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!

Giving Thanks

Share the Bounty

Thanksgiving is a holiday that really touches the gardener, this gardener, me, at least. If nothing more, it’s a harvest festival, a celebration of the bounty of the season’s efforts. And the season has been bountiful, as is every season if a variety of crops are grown.

Like most home gardeners, I grow a slew of different vegetables and fruits in my gardens. This year’s poor crops of okra, lima beans, and tomatoes was counterbalanced by especially bounteous crops of peppers, cabbages (Asian and European), and various kinds of corn (sweet corn, popcorn, polenta corn) and beans (green, cannelloni).

More than just give thanks, why not give back? One way would be to share the bounty with others who either don’t garden or can’t afford to purchase enough produce. Ample Harvest (, Angel Food Ministries (, and Feeding America ( are three organizations that can direct your vegetables and fruits to local pantries. Some gardeners take inspiration from the suggestion of Garden Writers Association to “Plant a Row for the Hungry.”

Thank You, Soil

This Thanksgiving, actually all through autumn (and every autumn), I’m thankful to the soil. Much of life is supported by the thin skin of earth that envelops the earth’s surface. (The skin of an apple is, relatively speaking, proportionally the same to the size of the fruit as the skin of soil is to the size of our planet.)Mulched apple trees

That earthy skin also plays an important role in recycling water and organic materials.  Soil stores and purifies water, and is host to 10,000-50,000 species of microorganisms in every teaspoon that break down and recycle waste leaves, tree trunks, dead animals and other organic materials.

I offer thanks to the soil by feeding soil organisms organic materials. I haul in materials that people elsewhere have too much of: bagged leaves; manure mixed with wood shavings and hay from a local horse farm; wood shavings from a sawmill. On site, I feed soil creatures kitchen trimmings, hay mowed from my meadow, old cotton, wool or leather clothing, shredded paper, and anything else derived from what is or was living. Some of the stuff gets spread on the ground as mulch. Some gets composted before being spread on the ground.Mulching chestnuts

When all is said and done, my ground each years is better, in terms of fertility, soil life, water holding and drainage, than it was the previous year. On the practical side, there’s no need for me to purchase fertilizer.

Good, crumbly soil structure

Good, crumbly soil structure


That’s not all with this thankfulness. How about the environment generally, not just the soil? Nothing to do this time of year except to carry on as usual. That includes eliminating or minimizing the use of various -icides. Fungicides to kill fungi, insecticide to kill insects, herbicides to kill weeds, acaricides to kill mites, bactericides to kill bacteria . . .  did I leave any out?

True, gardening isn’t Nature, and even good gardens get occasional pest problems. But, as I wrote above, most gardens easily yield an abundance of vegetables, fruits, or flowers, so some could be sacrificed to (shared with?) pests.

And there’s something to be said for ignoring a certain amount of damage, especially if it is only cosmetic. After all, plants tolerate the damage. The remaining parts of a leaf that has been chewed away by and insect, for example, then step up to bat with beefed up  photosynthesis.

On the rare occasions when it’s necessary to reach for some -icide to do in a pest has gotten sufficiently out of control to seriously threatens a plant, I opt for environmentally-friendly alternatives. I’ll use the pest-specific bacterial fungicide Bacillus thurengiensis (sold under such trade names as Thuricide and Dipel) to kill the various cabbage worms (they’re actually not “worms” but “caterpillars”). And insecticidal soap or horticultural oil to kill scale insects and mealybugs, and certain fungi, and pans of beer to attract and kill slugs.

Mostly, though, I let Nature take care of itself, within reason. I decide what plants to put in my gardens and what plants to weed out (weeds). Severe pest outbreaks require a decision on whether action is necessary or whether the particular crop can be sacrificed. (That’s the advantage of home gardens: financial decisions don’t rule and diversity means there’s always plenty of other vegetables or fruits to harvest.) I regularly “feed” the little guys in the soil who, in turn, feed the plants to replenish nutrients they take from the soil, and then are moved further offsite into my kitchen.

Thanksgiving harvest

Thanksgiving harvest


Danger of Squashing

Thanksgiving is a most appropriate time to put together a truly American meal, one made up of native plants, many of which are easily grown, that might have shown up on the original Thanksgiving table about 400 years ago.

(The date of that first feast was 1623 but the date for celebrating Thanksgiving in all states— on the final Thursday in November — was not fixed until 1863, with a presidential proclamation. Lincoln hoped that a unified date throughout the country would help unify the nation during the divisive days of the Civil War. Not so. Confederate States refused to accept that date until the next decade, during Reconstruction. Another presidential proclamation, by F.D.R. changed the date to the 4th Thursday of November, in an attempt to boost the economy. Would a new date help now?)

On to garden history . . . Back in early November, I picked a 20 pound berry that was growing from my compost pile. Actually, I harvested about a dozen of these heavy berries. Don’t imagine them in terms of strawberries or blueberries. Imagine a winter squash, which botanically-speaking is a berry, a special kind of berry called a pepo. Squashes are native American fruits.

Twenty pounds is no lightweight for a squash. Nothing like the 2,023 pound (still a berry) record-holding pumpkin, of course, but big nonetheless. Especially so when you consider that mine weren’t grown to vie for any records, but for eating.

Argonaut is the variety name of my 20 pound berries. It seems to be a kind of butternut squash stretched out anywhere from 20 to 30 inches long and 8 inches across at its fattest point. It’s relatively easy to grow if you can figure out where to let the 20-foot-long vines trail. In May I had sown the seeds in 4-inch pots and then transplanted a few right atop my compost bin. I put another couple into compost-filled holes I had scooped out in a mountain of leaves (for future use, after rotting down into rich “leaf mold”) kindly deposited here by a local landscaper.Argonaut squash hanging in basement

Argonaut needs a long season before the fruits turn buff tan ripe. Longer than my plants got, this year, at least, because only some of them had only some ripe color. Still, they taste very good, and squashes will ripen, to some degree, after harvest.

The question is what to do with a dozen humongous squashes. Ideal storage is in a cool room: my basement, where temperatures no and in the next few weeks will be in the low 50s. Mice occasionally make their way into my basement. They could make many meals of the squashes. I mouse-proofed each one by tying it with a sturdy length of rope in a noose around its neck, then hanging it from the basement rafters.

More Than a Snack Food

Corn is another native American food, with popcorn predating that first Thanksgiving in America by thousands of years. Kernels have been found in the remains of Central American settlements almost 7000 years old. Four hundred years ago, the Pawtuxet Indian Chief, Massasoit, showed up at the first Thanksgiving feast with a deerskin sack filled with popcorn, a food hitherto unknown to the colonists.

Popcorn is the corn I’ll bring to our Thanksgiving table. Most people eat popcorn as a snack, but there’s no reason it couldn’t stand-in for potatoes, rice, bread, or any other carbohydrate-rich foods. Popcorn has the advantage of always being whole grain, and being very quick and easy to prepare.Popcorn hanging from kitchen rafters

Corn was the best grain crop to grow in the rude conditions of a settler’s clearing. Little land preparation was needed, and the ripe ears could be left dangling on the stalks until there was time for harvest. I could grow it under “ruder” conditions, but I plant it in compost-enriched soil with drip irrigation for consistent water. Two 12-foot long by 3-foot wide beds provide enough popcorn to carry us through the year to the next harvest season.

Since harvest, a few weeks ago, unshelled ears of Pink Pearl and Dutch Butter popcorn have been hanging from the kitchen rafters, decoratively and conveniently at hand.

Bogless Cranberries

Cranberries are among the few native American fruits sold commercially.  Although they do not provide a great deal of nourishment, they spice up present and past holiday dinners.

Cranberries can be grown in a home garden if the soil is very acidic (sulfur will make it so if it is not), rich in organic matter, and has consistent moisture. A bog is not needed.Cranberries on plants

Given the right growing conditions, cranberries can be an ornamental, edible groundcover. I once planted them as such, along with the other edible, ornamentals lowbush blueberry and lingonberry, as well as rhododendron and mountain laurel, non-edibles that enjoy these same soil conditions. The cranberries grew too well, threatening to overtake the rest of the bed. Since they were not my favorites among all the plants in the bed, they no longer live there.

Many more native American plants, such as beans, groundnuts, and Jerusalem artichokes, can round out this Thanksgiving feast. And, of course, among non-plants, turkey.