Tucked Away Beneath The Soil In Our Community Food Forest Is A Hidden Gem: The American Groundnut. It’s A Nitrogen Fixing Vine That Is Little Known In England But Has Potential To Change The Way We Eat. Reaching Upto 6 Metres In Length, It Is One Of The Native American Three Sisters That Rarely Gets Mentioned. More On That Later. Here’s How To Grow Apios Americana.
Table of Contents
Apios Global History
Today Apios is being rediscovered. Though grown in the US for centuries it’s never taken off as a commercial crop there. Though the Japanese were already using a related species, Apios fortunei, as an emergency food when all else failed.
Plant hunter fans, please don’t be deceived by the name. This plant wasn’t introduced to western cultivation by Robert Fortune. It was named after him in 1873, by Carl Johann Maximowicz.
Sometime during the Meiji period (1868–1912) A. americana appeared in Japan. How we aren’t sure, but there are stories of it appearing in imported apple seedlings. However, that aside the Japanese now grow A. americana commercially, though on a smallish scale. The main promoter of the crop has been Dr. Kiyochika Hoshikawa supported by numerous nutritional and health claims about the plant.
Vikas Belamkar et al in Identification of Superior Germplasm and Development of Genetic Resources for Apios americana: A Potential New Legume Crop also make mention of A. americana being grown commercially in Korea. I’ve not verified this.
Although introduced to Europe as early as 1597, listed as a garden crop in 1885, and even considered as an alternative crop during the Irish potato famine of 1845, the American groundnut never gained widespread acceptance in European diets. This was primarily due to its two-year growth cycle, which didn’t fit with established European farming practices.
Apios American History
In Native American cultures the groundnut was grown by many tribes, across a wide geographic area.
Tribes like the Menomini meticulously processed and preserved them, transforming them into flavorful flour, sun-dried snacks, and syrupy delicacies. The Pilgrims, too, found solace in the groundnut’s bounty during their harsh first winters, a testament to its vital role in the tapestry of North American cuisine.
In 1612 Strachey noted the natives in Virginia ate the groundnuts with fish, berries etc. The Jesuit, Le Jeune, noted that the French called the roots Rosary, as the tubers grew like beads on a rosary.
Other tribes recorded as eating the tuber and beans of Apios include the Cree, Lenape, Iroquois, Caddoan, Sioux, Potawatomi, Chippewa and Meskwaki.
So this was. a widely grown or harvested crop, which brings me to a contentious issue. Was this, in the USA, a cultivated crop or not.
Gretchen Beardsley says not. In her 1939 paper she references Waugh who wrote “”sometimes planted in suitable locations, though they are not, strictly speaking, cultivated.”
In my view this is a question of semantics. Many crops across the globe started their domestication journey when hunter gatherers transported plant roots or seeds closer to where they lived. I’d argue that that constitutes cultivation. There are countless examples here in England where plants such as sea kale, Alexanders etc have been moved from wilder parts into the areas near habitation. Is that cultivation or just a form of hunter gathering? My answer has to be that it really doesn’t matter. The thing is they are growing and eating the plants!
The Shawnee and Three Sisters
The Three Sisters cropping of beans, corn (maize) and squash is well established. Based on the growing system developed by the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois tribe in a form of No Dig, that was then copied by many tribes.
However the Shawnee had their own version of the Three Sisters, they substituted Apios for beans to grow alongside the corn ands squash. The nitrogen from the apis serving the same as it would from beans.
Medicinal Uses Of Apios americana
Beyond delectable dishes, of which more later, the American groundnut also whispers secrets of health and sustainability. I’m always cautious about medical uses until much research has been conducted, but I’ll report what I read here.
Studies reveal its “potential” in tackling chronic diseases like diabetes and even cancer, thanks to its rich content of genistein, a powerful isoflavone.
Early research suggests the following promising benefits:
- Cancer prevention: Its isoflavones, like genistein, show potential in combating colon, prostate, and breast cancer.
- Diabetes management: Studies hint the flower may lower blood sugar, offering hope for diabetics.
- Antioxidant boost: Extracts seem to trigger the body’s antioxidant pathways, potentially aiding overall health.
- Nutrient powerhouse: High in protein (15-17%), calcium, and iron, these tubers could improve dietary deficiencies.
So far most experimentation and research has been on rats and its early days to transfer these supposed benefits to humans outside a laboratory!
How to Grow Apios americana
This is a crop that could be included in my article on 40 unusual veg to grow in the UK. But it’s one I’ve explored since writing that article. So my cultivation details are below.
Plant the tubers in moist but well-drained soil in sun or light shade in autumn or early winter, from tubers that were dug in autumn.
Plant 3-4 inches deep with 12 inches between plants. The vine will scramble over the ground but is more productive when climbing. So use other crops such as maize, or a tripod to grow them on.
Being deciduous the plants lose their leaves in autumn so need no pruning.
Pests and diseases are few with the possible exception of slugs and snails in the early stages.
The vine prefers a free drained but moist soil if possible but isn’t too fussy about pH provided it doesn’t stray too far from neutral. But as with all plants, the pH preference can be influenced by soil type and soil moisture content.
The Future of Apios Americana
While commercial cultivation remains primarily confined to Japan, whispers of revival are echoing across the globe. Research programmes are unraveling the groundnut’s genetic secrets, aiming to develop cultivars with larger yields and shorter cycle times. This renewed interest isn’t just about rediscovering a forgotten flavour, but about embracing a sustainable, nutrient-rich crop that can nourish future generations.
However, challenges remain. The groundnut’s vining habit and partial self-incompatibility (it has ploidy problems) present hurdles to large-scale production. Yet, the collective efforts of scientists, farmers, and food enthusiasts alike offer a beacon of hope. Innovative techniques like trellising and cross-pollination may hold the key to unlocking the groundnut’s full potential, paving the way for its use in cuisines around the world.
So, the next time you encounter a patch of emerald vines, in a food forest or beyond, take a moment to ponder the hidden world beneath. For within that soil might lie a forgotten treasure, waiting to be unearthed – the American groundnut, a forgotten friend with a story to tell, a “flavour to savour”, and a potential promise of a healthier, more sustainable future.
So that’s How To Grow Apios Americana. watch this space for more unusual and intriguing veg and fruit crops that grew in the UK.
The Growth of Apios (Apios americana Medikus), a New Crop, under Field Conditions – Kiyochika HOSHIKAWA
Image Attribution: Douglas Goldman, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons, Laval University, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Tag: How To Grow Apios Americana
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