Fields, Forests & Wetlands Foods of Eastern North America
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Chufa Nuts (A Tuber)
Chufa growing on the edge of a wet area full of Cattails on the edge of a forest.
Season: Fall or African food stores as Tigernuts
Urban, Rural or Both: Both
Chufa (Cyperus esculentus) has a few names: Nutgrass, Yellow Nutsedge, Earth Almond and in African countries they are known as Tigernut. They are a food known for thousands of years in Egypt, and are well known in Southern Europe for making a milk like drink called Horchata de Chufa. In Europe and Africa they are grown as crops. In North America, they are not a crop food, at least not that I'm aware of, although they should be. Here they are a wild food found on the edges of wetlands and disturbed lands. They are easy to recognize, and if you are familiar with Egyptian drawings from the past, you will recognize them from that. I don't know anything that looks quite like them in Southern Ontario, so I think they are a good wild food for beginners. The name Earth Almond hints to their nutty taste.
Be sure you know what Poison Ivy, Western Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) and especially Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) look like before hunting for Chufa Nuts, as they like the same types of areas, so you are likely to encounter them. If you see Chufa growing where there is Poison Ivy or Poison Sumac, don't dig for them. Touching the roots of the Poison Ivy or Sumac is just as bad or worse than touching the parts of the plant above ground.
The way I find them is to look for Cattails. Cattails are in the water, but very often you will see Chufa growing on the land right around the edge of the water. They seem to like damp soil, but not be right in the standing water themselves. They will grow in dry, disturbed soils, but the Chufa nuts are very tiny and few in these conditions. The ones that will produce the best harvest will be in rich, moist soil that does not fully dry out during the season. Areas that flood occasionally are good places to look as well.
The little tubers grow from the roots and are small to large marble sized. If you grab the stalk of the Chufa and pull, you will get the roots, but no tubers. You have to dig them up. They grow all around the plant on the ends of the roots. If the soil is sandy or soft loam, the tubers are bigger and easier to get at. The harder soils make it more work to get out, and the tubers are smaller. If you have a garden that has a damp area, bring home some of the tubers and plant them, and you will have Chufa year after year.
They are tasty raw and cooked. They are just one of those great all around foods. If you have an African grocery store around you, just ask for dried Tigernuts. To cook the dried ones, you have to soak them overnight. Think of them like dried beans. You wouldn't take dried kidney beans and put in a stir-fry. Once they have been soaked, you can eat them raw, and they still have a crunchy quality. Slice them up and cook in any type of meal.
Growing this plant in your home garden:
For detailed growing instructions, go to my Wild Foods Home Garden website Chufa page.
- Plant Size: Up to 90 cm (3 feet) tall, but usually much smaller
- Duration: Annual or Perennial
- Leaf Shape: Very long and thin - often mistaken for a type of grass - it is not a grass, but a Sedge.
- Leaf Phyllotaxis (Leaf Arrangement) on branch: Basal (leaves come from Base of plant)
- Leaf Size: Up to 50 cm (20 inches) long and 8 mm (1/3 inch) across
- Leaf Margin: Entire (smooth edged)
- Leaf Notes: Light green color, the central leaf vein looks like a channel in the center of the leaf. At the top of the stem where the flowers are produced there are what looks like another set of leaves that are technically Bracts
- Flowers: Quite variable depending on the plant and the flower maturity. Can be light tan, yellowish, gold, brown or auburn red. Flowers look like little, sparse bottle brushes
- Fruit: little, reddish-tan, three sided longer than wide seeds
- Habitat: Seems tolerant of many conditions. Favours damp to wet soils, tolerates occasional flooding, I've seen it appear regularly in gardens, dry soil, disturbed lands, edges of ponds. Grows larger with higher nitrogen content in soil. Needs full to partial sun.
- Recipe search on the web here (Google search) and here (Bing search).
- Pictures on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).
- USDA distribution map and plant profile here.
- The Biota of North America Program (BONAP) distribution map here. BONAP map color key here.
Young Chufa coming up in a very dry spot. If you are going to transplant, this is what you are looking for.
Freshly dug up with a Chufa nut clearly visible attached to the root. (By: dr. Stanley Kays)
Whole Chufa plant. The large to small marble sized tubers, often called nuts, are on the ends of the roots all around the plant. Pulling up the plant like I did here to get a picture, leaves the nuts in the ground. Take note of the unusual nature of the leaves of this plant, which is a Sedge. There are the leaves from the base, a tall stalk, which I've seen as little as 8 inches to over 20 inches, and then another set of leaves coming out from a single point on the upper part of the stalk where the flowers appear above. I don't know any other plant that looks like this, so this is a fairly easy plant to identify.
Chufa diagram. (USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. Vol. 1: 304.)
Dried Chufa or Tigernuts for sale in the Banfora market in SW Burkina Faso. (Marco Schmidt CC BY-SA 3.0)
Dried Chufa up close. (By: Tamorlan CC BY-SA 3.0)
Horchata de chufa drink in Madrid, Spain. (By: Jorge Díaz Attribution 2.0 Generic)
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