16 September 2009

Spring bounty in the high country

This past May, with the the snow disappearing quickly from the high country, I spent some time harvesting two plants that provided a major supplement to the largely meat diets of some of the tribes that lived in the Central and Northern Rockies.

Spring beauty and avalanche lily are two starchy-rooted plants that were collected in great quantities in the past.

Spring beauty (Claytonia virginica) is a relative of the also-edible purslane, and is widely distributed throughout the continental US, appearing in the mountains of Colorado, on Oklahoma prairies, and in various places along the East Coast, to name a few areas of its range. All parts of the plant are edible and tasty, the succulent leaves and stems providing a tasty snack when hiking, but the most valuable food source coming from their enlarged, starchy corms that resemble new potatoes in appearance, flavor and nutrition. They can be eaten raw, but are best boiled first for a few minutes.

The roots are best dug in the spring shortly after the plants have emerged, as at lower elevations they sprout, bloom and die back before the heat of summer really sets in, leaving them difficult to locate later in the year. Up high, the leaves sometimes persist through the summer.

Several of the mountain tribes would make annual expeditions to high meadows where the women and children would spend a week or more digging and drying these roots, each ending up with a good twenty or thirty pounds of the roots! (Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples, Harriet V. Kuhnlein, p. 227)

Avalanche lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum) have large, starchy roots that were harvested in great quantity by the Blackfoot, Flathead and other tribes, and slowly roasted in pits to convert their poorly digestible sugars (mostly inulin) to fructose, before drying for the winter. These dried roots, often eaten cooked up into a soup with dried serviceberries, deer fat and spring beauty corms, were an important winter food source, as well as a valuable trade item. Very often, these two plants grow side by side in the alpine meadows around here.

This spring I went up to an area of high meadows and open aspen forests from which the snow had melted off only a week or two prior, and found the ground carpeted with the yellow blooms of the lilies and dotted with spring beauty blooms, acre after acre! I spent some time digging the roots of both plants.

Lily roots, stems, leaves and blossom
An old elk rib, found on site, turned out to be a nearly ideal digging tool.

Spring beauty corms--just like potatoes…

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