Tag Archives: Liliaceae

Cucumber root — Medeola virginiana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Anyhow…

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!