Years ago I wrote about one of the unsung heroes of Thanksgiving, the groundnut (Apios americanum). This plant, which helped nourish the Pilgrims through their first winters, never achieved the reknown of corn, pumpkins, cranberries, and other foods of the season.
When I first wrote about groundnuts, I had just planted them. I pointed out that there was renewed interest in the plant, though specifics as to how to grow it were wanting and selection of superior clones was just beginning. Now that I have grown groundnut for a few (thirty plus!) years, I am ready to share my experiences.

It Looks Like . . . And Acts Like . . .

As you might guess from the name, the plant makes edible tubers, usually the size of golfballs and strung together on a thinner, ropelike root. The swollen roots on one of my plants are more the size of tennis balls than golf balls. Not as obvious, below ground, at least, is that the plant is a legume; as such, it can “fix” atmospheric nitrogen, that is, put it in a plant-available form.

The plant also has shown some virtues aboveground. Chocolatey brown flowers dangle like jewelry from the twining stems. The flowers are pretty enough to have accorded groundnut a place in flower gardens in France a hundred years ago. On some plants, the flowers also have a strong and delicious aroma – vanilla, instead of chocolate, though.
Groundnut flower
I started some of my plants from seed; others I purchased growing in pots. I trained each vine up and down and around a tomato cage. The plants were and still are in full sun and rich soil, with a thick mulch of wood chips. The ground is so fluffy that I can harvest by just grabbing one end of a root, then pulling it up and out of the soil.

Soon after I planted groundnut, I discovered that it is weedy. I was soon finding plants, first sneaking across the ground a couple of feet from mother plants, and then further and further.

Aboveground, the twining stems reached around and insinuated themselves amongst the branches of a nearby bush cherries and other plants.
Groundut vine
To further unsettle me, I was startled at the reappearance, with vigor, of one young plant which I thought I had destroyed as I dug looking for edible roots. (I since learned that harvest must be delayed until the second season.) I hope groundnut will not prove to be as unruly and as hard to remove as the horseradish I once foolishly planted in the garden!

Is It Good To Eat?

Now for the important question: What does groundnut taste like? Thomas Hariot, in A briefe and true report of the new found land of Virginia (1590) may have been the first to write of groundnut, and his opinion was “boiled or sodden they are very good meate.” In 1602, a correspondent from New England wrote to Sir Walter Raleigh that groundnuts were “as good as potatoes.”

Dr. E. Lewis Sturtevant (Sturtevant’s Notes on Edible Plants, 1919) reported an eighteenth century horticulturalist writing that the “Swedes ate them for want of bread, and that in 1749 some of the English ate them instead of potatoes.” He also quotes a nineteenth century writer, who wrote that the Pilgrims “were enforced to live on ground nuts.”

Moving up to the twentieth century, wild food forager Euell Gibbons, who enjoyed everything from cattails to milkweed pods, was reserved in his praise of groundnuts.

I have harvested groundnuts and, because they should not be consumed raw, boiled some and baked some. They taste almost as good as potatoes, though less distinctive. The texture was dry and mealy. Like Euell, I am reserved in my praise of the roots, though other groundnut plants might have better or worse roots. (After all, not all potatoes taste the same.)

I do think that groundnut, even in its present primitive state, is a native, perennial, permaculture friendly vegetable (I have been accused by some of being a permaculturalist)  good enough to deserve a place at the Thanksgiving table. That is, it deserves a place in the garden and on the Thanksgiving table as long as it’s planted where its growth and spread can be reined in.

How about calling it one of its Indian names – nu nu, perhaps – and making nu nu stuffing standard Thanksgiving fare? Happy Thanksgiving!


 Hog Peanuts, Groundnuts, Whatever

   I was wrong. A few weeks ago I wrongly dissed groundnut (Apios americana) for invading my flower garden. Yes, I planted it; that was 30 years ago, and it’s resisted my attempts at eradication for the past 28 years.
    The worse culprit, this year at least, is related to groundnut. Like groundnut, it’s a legume, it’s native, it’s edible, and it’s a vining plant with compound leaves. But each leaf of hog peanut (Amphicarpaea bracteata), has 3 egg-shaped leaflets, as compared with groundnut’s 5 lance-shaped leaflets.

Hog peanut leaves

Hog peanut leaves

    Hog peanuts produce flowers both above ground and below ground. Below ground is where the goodies are. Pods that form there enclose peanut-sized seeds that allegedly are tasty raw or cooked. I’ll see if I can dig some up in a few weeks. Like groundnuts, hog peanuts provided food for Native Americans; the plants were among the four sacred plants of the Osage.
    So what can be bad about a plant that tolerates some shade, adds nitrogen to the soil, and yields an allegedly tasty seed below ground? The problem is that it’s run wild over the flower bed, the fine stems and leaves attempting to smother, sometimes successfully, every plant in its path. Even non-native, invasive Japanese stilt grass and garlic mustard can’t hold their own against hog peanuts.

Permaculture Reality

    Low maintenance, protection and enrichment of soil, and edible parts recommend hog peanut and groundnut to permies (permaculturalists). As with so much in permaculture, these plants perform better in theory than in practice.

Hog peanut & groundnut strangling crocosmia

Hog peanut & groundnut strangling crocosmia

   In humid climates, plant growth — and not just groundnut and hog peanut — can run rampant. Growth needs to be controlled and balanced, a job made more difficult in a permaculture “guild” of groups of plants working together. I’m all for interplanting different species to make best use of light, water, and soil resources, and form communities that resist pests — to a point.
    I’ve had the opportunity, over the years, to visit the permaculture garden planted by students at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. Now in its 5th year, the garden pays tribute to the compost, mulch, and sweat students put into soil preparation. The plants have grown very well. Too well, perhaps. One could say that the plants have commingled nicely; from another perspective, one could say that they are overunning each other. A blackcurrant bush or bushes has swelled into a mass of unapproachable stems 10 feet deep and wide. Chives and oregano have each taken over their areas. (How much chives or oregano can you eat? I’d rather eat tomatoes.)
    Not that I’m immune to such errors. A few years ago I created a very permaculturesque planting that included elderberries, seaberries, and rugose roses almost elbow to elbow. It all looks very nice but these three shrubs all spread by suckers. I keep everything in check with elbow grease and a scythe . . .  for now, but Mother Nature is relentless. Am I?
    The most productive and accessible parts of the UMass garden are the beds of kale, beets, and other vegetables — straight rows in cultivated soil. How un-permaculturalesque.
    Oh, I forgot to mention the groundnuts at UMass. Stems of those plants are twining around and overpowering others in their guild in an ever-widening circle. Even if the groundnuts could peacefully coexist with their neighbors, grubbing up the golf ball size tubers will require an inordinate amount of time and soil discombobulation.
    My memory fails me. Perhaps it was hog peanut rather than groundnut vines threatening their neighbors. Perhaps it was both plants. Hog peanut has been suggested for erosion control, and as a groundcover, a livestock forage, and a food for humans. My suggestion: Hog food. Turn some hogs loose in a patch, and they’ll fatten as they clear the ground of this pernicious weed. Does anybody have a small hog for rent?

Elderberry Wine — No, Syrup

    Elderberry looked to be one of the most successful plants in the UMass permaculture garden. It grows fast and it grows high. My two plants, now in their third year, yielded more than four gallons of berries. And harvest, last week, was quick and easy; aggressively tickling the umbels had the berries quickly filling a basket.Elderberry harvest
    Elderberries can also be recommended for their flowers and the berries’ deep, blue color. Flowers open in June to dinnerplate size umbels of small, white blossoms. They’re good for tea, fritters, or to flavor wine.
    The berries impart their good color, but little flavor, to wine, pie, and juice. (They should not be eaten uncooked or unripe.) There’s a bit of scientific evidence than an extract or syrup of the berries  can help fight flu, perhaps other ailments also. I’m good at growing fruit, not cooking it, so I gave my crop to Dina Falconi who concocted a syrup using the recipe from her book Foraging & Feasting. I look forward to tasting the benefits of my horticultural and her culinary skills.
Elderberry flowers