Garden Talk

with Rebecca Jordi

Q: I found these pea pods growing on a vine in my back yard. Can I eat them?

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American Groundnut

Native American Groundnut

A:  I am checking with the University of Florida’s Herbarium for a positive identification as I have only seen this vine once before at Egan’s Creek. The flower cluster is lovely; slightly larger than a golf ball in shades of magenta, pink, rusty brown and white. The vine has the leaf configuration similar to wisteria. Kathy Russell, City of Fernandina Parks and Recreation, steered me towards the Native American groundnut, Apios americana, and I am inclined to agree with her. This vine can grow in partial shade or full sun; prefers low and moist woods, thickets, stream and riverbanks, ponds, marshes, meadows, and wet ravines. It is a scary thing to eat plant material from the wild but in this instance, if it is truly the groundnut, then the seeds and tubers are edible. Most of the information I have found on this plant has come from a publication by James Duke from Purdue University. According to his paper during the potato famine of 1845, Apios was introduced to Europe. Its cultivation there as a food crop was abandoned when growing potatoes again became feasible. The tuber is more slender and somewhat smaller than the typical potato as it is about 2.5 inches long.  However, the tubers often grow in clusters of two to four.  American groundnut was prized by early American settlers who ate them boiled, fried, or roasted. They called them groundnuts, potato beans or Indian potatoes. The Pilgrims of New England survived their first few winters by living on them. I don’t know about you but that tidbit of information was news to me. Even bread was made from the root. Indians were said to eat the seeds like lentils. American groundnut is found growing from eastern Canada and the US. It grows from Florida to Texas, north to Nova Scotia and west to Minnesota and Colorado. Like so many other vines, this species can also be “weedy” and cause problems in cultivated areas. It has been known to be a serious weed in cranberry plots (Devlin, 1981). Fernald (1958) recounted an anecdote indicating the economic value of the groundnuts to the pilgrims, “The great value to the colonists of this ready food is further indicated by a reputed town law, which in 1654 ordered that, if an Indian dug Groundnuts on English land, he was to be set in stocks, and for a second offence, to be whipped.”

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