Monday, May 14, 2012

Okanogan Roots: Mountain Potato, Glacier Lily, and more

What my friends planned to be a weekend Morel (Morchella sp.) foray in the Methow Valley turned into a timely harvest of a variety of root vegetables, many of which I have long wanted to try.  It wasn’t an intentional bait and switch, the Morels just weren’t out yet, and the roots were.

Glacier Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum)
We were still descending from Washington Pass near Mazama when I pulled the car off the road to “see about a plant.”  A glimmer of yellow caught my eye on a snowless north facing slope and I instantly knew it to be Glacier Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum).  They have a knack for springing up and brandishing their relatively large flowers as soon as the snow has melted.

Glacier Lilies were a staple root vegetable for the Blackfoot, Okanagan-Colville, Shuswap, and Thompson (See Native American Food Plants).  The roots (corms), were occasionally eaten raw, but more commonly steamed, boiled, or sun dried.  The raw corms were said by some to be inedible, and by others to not be as sweet as the dried roots.

Unearthed corms of Glacier Lily
My friends and I harvested a half dozen Glacier Lily corms by following the long tender flower stalks 3-5 inches into the damp soil.  I learned that they are easier to gather by starting a deep hole next to a good sized clump and then extending the hole sideways until the corms are visible.  Each corm has a delicate string like appendage that easily breaks off.  According to Dawn Lowen—who studied the nutritional chemistry, ethnobotany, and ecology of Glacier Lilies with Thompson elder Mary Thomas—these appendages are capable of regenerating into new plants and were carefully replanted to ensure future harvests.
Glacier Lily corm clean and ready to be eaten
Glacier Lily leaf
I found the raw corms to be amazingly sweet, which was corroborated by Lowen’s phytochemical analysis.  She measured sugar concentrations that peaked when the Glacier Lilies are flowering.  I also enjoyed the fresh flowering stalks and leaves, but I felt like the leaves were slightly acrid (more subtle than the raw leaves of Siberian Miner’s Lettuce or Curly Dock).  Cooking will likely improve the flavor of both the corms and leaves.  I transplanted several corms into my home-garden to propagate for further experimentation.

Several flowering stems on a large Mountain Potato
While tromping through recently burned forests looking for Morels, I came across the small succulent leaves and Miner’s Lettuce-like flowers of another long anticipated wild food -- Mountain Potato.  Mountain Potato (Claytonia lanceolata) is actually a close relative of Miner’s Lettuce (C. perfoliata), but instead of having the spindly roots of an annual, Mountain Potato has a pea to cherry sized starchy tuber that persists from year to year.

Mountain Potatoes were traditionally eaten by the same people that ate Glacier Lilies.  They were consumed fresh or boiled and often stored fresh in large quantities for use during the winter (See Native American Food Plants).  For further reading, also read Carla Mellott's superb Master’s Thesis on the ‘Tsilhqot’in ethnobotany and ecology of Mountain Potato.

A medium sized Mountain Potato (Claytonia lanceolata)
Unlike many root vegetables in the interior, Mountain Potatoes are relatively easy to harvest.  The tubers are only 1-2 inches below the surface and they often grow from underneath rocks, which can simply be picked up to reveal the tubers.  Depending on the elevation, the specimens that I collected were either in full flower, or were just starting to go to seed (which is when they were traditionally collected).  I found the tender leaves to be delicious with nearly the same flavor as Miner’s Lettuce.  The tubers have a very starchy texture and neutral flavor.

Ballhead Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum capitatum)
The sea-anemone like flowers of Ballhead Waterleaf (Hydrophyllum capitatum) also caught my attention.  After my recent success with Pacific Waterleaf (H. tenuipes) I decided to give its cousin from the Eastern Cascades a try.  There is little ethnobotanical literature on Ballhead Waterleaf but George Dawson noted in 1891 that the Shuswap harvested Ballhead Waterleaf roots in June from Botanie Valley.  Nancy Turner, James Teit, and Elsie Steedman also noted that the roots were commonly cooked and eaten by the Thompson and Okanagan.  The fleshy, spreading roots are fairly easy to unearth.  I sampled one raw and found it to have a stringy and juicy texture and bland flavor. 
The stubby fingerlike roots of Ballhead Waterleaf

I also harvested some Arrow-leaved Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) and a couple species of Biscuitroot (Lomatium spp.) which I hope to cook and provide an update on their palatability in the coming days.

The hunters and hunted (in total!).  Too early for Methow Morels

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  1. Hi Abe,
    My name is Jess Gifford, I am in John Tuxill's Ethnobotany class and Jenn Hahn's Wild Edibles. What a quarter!! =) I was wondering if you had some time to chat about the Northern Rice Root? I researched this for Wild Edibles and will be presenting it in 2 weeks. You can email me at
    Much gratitude!

  2. Just curious, as I am NOT an edible plants expert...I seem to remember in the book "Into the Wild," the guy died from eating wild potato, which was really similar to something else that was poisonous.

    Is there any poisonous plan in the Northwest that someone could reasonably confuse with wild potato? If so, how do you tell the difference?

  3. Christopher McCandless, the guy in "Into the Wild," starved to death. For some reason, Jon Krakauer invented the story that Chistopher accidentally ate a poisonous plant. Sam Thayer wrote an interesting essay on the topic in his wild food book "Nature's Garden."

    In my mind, the only things that look similar to Mountain Potato (Claytonia lanceolata) are closely related edibles in the same genus, like Miner's lettuce. Look for paired leaves, white 5-petaled flowers with pink lines, and a rounded tuber.

    It is important to never eat anything if you are uncertain about its identity (and edibility). There are a number of excellent plant ID books and wild food books available in the Pacific Northwest, and I have recently highlighted several of my favorite in the "PNW Foraging Resources" section on the right side of this webpage.

    1. McCandless had apparently brought with him treated seed potatoes, according to the documentary video from the Smithsonian. These would have been treated with anti-fungicides, etc. So, not the poisonous wild plant.

  4. Interesting...I naively assumed Krakauer knew his stuff. Can't wait to read this essay about it. Thanks for pointing it out. Going to check out the Foraging book you recommended too.

    I just discovered this blog and am very much enjoying it. Thanks for sharing what you know.