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



   My ducks told me that the hardy kiwifruits were ripe. No, they’re not trained to give a specialized “hardy kiwifruit ripe” quack. Instead, they’ve taken to hanging out beneath the vines to scoop up dropped fruits. No training needed for this.

Hardy kiwifruits trained for easy harvest

Hardy kiwifruits trained for easy harvest

    Those dropped fruits are one reason that these vines — Actinidia kolomikta — are not as popular for fruit as another species, Actinidia arguta. Ripening, and dropping, is fast in the heat of July. Arguta kiwis ripen in late summer and early fall, and possibly cling to the vines more reliably then because cooler weather slows ripening.
    Not that either of the fruits are well known. Both are cousins to the fuzzy kiwis (A. deliciosa), ubiquitous in supermarkets. Both hardy kiwis differ from the fuzzies in being cold-hardy (only to 0°F for the fuzzy as compared to minus 30°F for A. arguta and to minus 40°F for A. kolomikta), grape-sized, with smooth, edible skins, and better flavor than the fuzzies.
    In addition to ripening earlier and dropping more readily, kolomikta kiwis differ from arguta kiwis in coming into bearing much sooner, often in their second year, and growing much less rampantly. Argutas are hard vines to tame. Ornamental vines of both species gracing historic gardens for decades before their fruits were noticed and appreciated is testimonial to their beauty. Kolomikta’s leaves are brushed silvery white with random pink blushes.

Variegated leaves of A. kolomikta

Variegated leaves of A. kolomikta

   Back to harvest. Harvest from the ground is unfeasible because the green fruits are too hard to find among the blades of green grass. And unhealthy because of all the processed kiwifruits — poop — the ducks eject at their far end as they gobble up the berries. A ground cloth to catch the berries would become similarly soiled unless I went to the trouble of spreading it, shaking the vines, then gathering up the cloth after gathering up the fruits.

Hardy kiwifruit harvest into inverted umbrella

Hardy kiwifruit harvest into inverted umbrella

    Instead, I’ve taken to walking beneath the vines with a large umbrella, upturned, and shaking portions of the vines right above the umbrella. Ripe fruit drop into the waiting “funnel.” Sure, many fruits are lost, but the vine bears more than enough to share with the ducks, who can enjoy the missed fruits.


    Like apples, bananas, and avocados, kiwifruits of all stripes are climacteric fruits. Instead of steady ripening, climacteric fruits, just before they are ready to eat, go through a burst of ripening with sugar levels and carbon dioxide production all of a sudden rapidly increasing. Fruit quality begins to decline right after this burst.
    Ethylene, a simple gas that is also a naturally occurring plant hormone, also spikes during this burst. And ethylene further accelerates ripening, which increases ethylene production even more, which increases ripening even more, and . . .  Disease, wounds, and decay also stimulate ethylene production, which is why “one rotten apple spoils the barrel.”
    If picked when sufficiently mature, but not dead ripe, kiwifruits store well for a few weeks. They’ll ripen during storage, slower under refrigeration, faster at room temperature. From experience, I know that “sufficiently mature” for kiwis is when the first fruits start ripening. So, in addition to my umbrella harvesting, I’m harvesting a bunch of the unripe fruits and refrigerating them to extend their season. Don’t worry; there’ll still be plenty for the ducks.


    Every time I walk back to the kiwi vines, I pass a perennial flower bed. Or, at least, what was supposed to be a flower bed and now is bordering on half flowers and half weeds. The major two weeds, I admit, are my own doing.
    The first of these weeds is dayflower, which arrived here with some bee balm plants from a friend. It’s actually a pretty plant with small, blue flowers, and it’s easy and satisfying to pull out. To a point.

Groundnut tubers, in years' past

Groundnut tubers, in years’ past

    The other weed, groundnut, was a deliberate planting, by me, about 20 years ago. It seemed interesting, bearing edible, golf-ball-sized tubers that string along underground like beads. Groundnut reputedly is the food that got the pilgrim’s through their first winter. Occasionally the plant, a vine, flowers, bearing chains of pale chocolate-colored blossoms. Do I remember them smelling like chocolate also? Perhaps. With all the other vegetation in the bed, the plants haven’t flowered in a long time.

Groundnut flowers

Groundnut flowers

 The problem is that those chains of tubers spread to make more chains of tubers which, in turn, do likewise, ad infinitum. The vines now creep over almost every plant in that bed but rarely get enough space to themselves to make tubers anymore. No matter. They didn’t taste that good anyway.
    I wasn’t as foolish as might seem planting groundnut in that flower bed. Twenty years ago that flower bed wasn’t a flower bed, but just a place for interesting plants in my then small garden.


A recent visit to the garden of Margaret Roach ( inspired me to makeover a flower bed. Margaret’s garden is all ornamental, a sometimes lively, sometimes subdued interplay of plant shapes with leaf textures and spots of color. My garden is mostly for eating, although I balance that functionality with rustic arbors, shrubbery (some of it edible and ornamental), and interplay of sight lines. And I do have a couple of flower beds.

My flower bed 10 years ago.
Looking at photos of one of my beds from years past highlighted for me just how much in need it was for a makeover.

The attack began on ‘Miss Kim’ lilac. She was supposed to be a dwarf lilac (a different species, Syringa patula, than the common lilac, S. vulgaris), and I suppose she is a dwarf, comparatively speaking. But she’d grown too big and too dense for the flower bed so I did an extensive renovation, cutting to the ground a few of the oldest stems, thinning out some of the youngest ones so that those that remain would have room to develop, and then shortening or removing any other stem that was creating congestion or was in my way. The new ‘Miss Kim’ took some getting used to, like a new haircut, but now I’m pleased and other plants in the bed have more light and space.

I was more brutal with the butterfly bush. Butterfly bush is one of my favorite shrubs but this one takes over the bed each summer. And I’d just received a sample plant of a new series  — the Flutterby series — of butterfly bushes, notable for their small stature and long bloom period. The humongous root system of the old butterfly bush was no match for a chain and the Kubota tractor. Into the waiting hole went a Flutterby.

Next, I took a shovel to the Siberian irises, wonderful plants with pleasant, blue blossoms and spiky, green foliage — until the plants become overcrowded, at which point they become mostly just foliage. The plants need dividing every 3 years or so to prevent overcrowding. Dividing them was actually the hardest job because of the tough root systems. I probably removed about half the plants.

Finally, more herbaceous interlopers — which included a lot of garlic, jewelweed, and errant irises and daffodils — got cleaned up. What’s left is a clean palette, some patches of bare soil ready for some new plants. Thus far: an orange osteospermum off to one side, and deep pink rose campion with purple-pink coneflower on the other side.

Digging in the flower bed unearthed some golfball-sized tubers connected together like a chain of beads. I immediately recognized them as tubers of Apios americana, sometimes called Indian potato or groundnut (not to be confused with that other groundnut, the peanut). How did I recognize them so quickly? Because I planted groundnuts about 25 years ago!

Groundnuts should be more famous; they are the unsung heroes of Thanksgiving. The Wampanoaga Indians introduced the Pilgrims to this plant, and the Pilgrims’ diet during one of those first winters was supplemented by an Indian cache of groundnuts and corn discovered by Miles Standish. The Pilgrims soon coveted this food for themselves, to the extent of issuing an edict in 1654 ordering that: “if an Indian dug Groundnuts on English land, he was to be set in stocks, and for a second offense, be whipped.”

Native Americans didn’t really cultivate groundnuts, but merely coaxed them along where they grew naturally. Modern Americans became interested in domesticating groundnuts a few decades ago. Hence my groundnuts, sent to me by one of those modern Americans.

Groundnut can be weedy, spreading all over the place via those tuberous chains. I’ve been half-heartedly weeding groundnuts out of my flower bed for 23 years, looking in vain for tubers each time I weeded. Evidently, I didn’t dig deeply enough — until this flower bed makeover.

Clematis ‘Piilu’
The flower bed is also home to a couple of clematis vines that climb up 5-foot-high wire towers, and beyond. No clematis vines will be touched by a shovel for the makeover, especially since this has been such a spectacular year for those two and other clematis vines I grow. Why this year? Who knows? Clematis are generally winter hardy and not particularly at the beck and call of the weather.

My favorite clematis, named Piilu, arrived here a couple of years ago from Klehm’s Song Sparrow Farm and Nursery ( Piilu grows only about 5 feet high to make a very densely flowering column (with support) of flowers. The flowers have pale lavender petals whose intensity deepens towards their bases, at which also sits a dense bottlebrush of creamy white stamens. The plant blooms all season, with later flowers, borne on new stems, having double rows of petals.