How many roots do Americans eat on a regular basis?
I can think of a few: potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots and beets.
Beyond those, you might occasionally use leeks, turnips, rutabagas or parsnips. If you have a yuppie grocery store, you might even find Jerusalem artichokes.
Yet on the grand and glorious palette of edible tubers, rhizomes, corms and bulbs… the grocery store is but a single swatch. Many excellent edibles are off the radar for most of us. We live in a consumer age where mass production and marketing – not to mention increasing urbanization and disconnectedness from the land – have narrowed down our diet to a few shippable and easily produced selections.
Most Americans could wander through my yard (provided I didn’t shoot them for trespassing) and never really see the many edible plants and roots around them. It looks like shrubs, trees, weeds, flowers, creepers and ornamentals… yet there’s food everywhere. Granted, if you prepare some of these crops wrong you’ll get sick or die, but they’re food nonetheless.
Today I’m going to focus on roots and take you on a tour through a few species worth adding to your homestead. The variety may surprise you – and you may even have some of these crops growing wild in your neighborhood already.
Let’s take a look at 8 staple root crops you can hide in plain sight.
Chufa is classified as an invasive weed in some states. That’s my kind of crop! If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em! Chufa is an ancient staple also known as “tiger nuts.” The edible part is a small roughly 1/2″ corm that develops in networks of roots around the base of the plant. Overall, since it’s a sedge, the chufa plant looks a lot like a weedy clump of grass. The roots are reportedly delicious. (I’m working on growing my first crop of them this summer and I’ll let you know how they turn out in the fall.)
2. Winged Yams
I’ve written an entire post on the winged yam, also known in Latin as Dioscorea alata. Winged yams have a vigorously climbing vines and can develop massive roots up to 100 lbs or more. Plus, they taste great. If you live north of USDA growing zone 8, you might not be able to grow winged yams; however, you’re likely to have luck with their more cold-hardy relative Dioscorea opposita. That one also has edible bulbils which dangle from the stems in profusion and can be used without digging.
This is a weird root crop in the carrot and parsley family. I haven’t tried them yet here in Florida since they like the cold and we don’t have much of that here, however, for northern gardeners this is famed as a delicious and sweet perennial, though it has woody cores inside the roots. No one will know what you’re growing when they see this 3′ tall bush with white flowers – and they certainly won’t know what it is if they see its thick cluster of gray-white roots.
4. Duck Potatoes
Do you have a pond or swamp area on your property? Then you may already have this productive North American staple and not know it. Lewis and Clark lived on duck potatoes during much of their famous journey. Also known as wapato and Arrowhead, duck potatoes are a very common aquatic plant across much of the United States. Their many edible tubers are bitter raw but very good when cooked. Indian women used to harvest them with their feet. My wife is part Cherokee and I find this really foxy. Whew. Where was I? Oh yeah… staple roots. Let’s move on. Quickly.
5. Ground Nuts
Ground nuts get confused with peanuts but they’re not anything like peanuts, other than the fact that they both exist inside the great big Fabaceae family and fix their own nitrogen. Ground nuts, in Latin, are known as Apios Americana and like duck potatoes were a staple of Indians back in the day. (“Back in the day” is the technical term for “before they were run off by expansionist Europeans.”) They’re a vining crop that produces strings of tubers beneath the ground. I’ve read that they can become invasive but haven’t grown them long enough on my homestead to find out. I hope they are. I like invasive food.
6. Chinese Water Chestnuts
I grew my first crop of Chinese Water Chestnuts last year and was blown away by their rapid growth and productivity. They are an aquatic carbohydrate-rich sedge that can be grown in ponds, bathtubs or, my favorite method, in cheap plastic kiddie pools. As long as they’re in muck, they’ll be happy. A few inches of water on top can keep weeds under control, though it’s not neccesary to keep them growing. Bonus: Chinese water chestnuts taste really good fresh. Nothing like the tasteless crunchy disks found in cheap Chinese take-out. For an in-depth look at Chinese water chestnuts, check out this survival plant profile.
Though it might be a bit too sweet to eat every day, yacon is a wonderfully productive root crop from the Andes that is suited to much of the United states, provided it’s grown and protected carefully. Yacon is a member of the Asteraceae (sunflower/daisy) family, making it a cousin of the Jerusalem artichoke. Its roots come in two types: long, sweet storage tubers and knobby clusters of bud-riddled roots that group around the base of the plant. You plant the latter and eat the former. The storage roots keep well and get much sweeter after they sit awhile. They’re good fresh, however, with a slightly sweet, almost fruit-like taste that’s refreshing on a hot day.
I have to apologize to my Yankee readers at this point. Arrowroot is a tropical plant that’s not likely to grow in your blighted climes, however it does wonderfully in the Deep South as a perennial and attractive addition to the landscape and the survival kitchen. It would be worth trying further north in large containers, since it’s very easy to grow and also looks like a beautiful tropical houseplant. The rhizomes can be eaten cooked or used for flour. My friend Grower Jim has a deeper look at arrowroot on his site, plus he sells roots mail-order. That’s where I got mine and they’re looking great beneath one of my mulberry trees.
If there was ever a time to move beyond the potato, this is it. These 8 staple root crops are just a small taste of the many magnificent edibles God has provided for us in His bounteous grace… provided we’re able to step outside of the supermarket and start searching.