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Fields, Forests & Wetlands Foods of Eastern North America

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Season: Spring

Urban, Rural or Both: Rural

Indian Cucumber root (Medeola virginiana). I had to think about whether I should include this one. On one hand, it is a safe, edible tuber, that tastes like its name says - like a cucumber, except if anything, even better. You can eat it raw, or cooked. Very tasty.

But there are three problems with gathering this one. One, it is becoming a less common plant, as the cool, rich woods it needs are getting less common themselves. If you harvest it, you kill the plant, making one less to produce seeds. Maybe in some areas it is still common, but in the last 40 years where I live, it has gone from being very common to hard to find. Adding to that problem, it is a small tuber, so you need a few, even for a light snack. Another problem is a safety issue. It can look like the Starflower (Trientalis borealis), and that plant's root is poisonous. The final problem is legality. Due to it becoming rarer, in many areas it is a protected plant - and for good reason.

That said, I have to be honest here: what annoys me, is that although many places make it illegal to touch this plant, it is still fully legal to bulldoze the entire woods they live in to put in a new subdivision. It reminds me of the time back in the 1970's I was riding my minibike through a woods in West London, Ontario called Warbler Woods on one of my Hickory nut gathering adventures. I was stopped by a police officer where the trail met the road, and was told I couldn't ride there any more - it had been closed to trail bikes because the woods was considered sensitive, and riding there was damaging the plants in the woods. Even though I always stayed on the trails, I thought that was fair, as I appreciated how beautiful that woods was. Within five years, that section of woods I was riding in was turned into a large subdivision of homes. Any time I drive by that subdivision, I still get the feeling of the absurdity of that event.

The way to tell the Indian Cucumber from the Starflower is simple, but don't get mixed up. The leaf veins in the Indian Cucumber run from the base to the tip - they are parallel to each other. On the Starflower, there is one central vein with side veins coming off the central vein that terminate at the edges of the leaf. Here is a really bad poem by me to help you remember:

Sorry about that, but if it saves one person from poisoning themselves, my brief stint as a poet will be forgiven. Anyway, all that said, I suggest just looking at it if you find one, but if you find a large area of them, and you can confidently identify it - and know it is not the Starflower, and it's not illegal in your area, then try one to see how good it tastes. But please don't clean an area of them out. I've tried them, know what they taste like, but don't bother them any more.

This plant can be found with either one tier of whorled leaves or two. If it has two tiers of leaves and/or flowers on it, don't bother - the tuber will not be any good as the energy has gone out of it. Only the one tiered plants before flowering are worth trying.

Growing this plant in your home garden:

You could try transplanting some to put in a wooded area at home, but I did try it many years ago, and none survived. I didn't do it for food, I just wanted them in my forest wildflower garden. It wouldn't be worth it for the food you'd get, but it would be nice if it did work to help this plant stop getting rarer.


Indian Cucumber root (Medeola virginiana) range. Distribution map courtesy of U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA Natural Resources Service) and used in accordance with their policies.

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Important Notes when Identifying
Rules & Cautions
Dangerous Plants to Avoid Touching

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