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The Ethnobotany of Foraged Food & Peculiar Produce

Archive of strange and unusual food plants

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Bread Root: A Native "Potato" that Needs No Supplemental Watering

Pediomelum esculentum



If you ever find yourself naked, bewildered, and running from a marauding group of men who wish to murder you, you may wish that you had become a bit more familiar with bread root; as we shall see, bread root has saved someone in this position before. Still, the bread root resume does not end there.

Aside from being important to naked and terrified people, a certain tribe of Native Americans decided to name an entire month after bread root: not too shabby. Further still... P. esculentum was once seriously studied as a potential agricultural rival to the potato when Phytophthora infestans wiped out almost all of the potatoes in Ireland. 

Yes, what P. esculentum has is a very particular set of skills, chief among them being: it is a palatable root vegetable that can be cultivated without supplemental water. "What(?!)," you say. "You heard me, ding-dong," I retort. 

Allow me to take you on the journey of discovery. Today we discuss the life-giving bread root. 





Besides bearing a tuberous root that is similar in appearance to a sweet potato, the herbaceous and hairy plant is low-growing bearing blue banner/wing/keel flowers- characteristic of the pea family-on a spike. The leaves are divided and presented on long stalks [8]. The herbaceous, above-ground plant, dries up and disperses seed as a tumbleweed. 


P. esculentum occurs on the dry plains of middle America... and New York State. 




Culinary Uses

The French asserted that the leaves could be used for tea, however, caution should be taken as there was only one (142 year-old) account of this use [2]. Maybe everybody else who tried doing that died. Who knows!? The root, in its raw form, has been known to be prepared with oil vinegar, and salt [8]. The most repeated use for the root is roasting. 

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An important food item of Native American tribes who roamed the plains, it was custom to peel the root into strips, braid them and dry for long-term storage for winter usage [1]. So important was this root, the LAKOTA named the month of June, tinpsila itkahca wi, which translates to "the moon when bread root is ripe." 


"The men also dug up quantities of a large and very insipid root, called by the Indians hankee, and by the engagees, the white apple. It is used by them in a dry and pounded state, so as to mix with their soup; but our men boil it and eat it with meat" [4].

Meriwether Lewis


With an eye to lessen dependance on the potato after the horrific Gorta Mór, or Irish potato famine, the French studied P. esculenta as a potential substitute [9]. The effort to test the commercial viability of P. esculentum as a food crop and potato rival, spearheaded by a man named Lamare-Picot, seems to have failed due to the fact that it takes a few seasons to get a sizable tuber and the cost of raising the crop is greater that one could hope to sell it for [10]. The efforts undertaken to attempt mass cultivation of P. esculentum, however, speaks to the general palatability of this root tuber. 

The Lewis and Clark expedition encountered and utilized this root for food on their famous expedition (See: literature). In fact, one of the Lewis and Clark expedition, John Colter (who was a certified and secured badass), survived a naked, wounded, and typical week eluding the Blackfeet (who wanted to murder him) by eating this root [8]. I will no longer say, "I've had a bad week," and neither should you... now that we both know about John Colter's monumental coping skills. 



[1] Gilmore, M. R. 1868-1940. (1919). Uses of plants by the Indians of the Missouri River region. Washington [D.C.]: G.P.O..

[2] Bernardin, M. (1876). Classification de 250 fécules. Gand: C. Annoot-Braeckman.

[3] Biodiversity Heritage Library., . (1845). Flore des serres et des jardins de l'Europe: annales générales d'horticulture. Gand (Belgique), [etc.]: Louis Van Houtte.

[4] Lewis, M. (1902). History of the expedition of Captains Lewis and Clark, 1804-5-6: reprinted from the edition of 1814. Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co..

[5] This image was retrieved from the USDA plant profile located here

[6] Elpel, T. J. (2013). Botany in a day: the patterns method of plant identification: an herbal field guide to plant families of North America. Pony, Mont: Hops Press.

[7] Online Virtual Flora of Wisconsin. 2018. http//:wisflora.herbarium.wisc.edu. Accessed on February 09.

[8] Saunders, C. Francis. (1920). Useful wild plants of the United States and Canada. New York: R.M. McBride.

[9] Paillieux, A. 1812-1898. (1899). Le potager d'un curieux: histoire, culture & usages de 250 plantes comestibles, peu connues ou inconnues. 3. éd. entièrement refaite. Paris: Libr. agricole de la maison rustique.

[10] Naudin, C. Victor. (1887). Manuel de l'acclimateur: ou, Choix de plantes recommandées pour l'agriculture, l'industrie et la médecine, et adaptées aux divers climate de l'Europe et des pays tropicaux. Paris: Société d'Acclimatation; [etc., etc.].

[11] Image retrieved under Creative Commons licensure from here

[12] Image retrieved under Creative Commons licensure from here. 

Kevin HealeyComment