Groundnut flowers

Another strange one

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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Wandering across the Island, there is no shortage of interesting plants. There is a great mix of trees and shrubs in the Acadian forest, orchids galore, and ferns seemingly everywhere. One thing that there is a shortage of is native climbing plants.  We have lots of non-native ones—Oriental bittersweet, Virginia creeper, wild grapes, bittersweet nightshade, wild cucumber, even poison ivy. But for some reason a vine is a form rarely found in PEI’s native plants.

The native clematis, known as Virgin’s Bower, is our largest climber, a lovely plant that I will do a future column on. But I recently spent some time with American groundnut in the Macphail Woods native plant arboretum, and I was reminded of the beauty of this climbing plant.

I am not 100% sure that this is actually a native plant. It has long been used as a food source by Indigenous peoples throughout the region, and it could have easily been moved around from other places. Nonetheless, it is treated as one by the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre, and that’s good enough for me. It is listed as an S1, noting that it may be of risk. It is a plant that I almost never run across.

Groundnut is another plant that can be used both for food and also as a lovely addition to a landscape. It is not actually a nut, though. It’s a legume (as are beans and peas) and has pink-purple composite flowers that are exotic and quite lovely. It produces masses of flowers in late August well into September, when there aren’t a lot of other blooms around.

As a landscape plant, it will require something to climb on, certainly growing six to eight feet per year on a good site. Groundnut will tolerate light shading but do well in full sun with adequate moisture. We’ve been growing them for a few years now at Macphail Woods and they appear to do fine without any additional moisture. This year was a great growing season for almost all things, but even with the dryness of 2020, they performed well.

As a food plant, groundnut has such an interesting history. The starchy tubers were eaten by Indigenous peoples throughout North America, fed to the Pilgrims, dined on by Thoreau. They are now grown throughout the world, everywhere from India to Africa. At one time they were thought to be the answer to the Irish potato famine, since groundnut (Apios americana) is unrelated to the potato (Solanum tuberosum) and not susceptible to the blight that caused repeated crop failures in that country. This “great famine” had many causes, including how the English had treated the Irish, but in any case it resulted in a million deaths and another million people emigrating to places that included Canada.

Groundnut was thought to be a suitable starchy replacement. Unfortunately, it is a plant that has proven difficult to domesticate. It has small tubers, up to the size of an egg, and some quite a bit smaller. That means no large tubers that are easy to harvest and make large french fries. The vines are also problematic, as they make the tubers hard to harvest.  In addition, the tubers grow entwined with whatever other roots are in the ground. 

They seem to be very difficult to propagate from seed, but since they produce quite a few tubers each year, these can be separated and replanted to increase your groundnut patch. Some people do not take well to eating groundnut, but personally I can’t wait to have a big enough patch to do a taste test.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI
Gary Schneider

Gary began writing for The Buzz in the May 2018 issue. He co-chairs ECO-PEI and started the Macphail Woods Ecological Forestry Project in 1991. The project demonstrates ecologically-sound forest management, with a focus on environmental education, conservation of rare plants, and the restoration of PEI’s native forest. He is an avid birder and lives in Tea Hill.