Tuesday, June 5, 2012

You want-a Yampa: an esoteric edible

Katrina on a sloping Garry Oak Meadow
Yampa is an inconspicuous plant that often grows in Garry Oak Ecosystems, which are really rare in Whatcom County.  The only ones that I know about are in the Chuckanut Mountains along the eastern shore of Bellingham Bay, and on the western slope of Sumas Mountain.  Deep soil Camas meadows and Oak savannas that were formerly maintained by Native Americans have largely filled in with Douglas Fir (Psuedostuga menziesii) as a result of fire suppression, changes in land tenure and Native American diets, and many other factors.  These days, Garry Oaks (Quercus garryana) can only be found on shallow soils that are too dry for Douglas Fir.

A small bulb and unopened flower cluster of Hooker's Onion
Yesterday, Katrina and I set out to explore one of these remnant ecosystems called the Chuckanut Bald.  Using an aerial photograph, we plotted our course from a nearby gravel road, but what looked like an easy bushwhack on the photo turned into a VERY steep scramble up a mossy sandstone bluff.  I knew we were on the right track when I started to see the beautiful (and poisonous) flowers of Death Camas (Zigadenus venenosus), Sea Blush (Plectritis congesta), Menzies Larkspur (Delphinium menziesii), and other Gary Oak associates.  When the grade lessened somewhat, the soil depth increased enough for trees to grow, and there they were, scraggly Garry Oaks that were wider than they were tall.  We scouted around looking for Camas (Camassia sp.) but couldn’t find any.  However, many other edible roots were in abundance.  Chocolate Lily (Frtillaria lanceolata), Hooker’s Onion (Allium acuminatum), Harvest Brodieae (Brodieae coronaria), and Yampa (Perideridia gairdneri) were all present and have a long history of use by the Salish and other Native Americans.

Yampa was widely used by Native Americans throughout the Pacific Northwest, and continues to be used by some people today.  The Cheyenne, Flathead, Niitsitapi (Blackfoot), Okanagan-Colville, Paiute, Gosiute, Skagit, Karok, Miwok, Pomo, Umatilla, Ute, and Yana, all considered the roots a staple that were eaten fresh, baked, boiled, and dried for future use.  The Dakota attributed particularly energetic principals to the roots, and  it was eaten by buffalo runners to sustain their efforts.  The Pomo and Yana ate the leaves as well. (See Moerman’s Native American Ethnobotany).

Grass-like leaves of Yampa, can you find them?
Three generations of Yampa corms (left).
Yampa’s long linear leaves are difficult to see among the grass, but once I tuned into their pinnate branching pattern, they started to spring into vision all around me.  Their corms are small at about 1 inch long and ¼ inch wide; growing about 3 inches deep, they aren’t too difficult to dig up.  I carefully unearthed a few specimens of Yampa to experiment with and plant in my garden.  A few of the plants that I examined actually had 3 generations of corms: grandpa Yampa- a wrinkly root that was past its prime, papa Yampa- a large healthy corm, and baby Yampa- a small cormlet that I suspect could quickly regenerate into a new plant if replanted in the aerated soil of the harvest site.

Yampa corms.  The one on the left has been pealed.
Back at home, I prepared my Yampa by simply washing the corms and rubbing the delicate brown skin off to expose the white edible flesh.  I sampled a corm raw and found the flavor and texture to be strikingly similar to parsnips.  The fresh leaves also have a nice flavor similar to parsley.  Though small, I look forward to eating more Yampa in the future.

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