Apios americana

Claire is responsible for writing today’s entry:

Robert Klips (Orthotrichum@Flickr) provided us with this photograph of the flowers of Apios americana via the BPotD Flickr Pool, taken August 22, 2009 in Pickaway County, Ohio, USA. Thank you, Robert!

Apios americana is a legume (Fabaceae) native to eastern & central USA and eastern Canada. I thought this particular species worth writing about as it is very well known for its starchy, edible, tuberous rhizomes. Commonly called “groundnut” or “hopniss”, Apios americana was a crucial food source for North American indigenous peoples and early British settlers. The edible parts of the plants include the swollen nodes of the underground rhizomes. The tuber is high in starch and even moreso in protein (3x that of potato!). The species was considered a potential saviour to the Irish potato famine. Unfortunately, domesticating Apios americana, something the English tried in both 1635 and 1845, proved to be unfavorable as the tubers take two to three years to mature and did not take well to conditions in Britain (the vegetative structures do not thrive in frost). It has also been noted that the native peoples of the eastern United States were unable, or unwilling, to fully domesticate the species. Sometimes, seed was spread around villages in hopes to increase its frequency in populated areas, as the tubers were extensively collected.

The taste of Apios americana is comparable to that of a sweet potato–the tuber can be baked, boiled, dried and probably whatever other method of cooking you can think of.
If you happen to be collecting in eastern North America, the vegetative parts of groundnut look very much like the cultivated pea vine one would find in a garden, but grows wild in the woods. Along with the tuber, the seeds and seedpods are also cited to be edible, though they are not produced in great quantity. Of course, also look for the lovely hooded flowers. The blossoms utilize a “tripping” mechanism; for those who don’t know, when the keel, or bottom petal, is landed on by a bee, an explosion of pollen covers the insect and the pistil is then exposed and ready for a new pollen bearer. This is a pollination mechanism common in the Fabaceae.

Apios americana

15 responses to “Apios americana”

  1. Alexander Jablanczy

    Well I’ll be damned. I thought I hit pay dirt when I looked up Shubenacadie NS
    and sure enough it means place of the ground nuts in Mikmak or Malecite but alas they cite a plant yclept Sagittaria latifolia which has nothing to do with Apios americana. This is the trouble with ethnobotany every plant has a dozen names and every name refers to half a dozen plants. These are called ground nuts or Indian potato but they could be at least two very different plants one a legume another an arrowhead.
    So it might be a suggestion that every plant should have its half a dozen English names and a couple of French ones as well as any native American in various mostly Algonkin languages. Ojibway Montagnais Cree Mikmak Malecite Chippewa Passamaquoddy whatnot.
    And of course one hopes that the writer would get it right.
    As far as Shubenacadie goes I was researching gallstones in young Indian women as they got gallstones is an inordinate degree not as the English ditty goes fair fat and forty or alliterative mnemonic but whatever fair means here attractive blonde or female but even if thin swarthy and under twenty. Which biologically of course makes no sense for if they had got that disease perColumbianly they would have died out ten thousand years ago. So there was a premium on young fertile females who would quickly get fat in a time of plenty and would survive a famine with fertility intact and wouldnt go Windigo like males or skinny females. So I was sure we would prove that North American junk food was the cause of gallstones whether excess fats or sugars. Alas that was not the case the decision was that it was genetic which I thought bunk.
    I am still convinced that a diet of ground nuts whether Sagittaria latifolia or Apios americana would permit survival without cannibalistic hallucinatory psychosis or starvation or gallstones.

  2. Eric in SF

    Someone have too much eggnog?

  3. Eric in SF

    This is stunning. I’ve never seen this color and shape together. Off to do some image searches!

  4. kcflowers

    I’ll try some of that eggnog along with a hearty helping of ground nuts!

  5. Ruth Parfeniuk

    Very interesting entry, have never heard of this plant. Anyone interested in First Nations use of the forest might like the book “Arboretum America” subtitled “A Philosophy of the Forest” by Diana Beresford-Kroeger. I am enjoying her informative book.

  6. Gabrielle

    The plant did not take well to Britain because “the vegetative structures do not thrive in frost.” I thought that Eastern and Central USA and Eastern Canada would be much colder than Britain. Perhaps too wet? Or not cold enough?

  7. John B.

    I first came across this species in Ithaca, NY where the winters are most definitely frosty! The plants grew in a lakeside area where the soil was constantly wet–not sure if this is the typical habitat but this might be part of the problem with domestication. BTW the flowers are quite fragrant.

  8. Bonnie

    Born and raised in PA, a lot of time spent trotting through ‘woods’ surrounding our homes. Never saw this plant. I probably would of picked the flowers and taken it home to ask dad what it was. Bet he would of known.

  9. elizabeth a airhart

    alex the whole world reads this page we will get you help
    till then try to stay quiet we skinny females will help you real good
    my family was here in america in the very early days no doubt
    tried to raise this plant 1635 to 1845 would be the correct years
    thank you see you at the big mac

  10. Doby Green

    Being a native Ohioan and having studied about the glaciation that occurred in the Great Lakes area 30,000 years ago, I believe the difference in Ohio growth of this plant and being taken to England, is the soil difference. In Ohio, the glacier reached only a ways south of this northern Ohio area, carrying ground up
    rocks of fine clay, which was deposited in northern Ohio as lots of clay, which holds water, that becomes acid as it lay there. Below a certain line, the glaciers did not reach, and that is better soil in which more varied farming can take place. I have not see this plant in northern Ohio. I will ask Dr. Jim Bissell, who botany-naturalist at Cleveland Museum of Natural History and has been there since I taught there thirty years ago. He transferred a whole Ashtabula County bog population of insectivorous plants to the museum, when I was there, and he knows more than anyone I know about botany. Most natural plants that one wishes to reproduce by seeds for us, seem to be very discriminating and one wonders how they have ever endured.

  11. OrchidGrowinMan

    Ah,
    Apios americana, one of my favorite plants from back home. The plant grows near streams, and the chains of egg-shaped tubers are a familiar sight hanging-out of eroding sandy banks (hints for cultivation). My theory as to the high-density (high-protein) composition is so that, unlike wapato (Saggitaria), the tubers don’t float, but sink.
    The taste of them cooked is dense, creamy, and with quite an unique flavour. I believe H. D. Thoreau wrote about them.
    There is another species, A. priceana, which makes much larger tubers, but I have seen reports both that it was once gathered for food, and that it is poisonous. Anyway, A.p. is listed as endangered/protected throughout its range, so trying to cultivate it, test its edibility, and breed it (x A.a.?) are right-out.

  12. Ida

    I was looking to see if anyone commented on the “fragrance” of the flowers. They have one of the strangest scents I have ever encountered. And when I have been in the right habitat when there is a plant in bloom, I have discovered it by the scent. The only way I can describe it is: like old ladies perfume.

  13. NHBabs

    I find this grows commonly here in the acid fine sandy loam along the Merrimack River. The blooms are quite short-lived, only about a week in late summer (end of August) but the plant is distinctive.

  14. Lisa

    I have searched for a month trying to find out what this mystery vine is that has been growing in my NH garden for almost 5 years. No one had ever seen it. I am so excited that I found the answer! Thank you!!

  15. Lisa

    I have searched for a month trying to find out what this mystery vine is that has been growing in my NH garden for almost 5 years. No one had ever seen it. I am so excited that I found the answer! Thank you!!

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