Backyard Wilderness Blog
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The first year in the New World was a difficult one for the Pilgrims of Massachusetts. Arriving in November, it was too late to plant crops much less harvest them, so they had to rely on hunting, fishing, the scant little food they had remaining in storage aboard ship, and of course, foraging. Unfortunately for them, the "New World" was truly an appropriate name for this land. Most of the plants here were new and alien to them, and the ones they were accustomed to harvesting from the wilds of the British Isles and Holland had not yet arrived from the Old World. The Pilgrims were in fact, the first to bring dandelion to these shores. The foraging was lean, but on a particularly lucky day for them, one of their scouting parties observed a few members of the native population near the shoreline, digging tubers attached to the roots of a small vine with kelly green, lanceolate leaves. Found just beneath the surface in soft ground these tubers, about the size of a walnut, were delicious when roasted, and fortunately for the Pilgrims were more nutritious than potatos. The plant was Apios americana, called Ground Nut, and the vitamins, protein and carbohydrates it contained ensured the survival of most of the founding members of the Plymouth colony that winter.
In June of 2010, I went to the Seacoast Science Center in Rye, New Hampshire, the site of another European landing just a few years after the Pilgrims, to forage for Ground Nuts. Assured by the science center director there were some on the property, I looked for two days to no avail. Expanding my search, I visited the Town of Hampton library and two seacoast area health food stores, but none of the staff had ever heard of them, or could offer advice. In 2011 and 2012 I tried again with the same result. Then in late July, as I recounted this adventure to Phil Brett of Burlington, Vermont, he exclaimed, "I know a place where they grow!" On Thursday, August 2, Phil, his son Ian and I traveled to a location on the shore of Lake Champlain just north of Burlington and there they were at long last!
It was easy to imagine Abenaki foragers wading the waters and
walking the shores of Bitawbagok in search of Ground Nut,
Pickeral Weed, Arrow Arum, Cattail, and Spatterdock, hundreds
of years before this beautiful body of water would be renamed
Lake Champlain. Not far from the place pictured above, just thirty yards from the water in well drained, sandy soil, topped with an airy, decomposing driftwood and reed muck, Phil located Apios americana. Just a few seconds of digging with bare hands yielded a number of easily harvested, small, potato like tubers. (See photo far right.) Edible raw, they are like slightly sweet pieces of rubbery balsa wood with a hint of turnip, but roasted they are delicious. Ground Nut is high in protein, but has an incomplete amino acid complex that is best nutritionally when balanced with milk.
Arrow Arum, (Peltandra virginica,) shown left, is another native food plant used by the Abenaki, as well as most Eastern Shore Native Americans, before the arrival of the first Europeans.
Like Ground Nut, Arrow Arum has edible tubers attached to its roots, but unlike Ground Nut tubers these "duck potatos" are deep beneath the surface of wet, mucky ground and require much more effort to harvest.