Fields, Forests & Wetlands Foods of Eastern North America
A Complete Wild Food Guide
Groundnut or Hopniss illustration of above ground part of plant - this is what you are looking for when hunting them. (Wild Flowers of New York Part 1, University of the State of New York, State Museum, Albany)
Season: Late Fall
Urban, Rural or Both: Rural mainly
Groundnut or Hopniss (Apios americana). Other names are Indian Potato and Potato Bean. Likes to grow in damp ground along the edges of creeks and river, ponds and marshes, but not in them. They tend to be in partly sunny / partly shady areas associated with openings in woods. I've read they do need full sun at least part of the day. Though native to North America, they are now a cultivated crop in Japan where they are appreciated for their health benefits and high protein levels.
Please, know what Poison Ivy, Western Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) and especially Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) look like before hunting for the Groundnut, as they like the same types of areas, so you are likely to encounter them. Also, the compound leaves, and even the flower spikes, at some stages, look enough like the Poison Sumac that unless you know them both by sight, a terrible mistake could be made by handling the Poison Sumac. Another important point: If you see Groundnut vines growing right where there is Poison Ivy, Western 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.
They are a nitrogen-fixing legume vine that climbs by twisting around other plants, branches or anything in a counter-clockwise direction. Leaves are compound (5 to 7 leaflets per leaf), and the leaves are alternate on the vine (not opposite each other). In eastern North America where it is native, it seems to be found wherever the conditions are right. As it is a legume like Peas, it has bean pods that are 5 to 130 mm (2 - 5 inches) long that look like Pea pods. I understand they are edible too, but I have no idea what they taste like. The flower spikes have many flowers on them, and the color is hard to describe. Sort of pinkish, purplish, brown, dull maroon. The flower is very complicated looking, sort of like a Snapdragon flower. The flower spikes come from the same part of the vine that the compound leaves attach.
The tubers can be fairly small to as big as a large potato, and are daisy-chained on the roots. That is, they are like well spaced pearls on a string. The tubers are like big, elongated spheres that appear along the roots. The small ones are smooth, but the bigger they are, the more misshapen they are - not a problem. The roots and tubers grow horizontally under the ground, and if the ground is sandy, they are fairly easy to gather. Not so easy in clay soils.
Don't eat them raw. I suggest they be cooked, even though I have read on the web some people say they taste good raw. I find they sit like a lump in my stomach and give me cramps unless cooked. Cooked, they are very good. You have to peel them (peel as if they are potatoes), so the really tiny ones, are best left where you found them to grow into more plants, or taken home and plant in a garden if you want them. They can grow really big (bigger than an orange), but these tend to be a little woody. Chicken egg sized is about right. When you peel them, you will notice a sticky, milky like sap - that is normal. Put in water in a stainless steel pot (hard to clean up any other kind - they leave a residue) and cook until soft. You will notice the water is a dull gold-yellow when they are cooked. Pour the water away.
At this point, you can use them like potatoes - in other recipes, mashed, etc. There is only one rule - eat them very warm, the taste and texture is odd when they cool. You can reheat them.
Growing this plant in your home garden:
If you have the right conditions (damp, sandy or loamy soil with partial shade) you will have no trouble growing this plant at home. In fact, it could become a nuisance. Find some tubers in the fall, plant at home, and by next spring you should have it growing. Put it next to something it can climb - treat it like climbing beans or peas.
For detailed growing instructions, go to my Wild Foods Home Garden website Groundnut (Hopniss) page.
- Plant Size: Counter-clockwise twining (wraps around) Vine without tendrils, up to 4 meters (13 feet) long
- Duration: Perennial
- Leaf Shape: Compound, Odd Pinnate with 5-7 leaflets.
- Leaf Phyllotaxis (Leaf Arrangement) on branch: Alternate - one compound leaf per node on the vine stem. Leaflets are opposite on leave with single terminal leaflet
- Leaf Size: Compound leaf is 8-15 cm (3 to 6 inches) long.
- Leaf Margin: On each leaflet the edge is Entire (smooth).
- Leaf Notes: The base of the leaf comes from the same spot (node) on the stem that the flower cluster stem comes from.
- Flowers: Flowers are in clusters on a stem. The flower is vertically bilaterally symmetrical, which means: if you imagine a line from top to bottom of the center of the flower, each side is a mirror image. If you divide it horizontally, the halves are not mirror images. Pinkish, purplish, brown, dull maroon color.
- Fruit: Bean pods that are 5 to 13 cm (2 - 5 inches) long that look like Pea pods
- Habitat: Damp areas by marshes, rivers, creeks, ponds. Very often in woods or beside woods in damp areas with enough light. Needs at least 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.
My drawing of the compound leaf and a flower spike. Note that both the flower spike and leaf base come from the same spot (node) on the vine. The leaves are alternate on the vine, but the leaflets are opposite on the leaf. There are five or seven leaflets per leaf. The flower spike contains many flowers that look like Sweet Pea or Snapdragon flowers, but in a dull pinkish, purplish, brownish maroon color.
Groundnut (Hopniss) in flower. (Robert H. Mohlenbrock, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA SCS. 1989. Midwest wetland flora: Field office illustrated guide to plant species. Midwest National Technical Center, Lincoln)
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