Groundnut (Apios americana) belongs to the bean or legume
plant family (Leguminosae). It has a vinelike growth form that
twines upon and through the shrubbery beneath the forest. Along
the Connecticut River, it is often intermixed with poison ivy.
Groundnut's once-pinnately compound leaves have 5-7 leaflets.
The flowers occur in clusters and are brownish-red, the
fruits are bean pods 2-4 inches (5-10 cm) in length.
The plant has underground stems growing 2-3 inches beneath
the soil; the stems have periodic swellings (the groundnut
itself) that are a couple of inches in diameter.
Botanically these swollen stems are tubers and are the edible
portions of the plant. The tubers function as storage organs for
the plant. The tubers are perennial and may be harvested at any
time of the year; this trait was of great significance to the
Amerindians and early European explorers and colonists.
Groundnut tubers are high in starch and protein; in fact, on a
dry weight basis, groundnut tubers have three times the protein
as potatoes (another kind of storage tuber). There have been
numerous attempts to domesticate the wild groundnut and develop
an agriculture based upon Apios. Apios cultivation
was attempted twice in Europe (1635 and 1845), but both attempts
ended in failure -- no doubt the requirement of 2-3 years for
tuber maturity was the main factor (potatoes require only one
Groundnut is a wild plant with a great potential as a future food
source. Using modern genetic techniques, selections of strains
with superior growth characteristics should be possible.
Research by Blackmon and
Reynolds (1986) in Louisiana resulted in a strain that formed 3.7
kg (ca. 7 lbs) of tubers per plant in a single growing season.
These authors believe that "the prognosis for developing
Apios americana as a food crop looks outstanding." If the
domestication of this plant is successful, the need for
fertilizers should be much reduced since Apios is a
So, where can you get some? Maybe in a few years groundnut will
be available in the supermarket; McDonald's will sell groundnut
fries for people who want more protein and less starch, and pizza
will come with groundnut topping. But until then, you will have
to dig your own, but be careful in Southampton, MA; they take
their groundnut seriously! There is a small seed company in Belchertown, MA, offering seeds of perennial vegetables. Contact Mr. Eric Toensmeier at emtF90@hampshire.edu for more information on purchasing Apios tubers.
If you manage to gather a meal's worth of groundnut tubers (that
is, without getting arrested in Southampton or catching a case of
poison ivy along the Connecticut River, as I did) what is next?
How do you cook them? Pick up almost any book on edible wild
plants and you will find a section of groundnut. Invariably
recipes are included in such manuals: boiled groundnut, roasted
groundnut, baked groundnut, sauteed groundnut; tubers may be
peeled, sliced, diced, mashed or pureed. Some of these recipes
are very imaginative and show real culinary creativity. If you
try out one of these experiments, you may be the first to taste
the result. It is not recommended to eat raw tubers.
Thoreau, Henry David. 1854. Walden or, Life in the
Woods. Not much about groundnut, but an interesting read nevertheless.
Russell, H.S. 1980. Indian New England before the
Mayflower. University Press
of New England, Hanover, NH. A great reference for Amerindian
Blackmon, W.J. and B.D. Reynolds. 1986. The crop potential of
Apios americana -
Preliminary evaluations. HortScience 21:1334-1336.
Cheatham, S. and M.C. Johnston. 1995. The Useful Wild Plants
of Texas, Vol. 1
pp. 384-389, Useful Wild Plants, Inc., Austin. Thank goodness
grows in Texas. This volume has the most thorough literature
review yet compiled on
groundnut. For readers interested in history, this is the source
of all the early references.