Not Just Another Weedy Native! Before there were russets, Yukon golds and French fries, there was yampah! Yampah (Perideridia spp.) is a rather weedy, grass-like plant that has a limited attraction as an addition to your front yard. Nevertheless, it was a valuable plant for the indigenous peoples of California, and it is an important pollinator plant too.
While the leaves are tender and completely edible, and are said to taste like a mild asparagus, it is the underground part of the plant that was most important. The plant forms tubers, which are actually swollen underground stems, out of which grow the roots, exactly as potatoes do. Like the “eyes” of potatoes, the tubers also possess buds which will form the leafy part of next season’s plants. The tubers store nutrients during the dormant season, food for the plant during its next growing season in the winter and spring.
Yampah is a member of the parsley family (Apiaceae, formerly Umbelliferae). Its white, lacy flowers closely resemble those of carrots and parsley that have been allowed to go unharvested, but also those of the common wildflower Queen Anne’s Lace (Daucus carota), and of the acutely toxic poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) which was used in ancient Greece to execute prisoners, as well as the the philosopher Socrates who had been condemned to death for “corrupting youth”. No such fear from yampah — when the flowers are ripe, I enjoy plucking and sampling the seeds, which taste like carrots to me. It is also called wild celery, wild caraway and white anise.
There are several species of yampah which grow in California, and they differ in terms of the size and usefulness of their tubers. The most widely valued variety appears to be Perideridia gairdneri (the species we have at the Granada Native Garden is P. kelloggii). Native American villages were sometimes set up near fields of yampah. The tubers, sometimes known as “Indian potatoes”, were harvested by the sackful in late summer when the leaves have died back, and kept on hand for winter use. Small bulbs were left behind to produce a crop the following year. While the production of yampah was managed to suit the needs of the village, in some cases the demand for the tubers was great enough that they might have been over-harvested to the point of extinction. Unfortunately, the cherished fields of yampah, along with grasses and root crops valued by the Native Americans for food, medicine and cultural items, were ravaged by the cattle and sheep brought in by prospectors and settlers. The loss of this resource is believed to have prompted some Indian tribes to attack stage coaches and the Pony Express for their livelihood.
Yampah In Your Kitchen Potato peelers had not been invented yet, so the skins were removed from the tubers either by placing them in water and tramping on them with bare feet, or by agitating them in special baskets with rough interiors. Then they were roasted, baked or steamed and eaten like potatoes, or even raw. They are reported to be crunchy and mildly sweet, like water chestnuts. Sometimes the roots were dried and then ground into flour for baking, or mixed with grains as an ingredient in cereals or cakes. The tubers are rich in carbohydrates that are rapidly assimilated by the body and were used by hunters and runners as a high energy food to enhance physical endurance.
For a contemporary presentation of yampah, consider this creation described more fully in http://arcadianabe.blogspot.com/2012/06/yampa-more-than-taste.html :
“Shin cleaned, peeled, and steamed the yampah. He garnished the yampah with chili pepper-infused Lummi Island sea salt, a garlic-soy sauce reduction, pickled grape leaves, fresh nodding onion (Allium cernuum) bulbs, cranberry spinach salad, and a handful of dried dates. Our steamed yampah had all the flavor of a parsnip with the soft granular texture of a baked potato.”
The seeds are useful too. Having a flavor variously described as tasting like carrot, caraway, anise or parsley, they were used as a seasoning for porridges and pinoles.
Yampah in Your Garden In the garden or in the wild, yampah is an important pollinator plant for a wide variety of insects, as well as a host plant for the anise swallowtail, which favors plants in the Apiaceae family.
Yampah Had Medical Uses Too Like so many other native plants, yampah was found by Native Americans to be useful for a number of bodily ills. The roots were said to ease stomach discomfort and act as a mild laxative. An infusion of the roots was used to wash sores and wounds, and to clear mucus from the nose or throat. A poultice of the roots could be used to draw inflammation from swellings. The slowly chewed root was said to ease sore throats and coughs. The seeds helped to ease indigestion and stomach aches. A poultice of the seeds could be used to treat bruises. Our modern potatoes aren’t nearly as versatile as yampah!
Quote du Jour “The famous horticulturist Luther Burbank spoke of the abundance of yampah: ‘There are places where the plant grows almost like grass, so that hardly a shovelful of dirt can be turned over without exposing numerous roots.“ From M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild, p. 241
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