Monday, May 26, 2014

Yellow Bell

The Methow Valley in north central Washington is a paradise of plants that explodes with color during the short period between the bitter cold winters and the dry dusty summers. For the last several years on mother’s day weekend, Katrina and I have traveled over the Cascade Crest to explore eastside edibles, hunt for morels, and participate in the Sunflower Run. The snowpack on Highway 20 was so deep this year that it took crews until May 8th to clear the road. Similarly, the wildflowers were delayed in their phenology. I had the pleasure of catching the Yellow Bells (Fritillaria pudica) in bloom for the first time in the Methow Valley, and got my first taste of this delicate but filling root vegetable.

Immature seed capsule
Yellow Bell bulb with bulblets
It is easy to see that Yellow Bell is closely related to two edible lilies found on the west side. Like Chocolate Lily (Fritillaria affinis) and Northern Riceroot (F. camschatcensis), Yellow Bell has a bulbous root that is surrounded by numerous bulblets that resemble grains of rice. These break off easily while being dug by bears, rodents, humans, and other animals, and are an important mechanism of plant regeneration. The large central bulb begins to push up a sprout when the first fall rains moisten forest openings in the pine forests, but this sprout stays far enough below the soil surface to avoid damage from the ensuing bite of winter cold. With a head start on the spring, the plant grows rapidly as soon as the snow has melted and takes advantage of the ample soil moisture to sprout an upright stem with 2-8 sporadically arranged narrow leaves, and 1-3 hanging bell-shaped flowers that emerge yellow and age to a bright orange. The petals blush and fall away quickly after the flowers have been pollinated (hense the species epithet pudica meaning "shy" in Latin) and the stems straighten to produce upright cylindrical seed pods that split into three chambers and disperse flattened seeds.

Yellow Bell grows in shrub-steppe and mixed coniferous forests at low to mid elevations. They can be found east of the Cascade crest from Kamloops Lake in southern British Columbia southward to the Klamath Mountains and Modoc Plateau in northern California. They are also found sporadically throughout the Rocky Mountains south of Kimberly BC to northwest Colorado. The eastward range extends through Montana and a few places in North Dakota.

Yellow Bells are probably a traditional food among all the Native American tribes that share the plant's range. The Nlaka’pamux (Thompson), Shuswap, Syilx (Okanogan), Spokan, Paiute, Blackfoot, and Ute ate the bulbs fresh, steamed, or boiled (Moerman). The Nlaka’pamux and Sylix welcomed the flowers as an early sign of spring, and immediately collected the bulbs (Teit 1930) along with those of Glacier Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum); these roots were often steamed in an earthen pit for 15 minutes and then sun dried on mats for use throughout the rest of the year (Turner et al. 1980; Turner et al. 1990).

Mt. Potato (left) and Yellow Bell (right)
Challenged by my camping companions to produce a wild food meal, I set out with my diggings stick to locate some Yellow Bells. I found them growing abundantly in an open Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir forest with Mountain Potatoes (Claytonia lanceolata). Since they are relatively shallow rooted plants, I was able to dig both species out of the gravelly soil quickly. To ensure future harvests, I replanted the flat rootlet-covered disc at the base of each Yellow Bell bulb as well as all the small bulblets that easily broke from the main bulb. After 45 minutes, I had about 15 Yellow Bell bulbs and 50 Mountain Potato tubers- enough for a meal. Yellow Bell bulbs are the shape of pattypan squash and have a starchy bland flavor when raw. I boiled them with the Mountain Potato tubers, roasted sausage, and some wild rice that I had brought along, and seasoned the broth with freshly harvested Bare-stem Desert Parsley (Lomatium nudicaule) leaves. Cooked, Yellow Bell bulbs are slightly sweeter than raw and have a smoother, corn starch texture. Though I only had time to harvest enough for a single serving, the soup was a hit and everyone got a taste.

A lineup of Yellow Bell bulbs, the one on the left still has the basal disc attached

Yellow Bells have a similar nutrient profile to a potato but have 50 percent more protein, six times as much calcium, and nearly 30 times more iron (Norton et al. 1984). At 64 calories per 100g fresh weight, Yellow Bell bulbs have more caloric value than Common Camas (61 cal/100g) but less than Northern Riceroot (98 cal/100g). Yellow Bells are slightly higher in fat and much higher in calcium but lower in carbohydrates than both Common Camas and Northern Riceroot (Kuhnlein and Turner 1991).

Biota of North America Program, North American Vascular Flora, North American Plant Atlas, Fritillaria pudica distribution

Calflora, Taxon Report 3641, Fritillaria pudica

Consortium of Pacific Northwest Herbaria, Fritillaria pudica

Kuhnlein, Harriet V. and Nancy J. Turner 1991. “Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples, Nutrition, Botany, and Use.” Food and Nutrition in History and Anthropology, Volume 8, Gordon and Breach Publishers.

Moerman, Dan. “Native American Ethnobotany” University of Michigan Herbarium.

Norton, Helen H., Eugen S. Hunn, C. S. Martinsen, and P. B. Keely 1984. “Vegetable Food Products of the Foraging Economies of the Pacific Northwest.” Ecology of Food and Nutrition, Volume 14, pages 219-228.

Teit, James 1930. “Ethnobotany of the Thompson Indians of British Columbia.” Annual report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, US Government Printing Office, Washington DC.

Turner, Nancy J. Randy Bouchard, and Dorothy Kennedy 1980. “Ethnobotany of the Okanagan-Colville Indians of British Columbia and Washington.” Occasional Paper Series No. 21, British Columbia Provincial Museum, Victoria BC.

Turner, Nancy J., Laurence C. Thompson, M. Terry Thompson, and Annie Z. York 1990. “Thompson Ethnobotany, Knowledge and Usage of Plants by the Thompson Indians of British Columbia.” Royal British Columbia Museum Memoir No. 3. Victoria, BC.

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