GROUNDNUT

Apios americana Medic.



For inquiries contact Ed Klekowski, Professor, Biology Department, University of Massachusetts Amherst

The groundnut is probably the most famous edible wild plant in eastern North America. The species range is very broad, from Ontario and Quebec in the north to the Gulf of Mexico and from the prairies in the west to the Atlantic coast. The Amerindians throughout this area utilized Apios americana as a major food resource. In fact, it is still common to find these plants growing over old Amerindian village sites.

Early European explorers and colonists of North America often depended upon the groundnut for their survival. In the 1580s, colonists of Sir Walter Raleigh's settlement on Roanoke Island off the coast of North Carolina (the famous "Lost Colony" and the home of Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the New World) sent samples of Apios to Queen Elizabeth I. In 1607, Captain John Smith of Jamestown (Virginia), wrote of the utility of this plant. The Pilgrims of Plymouth (Massachusetts) (1623) survived on groundnut when their corn supply was exhausted. Groundnut was so important to the colonists of the Connecticut River valley that in 1654, the town of Southampton passed a law that prohibited Amerindians from digging groundnut on "English-Lands." The first offense was punishable by a period in the stocks; for the second offense, the culprit was whipped! One wonders if this law is still on the books.

In the 19th century, probably the most famous advocate of Apios was Henry David Thoreau who noted that groundnut was better boiled than roasted. Thoreau presumably made this culinary discovery during his sojourn as a homeless person along the shore of a pond in eastern Massachusetts.

At this point you must be wondering, "What is groundnut and where can I buy some?"

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 growing season).

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 nitrogen-fixing legume.

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.

References:

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 edible plants.

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 that Apios
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.