The Evasive Groundnut
“I discovered the ground-nut (Apios tuberosa) on its string, the potato of the aborigines, a sort of fabulous fruit, which I had begun to doubt if I had ever dug and eaten in childhood, as I had told, and had not dreamed it. I had often since seen its crumpled red velvety blossom supported by the stems of other plants without knowing it to be the same. Cultivation has well-nigh exterminated it.” – Henry David Thoreau, Walden
“Hannah Bradley later told her family that “she subsisted on bits of skin, ground-nuts, the bark of trees, wild onions and lily roots” on the trek to Canada.” – Jay Atkinson, Massacre on the Merrimack (endnotes)
Apios americana, also known as the American groundnut, potato bean and several other names, is an indigenous plant that grows in the forests from Canada to Florida. I’ve had a strangely compelling fascination with groundnuts since I read a description of Hannah Dustin, Hannah Bradley and other prisoners of the Abenaki who kidnapped them digging around in the woods of New Hampshire wherever they were encamped to find groundnuts to eat. I live in New Hampshire, I wander about in the woods (though not often enough) and I found the fact that these groundnuts were so readily available to be fascinating.
Reading about Benedict Arnold’s men starving on their march through the woods of Maine when they invaded Quebec, or Roger’s Rangers starving to death as they evaded the French and Native Americans during campaigns in the Lake George/Lake Champlain region have made me wonder about this evasive groundnut even more. If this was a staple of the Native American population’s diet, and were known to men like Robert Rogers, why were so many of them starving?
Henry David Thoreau alludes to one reason in Walden when he writes about discovering a “now almost exterminated ground-nut” someday resuming “its ancient importance and dignity as the diet of the hunter tribe.” These New Hampshire woods that I like to wander in were once fields as settlers plowed fields and brought in livestock. The stone fences that criss-cross the forest betrays the history of this land. So for a farmer from Massachusetts living off the land may have been tougher than it is today. As ancient forests were cut down and plowed fields took their place the groundnuts became harder to find, just as wild animals who were hunted for food became harder to find. For the native population who lived off the land as hunter-gatherers, this must have been particularly devastating.
Over the last few years of gardening I’ve noticed some invasive vines growing into the yard. I sprayed some of them along with the poison ivy to knock them back, and pulled them off the fence and a spruce tree in the yard. Imagine my surprise when I realized that the plant I was aggressively expelling from the edges of my yard was the very plant that I’ve been wondering about.