight species native to Florida.
  • Licania michauxii — Gopher apple. Common in Florida scrub.
  • Quercus species — Q. laurifolia, Q. chapmanii, Q. laevis, Q. inopina, Q. minima, Q. myrtifolia, Q. virginiana, Q. geminata, Q. nigra, etc. Florida has a high diversity of native oak trees.
  • Carya floridana — scrub hickory. Has sweet, edible nuts. Common in Florida scrub.
  • Ximenia americana — Tallow wood, sea lemon, or hog plum. Common in Florida sandhills and scrub.
  • Lygodesmia aphylla — Rose rush. Potential human food usage. Common in Florida savanna.
  • Nolina brittoniana — beargrass. If cultivated in a regenerative manner as part of a fire-managed savanna, scrub, or sandhill, could be an enjoyable spring vegetable.
  • Prunus geniculata — scrub plum. Common in Florida scrub and sandhills.
  • Prunus umbellata — hog plum. Florida scrub.
  • Prunus angustifolia — sandhill plum or chickasaw plum. Florida scrub.
  • Vaccinium species — V. myrsinites (blueberry), V. stamineum (deerberry), and others. Common throughout Florida.
  • Gaylussacia dumosa — dwarf huckleberry. Common throughout Florida.
  • Stachys floridana — Florida betony.
  • Lilium catesbaei — Pine lily. Corm is a starchy food and is easily vegetatively cloned. Infrequent in Florida savanna.
  • Zamia pumila — Coontie or Florida arrowroot. Needs to be leached to remove toxins, but has an ethnobotanical history of use as a native Florida food.
  • Cartrema floridana — Wild olive. Potential use as European olive substitute, more research needed.
  • Allium canadense — Wild garlic. May be other Allium distributed throughout Florida.

Plus, there are many other plants that will grow well and integrate into Florida ecosystems, but I have limited my list to what is native and most bioregional.

Special thanks goes out to Edwin Bridges for providing suggestions and corrections to this article.