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Rediscovering Lost Crops: Bringing Heirloom Varieties Back to Your Plate

June 26, 2024

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Rediscovering Lost Crops: Bringing Heirloom Varieties Back to Your Plate

A Feast for the Senses

I’ll never forget the day I stumbled upon those curious vines tangled in the undergrowth near the riverbank. At first, I thought they were just another weed, another nuisance to be cleared away. But as I ventured closer, a riot of colors and scents drew me in – maroon and cream flowers shaped like pea blossoms, and a heady fragrance that reminded me of lilies. Curious, I bent down for a closer look and that’s when I noticed the strange tubers clustered along the vines, like beads on a necklace.

Uncovering a Forgotten Treasure

After a bit of research, I learned that these unassuming plants were none other than the wild groundnut, or Apios americana – a once-staple food source for Native Americans and early European settlers that had since fallen into obscurity. Apparently, this legume plant was prized not just for its edible tubers, but for its nutritional prowess, containing up to 17% protein, three times that of the humble potato.

As the Orion Magazine article described, the groundnut had long been “a staple in the diets of many Native Americans” – in fact, it was the Wampanoags who taught the Pilgrims to dig and cook these “Indian potatoes,” likely saving them from starvation. Even Henry David Thoreau knew and relished the humble tubers, writing in his journal that “in case of a famine I should soon resort to these roots.”

A Permaculture Powerhouse

Yet somehow, this nutrient-dense, resilient crop had all but disappeared from our modern diets. Why? According to wild edibles expert Sam Thayer, the first Europeans to arrive in this country “found the thought of living like Native Americans abhorrent” and dismissed many indigenous foods as unsuitable for their tastes and lifestyles. Over time, these once-vital food sources slipped into obscurity, their memory all but lost to the passage of time.

But as I listened to Thayer waxing poetic about his love for the groundnut – which he affectionately calls by its Lenape name, “hopniss” – I realized this plant deserved a revival. Not only is it incredibly nutritious and delicious, but as a nitrogen-fixing perennial, it’s a permaculture powerhouse, thriving in polycultures and providing food, fodder, and ecological services.

Bringing Back the Bounty

Determined to reintroduce this forgotten treasure to my community, I started doing some digging – both literally and figuratively. I connected with Bill Blackmon, a professor who led a groundnut domestication program at Louisiana State University in the 80s and 90s, and learned about his efforts to breed larger, more productive tubers. And I visited my friends Erin and Dave Varney, who practice permaculture on their farm, to get their insights on growing this unique crop.

Their enthusiasm was infectious – Erin and Dave saw the groundnut as a perfect fit for their permaculture system, able to thrive beneath their hazelnut bushes and provide a reliable source of sustenance. “It sounds like a permaculture crop,” Dave mused. “Commercial growers want one season and out. They don’t want to wait to make an investment.”

Inspired, I set out to unearth some groundnut tubers of my own. After patiently following the vines to their source and carefully digging, I soon had a bounty of the knobby, brown roots – ranging from a half-inch to two inches in diameter. With great anticipation, I headed home to try my hand at cooking them up.

Rediscovering a Lost Flavor

As I peeled and sliced the groundnuts, I was struck by their unique texture and aroma. Thoreau had been right – they did have a somewhat nutty flavor, reminiscent of potatoes but with a sweetness all their own. Fried up in butter and salt, those little brown coins were utterly delicious, a revelation to my tastebuds.

Eager to share my discovery, I spent the next few weeks extolling the virtues of the groundnut to anyone who would listen – friends, relatives, neighbors, even the checkout clerks at the local food co-op. But to my amazement, no one had ever heard of this plant, let alone tasted it. How could such a nutritious and versatile food source have vanished from our collective consciousness?

Reviving an Oral Tradition

That’s when I reached out to Sam Thayer, the wild edibles expert, to get his take. As it turned out, the groundnut’s disappearance was no accident. Thayer explained that when the first Europeans arrived in this country, they “found the thought of living like Native Americans abhorrent” and actively stigmatized many indigenous foods, including the groundnut, as unsuitable for their tastes and lifestyles.

Over time, these once-vital food sources slipped into obscurity, their memory preserved only in the oral traditions of the people who had once relied on them. As Thayer put it, “foraging remains anchored in oral tradition – staked on a communal shovel, a trailside tutorial.” Without that constant sharing of knowledge, the humble groundnut had faded from common memory.

Sowing the Seeds of Rediscovery

Determined to revive this lost culinary treasure, I decided to take a page from the groundnut’s own playbook and turn to my community for help. One evening, as friends and neighbors gathered to celebrate the completion of our new straw-bale wood shop, I proudly unveiled my haul of freshly dug groundnuts. Soon, everyone was lining up for seconds and thirds, eager to rediscover this forgotten flavor.

And when I suggested we all head out to the riverbank to dig for more, the response was overwhelming. Young and old alike, we huddled in a circle, taking turns with the shovels and marveling at each new mound of upturned dirt that revealed the knobby tubers nestled amongst the roots of other plants. It was a communal foraging expedition, a rediscovery of lost knowledge, and a celebration of nature’s bounty.

As we shared stories and recipes, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of wonder. This wasn’t just about a single forgotten food – it was about reconnecting with the land, reviving ancient traditions, and reimagining our relationship with the natural world. The groundnut, it seemed, was just the beginning.

Cultivating a Permaculture Paradise

Of course, I couldn’t stop there. Inspired by my visit with the Varneys and their permaculture farm, I decided to try my hand at growing groundnuts myself. I reached out to Bill Blackmon, the LSU professor, and managed to obtain some of his domesticated strains, which I carefully planted in a corner of my garden.

To my delight, the plants took to our soil with gusto, their vines sprawling and intertwining with the surrounding flora. It was a veritable permaculture paradise – groundnuts, Jerusalem artichokes, and cow parsnip, all thriving together in a lush, self-sustaining ecosystem. I marveled at the resilience and adaptability of these plants, seemingly able to coexist and even enhance one another’s growth.

A Bountiful Future

As I watched my groundnut patch flourish, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of hope for the future. Just like the chefs at Husk in Charleston, who are championing the rediscovery of heirloom Southern crops, I knew that the groundnut and other lost foods deserved a place at the table once more.

Sure, there may be some hurdles to overcome – Thayer warned me that a small percentage of people can have adverse reactions to the groundnut, for instance. But with a little care and knowledge, I believe we can reintegrate these forgotten treasures into our diets and our lives, reconnecting with the land and the rich culinary traditions of our past.

So the next time you find yourself wandering through a meadow or along a riverbank, keep an eye out for those curious vines and their pea-shaped flowers. Who knows what other forgotten delights might be waiting to be rediscovered? The groundnut is just the beginning of a bountiful future, where the wisdom of the past meets the ingenuity of the present, and the table is set with a feast for the senses.

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