Ark of Taste
One of the common ingredients in indigenous diets from Canada to the Gulf coast, Apios Americana, also known colloquially as Indian Groundnut, can be founded widely in the eastern half of North America. A counterclockwise-twining vine in the pea family, this perennial plant produces both edible tubers and podded beans. The vines can extend up to ten feet, producing half-inch pink, purple or crimson flowers resembling wisteria in form and scent from July to September. The moniliform roots string together numerous fleshy tubers varying in size from one to eight centimeters. The plant requires at least two years of growth to maturity.
The pods can be steamed and prepared as any shelled bean, which was the form savored by the Cherokee. Alternately, they were roasted, boiled, dried and ground into a thickening powder for stews. According to forager Hank Shaw, “At first taste, they are remarkably close to floury potatoes like Russets. The tuber is a little drier than a potato, quite a bit sweeter — but nothing like a sweet potato. There is a wholesomeness to the flavor, perhaps betokening the abundance of protein contained (3 times that of a standard crop potato).”
While native peoples sometimes transplanted plants they encountered in the wild to the vicinity of settlements or campsites, there was never any systematic cultivation of the plant. In 1985, the Louisiana Agricultural Experimental Station under W. J. Blackmon and B. D. Reynolds began a program of plant improvement with the goal of creating a perennial crop groundnut. By 1990 a pioneer strain of domesticated Native groundnut had been developed—LA85-034. However, this project did not lead to the planting of crop groundnuts.
The culinary interest in Apios Americana arose in the 2010s, driven by two cultural developments: the Native American effort to reclaim culinary heritage and the campaign by southern chefs in Appalachia to understand regional foodways. So far as it now exists, groundnut gardening has been restricted to household production. It remains prevalent in well-watered parts of the eastern woodlands. The first commercially grown crop of Apios Americana in the US was planted at New Earth Organic Nursery on the Bradford Family Farm in Sumter, SC in the spring of 2016.