American Groundnuts: Another Perennial Vegetable Worth Trying
by Tom Gibson
American groundnuts (Apios Americana) were a staple of Native American diets, particularly in New England. Not to be confused with African groundnuts (good old “peanuts!”), Native American groundnuts grow much thicker than their African namesake. I’ve harvested Apios Americana tubers as big as 3 inches in diameter.
As plants, they offer several advantages. They’re native and all that implies for supporting native pollinators. They’re easy to plant and require no maintenance thereafter. And, they’re a legume, which means they fix and add nitrogen to your garden. The groundnut vines emerge with the onset of hot weather in June and shoot up rapidly any near-by trellis or bush. I‘ve seen them climb 10 feet or more in a summer, and I bet they could grow taller yet.
If nothing in your seedling’s vicinity is growing higher, though, the little vines just sit there, a few inches long, and sulk. Think of them as the very definition of a companion plant and a natural fit to permaculture gardening.
But, as is always the case with unfamiliar perennial fruits and vegetables, how the heck do you eat them? (I think harvesting and eating may be the single highest barrier to permaculture gardening—cited both by famous permaculturists like Ben Falk and Eric Toensmeier and experienced every year by unknown, everyday permaculture gardeners like me!)
It’s always best if there’s a simple, no-fuss way to eat and enjoy something new. Fortunately, for groundnuts there is. Simply slice the tuber thinly, fry, salt, and eat. They’re better—at least to a non-fast-food addict—than French fries. They have 3 times the protein content of potatoes and their nutty taste reflects it.
For a more complicated recipe, I plan to try this bean dip from the website hunter-angler- gardener-cook (http://honest-food.net/2014/02/13/harvesting-eating-american-groundnuts/) and designated by another name for groundnuts: “hopniss.”
Photo by Hank Shaw
Make only enough you think you will eat in one or two sittings because hopniss tightens up a lot once you put it in the fridge. You can loosen it with a little vinegar or water, though.
Serves 4 as a dip.
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 35 minutes
- 1/2 pound hopniss tubers, peeled
- 3 to 5 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup high-quality olive oil
- 2 to 3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
- Black pepper
- Boil the hopniss tubers until they are soft enough to mash, about 35 minutes. Drain and mash roughly in the pot.
- While the hopniss is cooking, mash the garlic with the salt in a mortar. Add a little olive oil and mash to emulsify it. Pound in the mashed hopniss until well combined. You will notice that hopniss is more fibrous than potatoes. It’s mostly visual.
- Mix in the olive oil and vinegar to taste. You want a very loose mashed potato, or a nice dip consistency. If it’s too tight, add a little water. Grind black pepper over the skordalia when you are ready and serve with bread or on crackers.
Downsides? Yes, there can be, especially if, as I did, make the less-than-smart decision to plant groundnuts in among my raspberries. I thought I’d nicely stack functions on the same piece of land—groundnuts and nitrogen production under the ground and nitrogen-hungry raspberries and fruit above. But the groundnut tubers can be hard to extract from raspberry roots and, besides, there are those thorny canes around which to maneuver! (The extra nitrogen, at least, contributes to solid raspberry production.)
Instead, I’ve decided to shift my planting focus to combining groundnuts and elderberry bushes. Not only do the 12 foot high elderberry bushes give Apios Americana ample room to spread, they reflect the natural growing habits of both plants. In natural settings the two often grow together. The elderberry roots are also easier to negotiate when digging for ground nuts.
Sourcing: I’ve had good luck with the groundnuts I’ve bought online from Oikos Tree Crops. (https://oikostreecrops.com/?gclid=CjwKEAjw8da8BRDssvyH8uPEgnoSJABJmwYosPybuDNApIvKQ-x-FA2wR4fdPYWMI99YaoFKA4hIqhoCwsjw_wcB)