Hopniss, or Groundnuts

Wild edible plants, such as the species used by Amerindians to supplement their diets, have interested me for quite a few years. There is a certain pleasure which can be derived from feeding oneself with naturally-produced native food, even if for but a single meal.

Of course this is one of the atavistic pleasures certain hunters enjoy — but as for myself, I try to minimize my consumption of meat and have never hunted, though I lived in prime deer habitat for many years. I found that some hunters despise deer meat, more interested in the other benefits of their bloody sport. Getting out in the woods, getting to fool around with guns, the act of killing itself, camaraderie with fellow hunters, and showing the techniques to the younger generation are all reasons which I’ve heard for a hunter’s pursuit of the sport and the game. While my family lived in rural Missouri and our children were growing up we butchered and ate one deer per year. A deer carcass during the season is ridiculously easy to come by.

Meat is a concentrated food, an unparalleled source of protein. Protein in lesser amounts is also available from plant sources, along with many other vital nutrients. North American Indian tribes-people of course liked their buffalo, deer, and groundhog meat, the gathering of which kept the restless males out from underfoot (“Will you please quit lounging around! Go out and kill something, willya?”). They also ate quite a bit of vegetable food, some native to this continent and gathered from the wild, while the remainder consisted of cultivated strains of plants which had been introduced from hearths in Mexico and Central America, plants such as the sacred trio: corn, beans, and squash.

One native plant food was mentioned in many travelers’ accounts of those first meetings between the European explorers and the indigenous peoples. The food was unfamiliar to the interlopers and was often called simply groundnut. The plant, a twining lowland leguminous vine, was eventually given the Latin name Apios tuberosa by St. Linnaeus or one of his disciples; in recent years, for some arcane taxonomical reason, the species name was changed to Apios americana.

Lately the Lenape Indian name “hopniss” has become popular for the vine among the few, the chosen, the proud… “Jewish Marines?”, someone asks. No, I’m talking about the Foragers!

I first encountered this plant in a low spot near some bottom-land woodland in Knox County, Missouri. The plant blends in with the other riotous vegetation which grows in such moist habitats, but when in bloom the flower panicles tend to catch the eye of curious and observant walkers. Groundnut gets its common name from the underground tubers, which range from the size of an acorn to the size of a grapefruit. The tubers are arranged along a root like beads on a string. These unprepossessing dark-skinned tubers are very high in protein, with three times the amount per given weight than what is found in potatoes. When roasted, groundnuts taste like a cross between a potato and a peanut. I like them, but then I like a lot of foods most people disdain, such as kimchi and Habanero peppers.

The flowers are colored sort of a dusky rose-brown, one of a family of shades displayed by flowers such as the unearthly paw paw blossom and the fading blooms of certain magnolias. That family of hues so far hasn’t been used as, say, a new car color or the color of a woman’s dress. To me it is one of those wild colors, tints available only to those who tramp around in undisturbed areas, or frequent the botanical sections of the Flickr photo-sharing site. Perhaps I shouldn’t have even brought it up; for all I know some designer in Hangchow spends his or her days scanning web-sites for novel colors to be used in the plastics industry. A year from now plastic tableware tinted a dusky rose-brown will start showing up on the shelves of Wal Marts across the world and I will be consumed by guilt.

I found a couple of nice photos of Apios flowers at the Flickr site, as I lack any of my own. The first one comes from the camera of a young ecology graduate student named Cory Janiak. Her Flickr username is Seaweed Lady, and she lives in the Chesapeake Bay region. I greatly admire her photographic work, and I hope she doesn’t mind that I’m using one of her images here:

The second image I cropped from a screenshot of a photo taken by a man whose name I’ve deliberately forgotten. He disabled downloads of his precious images at Flickr. You know, I’m sure, of the tremendous commercial demand for and potential profits which can be made from images of obscure leguminous flowers. Can’t blame him!

Both of these images show well the colors I described above. Those shades remind me of the velveteen upholstery of settees from the ‘teens and twenties of the last century, pieces of furniture which once could be found in the parlors of maiden aunts and grandmothers.

So if you ever happen to be tramping through a thickety bottom-land forest on a humid summer day, the sun’s cruel rays beating down upon your head, and with mosquitoes following your scent trail like a pack of beagles following a rabbit, look closely along the woodland edges. You just might be lucky enough to see this plant in bloom. I tried to make the prospect sound not too appealing, I admit; otherwise people would be abandoning the malls and fast-food joints in droves and it might get to be too crowded out there!




Filed under Natural History, Photos, Plants

7 responses to “Hopniss, or Groundnuts

  1. bev

    Nice post on Apios. I have seen them growing, but never dug them up as I figured some animal might need them more than well-nourished me. However, a friend has told me that they are very tasty, so perhaps I shall scoop a few the next time I wander across them. I had no idea that they got so large – I had thought they were no larger than a small potato.

  2. The biggest Apios tuber I have ever seen was about the size of a golf ball. I think the larger sizes reported were growing in an optimal situation, perhaps near a spring seep.

  3. Thanks for this very informative piece. I’m going to keep my eyes open for these — they sound great!

  4. I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Dave!

  5. joan

    This was fascinating..and I, of course have nothing to add to perfection..especially since I know nothing of this plant nor will I be likely to find it in my back yard. Thanks, Larry.

  6. No, Apios steers clear of back yards, Joan! It’s a little too uncivilized and would twine all over, tripping up people and in general making a nuisance of itself.

  7. joan

    Well, it would have to compete with milkweed for that honor. I have never seen anything grow so fast or find something to twine around so speedily. It’s like little shop of horrors…or maybe something more like triffids. 🙂

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