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Edible and Useful Wild Plants of the United States and Canada

Edible and Useful Wild Plants of the United States and Canada

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by Charles Francis Saunders

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This work discusses beverage plants, vegetable substitutes for soap, medicinal plants, and those that can be used as fibers, dyes, smoking material, adhesives, and candles. A final chapter describes a variety of poisonous plants. "Secure a copy of this very enlightening book. In fact, if you travel, it should be a constant companion." — St. Petersburg


This work discusses beverage plants, vegetable substitutes for soap, medicinal plants, and those that can be used as fibers, dyes, smoking material, adhesives, and candles. A final chapter describes a variety of poisonous plants. "Secure a copy of this very enlightening book. In fact, if you travel, it should be a constant companion." — St. Petersburg Independent. 94 illustrations.

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Dover Publications
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5.41(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.67(d)

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Edible and Useful Wild Plants of the United States and Canada

By Charles Francis Saunders, Lucy Hamilton Aring

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1948 Mira C. Saunders
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14299-9



Your greatest want is you want much of meat. Why should you want? Behold the earth hath roots.

Timon of Athens.

THE plant life of the New World was always a subject of keen interest to the early explorers, whose narratives not only abound in quaint allusions to the new and curious products of Flora that came under their notice, but also record for many of our familiar plants uses that are a surprise to most modern readers. In that famous compilation of travelers' tales, published in England some three centuries ago under the title of "Purchas: His Pilgrimage," it is asserted of the tubers of a certain plant observed in New England that "boiled or sodden they are very good meate"; and elsewhere in Master Purchas's volumes there is note of the abundance of the same tubers, which were sometimes as many as "forty together on a string, some of them as big as hen's eggs."

This plant is readily identifiable as the Groundnut—Apios tuberosa, Moench., of the botanists—of frequent occurrence in marshy grounds and moist thickets throughout a large part of the United States and Canada from Ontario to Florida and westward to the Missouri River basin. It is a climbing perennial vine with milky juice and leaves composed of usually 5 to 7 leaflets. To the midsummer rambler it betrays its presence by the violet-like fragrance exhaled by bunchy racemes of odd, brownish-purple flowers of the type of the pea. Neither history nor tradition tells us what lucky Indian first chanced upon the pretty vine's prime secret, that store of roundish tubers borne upon underground stems, which made it so valuable to the red men that they eventually took to cultivating it about some of their villages. Do not let the name Groundnut cause you to confuse this plant with the one that yields the familiar peanut of city street stands, which is quite a different thing. The Groundnut is really no nut at all but a starchy tuber, which, when cooked, tastes somewhat like a white potato. Indeed, Dr. Asa Gray expressed the belief that had civilization started in the New World instead of the Old, this would have been the first esculent tuber to be developed and would have maintained its place in the same class with the potato.

Narratives of white travelers in our American wilderness bear abundant evidence to the Groundnut's part in saving them from serious hunger. Being a vegetable, it made a grateful complement to the enforced meat diet of pioneers and explorers; and Major Long, whose share in making known the Rocky Mountain region to the world is commemorated in the name of one of our country's loftiest peaks, tells in his journal of his soldiers' finding the little tubers in quantities of a peck or more hoarded up in the brumal retreats of the field mice against the lean days of winter. They may be cooked either by boiling or by roasting.

Though the Groundnut has so far failed of securing a footing in the gardens of civilization, there is another tuber-bearing plant growing wild in the United States that has a recognized status in the world's common stock of vegetables. This is a species of Sunflower (Helianthus tuberosus, L.), the so-called Jerusalem Artichoke. It is indigenous in moist, alluvial ground from middle and eastern Canada southward to Georgia and west to the Mississippi Valley, attaining a height at times of 10 feet or more. The French explorers in the St. Lawrence region in the early seventeenth century saw the tubers in use by the Indians and found them so palatable when cooked, suggesting artichokes, that they sent specimens back to France. There they caught the popular taste and under the name of pommes de Canada, batatas de Canada or Canadiennes, their cultivation spread. In Italy they were grown in the famous Farnese gardens and called, they say, girasole articiocco, Sunflower artichoke. A perverted pronunciation of the Italian by the English (who became interested in the plant and were growing it extensively as early as 1621), is the popularly accepted explanation of the association of Jerusalem with it. The tubers (borne at the tip of horizontal rootstocks) are in the wild plant but an inch or two in diameter, but in cultivation they may be much larger, as well as better flavored. They reach their maximum development in the autumn, when they may be taken up and stored in pits for winter use; or, since frost does not injure them, they may be left in the ground all winter, and dug in the spring. In spite of the Jerusalem Artichoke's popularity as a vegetable abroad, Americans have so far been indifferent to it, except as feed for cattle and hogs—another instance of the prophet's lack of honor in his own country.

Upon dry, elevated plains in and contiguous to the Missouri River basin ranging from Saskatchewan through Montana and the Dakotas southward to Texas, you may find, where the plough has not exterminated it, another famous wild food plant—the Indian Bread-root of the American pioneers, known to them also as Prairie Turnip and Prairie Potato, and to the French Canadians as pomme de prairie and pomme blanche. Botanically it is Psoralea esculenta, Pursh, and its smaller cousin P. hypogaea, Nutt. They are lowly, rough-hairy herbs, resinous-dotted, with long-stalked leaves divided into five fingers, and bearing dense spikes of small bluish flowers like pea blossoms in shape. The tuberous root, one to two inches in length, resembles a miniature sweet potato. Its nutritious properties were well known to Indians and such whites of other days as had any respect for the aboriginal dietary; and Indian women found a regular sale for it among the caravans of white traders, trappers and emigrants that traveled the far western plains in pre-railroad times. The fresh tubers, dug in late summer, may be eaten raw with a dressing of oil, vinegar and salt, or they may be boiled or roasted. The Indians (who were habitual preservers of vegetable foods for winter use) were accustomed to save a portion of the Bread-root harvest, first slicing the tubers and then drying them in the sun or over a slow fire. The dried article was ground between stones and added to stews or soups, or mixed with water and baked in the form of cakes. The heart of the tuber is white and granular, and, according to an analysis quoted by Dr. Havard, contains 70% starch, 9% nitrogenous matter and 5% sugar. Some attempts have been made to introduce it into cultivation as a rival of the potato, but the latter is so well entrenched in the popular regard that nothing has come of the effort. As a resource for those who are cut off from a potato supply, however, this free offering of Nature should be better known. John Colter, one of Lewis and Clarke's men, escaping from some Blackfeet who were intent upon killing him, lived for a week entirely upon these Bread-root tubers, which he gathered as he made his painful way, afoot, wounded, and absolutely naked, back to the settlements of the whites.

There are, by the way, two wild species of true potatoes indigenous to the mountains of New Mexico and Arizona—Solanum tuberosum boreale, Gray, and S. Jamesii, Torr. The tubers are about the size of grapes, are quite edible when cooked and long ago attracted the attention of the Navajo and other Indians, who use them. And curiously in contrast to this the sweet potato of cultivation has a wild cousin in the United States (Ipomoea pandurata, Meyer) with a huge, tuberous root weighing sometimes 20 pounds, popularly called "man-of-the-earth." It is found in dry ground throughout the eastern United States, a trailing or slightly climbing vine with flowers like a morning glory. So obvious a root could hardly have escaped the Indian quest for vegetables, and as a matter of fact it was eaten to some extent after long roasting.

There is a plant family—the Umbelliferae—that has given to our gardens carrots, parsnips, celery and parsley. It includes also a number of wild members with food value, occurring principally in the Rocky Mountain region westward to the Pacific. Among these the genus Peucedanum, which by many botanists is now being called Cogswellia, is noteworthy because of the edible tuberous roots of several species. Of these the following may be noted, adopting Dr. Havard's enumeration in his paper above quoted: P. Canbyi, C. and R. (the chuklusa of the Spokane Indians); P. eurycarpum, C. and R. (the skelaps of the Spokanes); P. Geyeri, Wats.; P. ambiguum, T. and G., P. cous, Wats. (the cow-as of the same Indians). The tubers may be consumed raw and in that state have a celery flavor. The most usual method of use among the Indians, however, was to remove the rind, dry the inside portion, and pulverise it. The flour would then be mixed with water, flattened into cakes and dried in the sun or baked. These cakes, according to Palmer, were customarily about half an inch thick but a yard long by a foot wide, with a hole in the middle, by which they could be tied to the saddle of the traveler. The taste of such cakes is rather like stale biscuits. On this account, the Peucadanums were commonly termed Biscuit-root by the white Americans. The Canadian French call them racine blanche. The genus is marked by leaves pinnate in some species, finely dissected in others, sometimes stemless and never tall, and with small white or yellow flowers disposed in umbels like those of the carrot or parsley. Novices, however, should be warned that the Umbelliferae include several poisonous species, and the investigator should be well assured of the identity of his plant before experimenting with it.

Then there is Yamp, of this same family, and cousin to the caraway. It is the botanists' Carum Gairdneri, H. and A.—a slender, smooth herb, sometimes four feet high, with scanty pinnate leaves 3- to 7-parted and white flowers like the carrot's, growing usually on dry hillsides in mountainous country from British Columbia to Southern California and eastward to the Rockies. The clustered, spindle-shaped roots are about half an inch thick, and raw have an agreeable, nutty taste, with a considerable sugar content. Not only Indians but white settlers also have proved the nutritive value of this root, eating it either raw or cooked. In meadows and along stream borders in Central California a nearly related species (Carum Kelloggii, Gray) frequently occurs and goes among the whites by the name of Wild Anise. Its tubers are serviceable in the same way as Yamp. So also are those of C. oreganum, Wats., found from California to British Columbia. These are the eh-paw of the Klamath Indians, who regard them as a great delicacy.

A more famous root of the Pacific slope than Yamp is the Bitterroot (Lewisia rediviva, Pursh), the racine amère of the French explorers, and found from Arizona north to Montana (where it has given name to the Bitterroot Mountains and Bitterroot River) and west to the Pacific. It is a member of the Portulaca family, with showy, many-petaled white or pink blossoms sometimes two inches across and opening in the sunshine close to the ground, in form like a spoked wheel. Montana has adopted it as her State flower. It is one of the marvels in the history of alimentation that the unappetizing roots of this plant, intensely bitter when raw and smelling like tobacco when boiling, should have secured a stable place in any human bill of fare. Nevertheless, by the Indians of the far Northwest it has been extensively consumed from time immemorial, and explorers' journals contain many references to aboriginal "spreads" put before them in which spat-lum, as the Oregon Indians called it, had a prominent place. Boiling has the effect of dissipating the bitterness; and the white heart of the root, which is starchy and mucilaginous, is certainly nutritious, though ideas as to its palatability differ. The Indian practice is to dig the roots in the spring, at which time the brownish bark slips off more easily than after the plant has flowered; and as the bitter principle is mainly resident in the bark, it is desirable to reject this before cooking. A noteworthy character of the root is its tenacity of life. Specimens that have been dipped in boiling water, dried and laid away in an herbarium for over a year, have been known to revive on being put in the ground again, to grow and to produce flowers. Another staple of some tribes was Tobacco-root (Valeriana edulis, Nutt.), occurring in damp grounds from the Great Lakes to Oregon and British Columbia. Its deep, perpendicular root, bright yellow within, is vile smelling and ill tasting, but long steaming makes it palatable, at least to Indians. Frémont speaks well of it in his journal, under the Snake name kooyah, though his associate Preuss could not stay in the same tent with it, much less eat it.



IT is a character of the Lily family that the plants are usually produced from subterranean bulbs or corms, and many such growing wild in the United States are of proved nutritiousness and palatability. Among these, for instance, are species of Allium, wild onion or leek, one of which particularly (A. tricoccum, Ait.) is recommended by those who have tried it for the sweetness and flavor of its young bulbs. It inhabits rich woodlands of the eastern Atlantic States north of South Carolina, its umbel of white flowers borne on naked stalks, appearing in June or July after its rather broad, odorous leaves have withered away. It is the Pacific Coast, however, that has a special fame for edible wild bulbs, many of which are known to the world at large only for the beauty of their flowers. There the Indians have, from before history began, been consuming such bulbs either raw or cooked. To some extent, also, they have been drawn upon for food by white travelers and settlers—the most palatable species being of the genera Calochortus, Brodiaea and Camassia, and commonly called "Indian potatoes." The genus Calochortus furnishes the flower gardens of both hemispheres with the charming Mariposa Tulips, and few who enjoy their beauty realize the gastronomic possibilities of the homely, farinaceous corms out of which the lovely blossoms spring. The species most widely known as a food source is Calochortus Nuttallii, T. and G., the Sego Lily, which has the distinction of being Utah's State flower. It may be recognized by its showy, tulip-shaped blossoms, whitish or lilac with a purple spot above the yellow heart of the flower, the leaves few and grass-like. It is indigenous to an extensive territory ranging from Dakota to Mexico and westward to the Pacific Coast. It was, I believe, a common article of diet among the first Mormons in Utah, under the name "Wild Sago," through a misunderstanding, perhaps, of the word "Sego," which is the Ute Indian term for this plant. A California species (C. venustus, Benth.) with white or lilac flowers variously tinged or blotched with red, yellow or brown, is also highly esteemed for its sweet corms. The cooking may be done by the simple process known to campers of roasting in hot ashes, or by steaming in pits, a method that will be described later on.

Brodiaea is a genus comprising numerous species, of which the so-called California Hyacinth, Grass-nut or Wild Onion (B. capitata, Benth.), common throughout the State, is perhaps the best known. Its clustered, pale blue flowers bunched at the tip of a slender stem are a familiar sight in grassy places in spring. The bulbs are about the size of marbles and noticeably mucilaginous. Eaten raw they seem rather flat at first, but the taste grows on one very quickly. They are also very good if boiled slowly for a half hour or so. The Harvest Brodiaea (B. grandiflora, Smith), with clusters of blue, funnel-shaped flowers like little blue lilies, is another familiar species common in fields and grassy glades from Central California northward to Washington. Its bulbs are best cooked, as by slow roasting in hot ashes, which develops the sweetness.


Excerpted from Edible and Useful Wild Plants of the United States and Canada by Charles Francis Saunders, Lucy Hamilton Aring. Copyright © 1948 Mira C. Saunders. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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