What is a Ground Nut?
Hint: It's NOT a peanut.
The Ground Nut, first of all, is a plant. It's a climbing vine, a member of the pea family and distantly related to the soybean. It gets its name from the bulb-like tubers that grow on it's slender roots. These can be as small as a Pine Nut to as large as an avacado. These are the so-called Ground Nuts. They were a major food source for the early Native Americans and served essentially as their potato. Like the potatoes we know today they have a brown skin and, once peeled, they are white and firm inside. They can be eaten raw but are best cooked, either by boiling or roasting. They have a very mild flavor and can be a nutritious addition to soups and stews. According to the USDA they contain about three times the protein of the potatoes in common use today. The Native Americans taught the early colonists how to utilize the Ground Nut as a food source and they were undoubtably a part of the first Thanksgiving. The early settlers in Western Massachusetts considered the Ground Nut so important a food source that one town passed a law prohibiting Native Americans from digging them on lands owned by the colonists. In Eastern Long Island they were so popular that the name of much of that area is named after Sagapon, the Shinnecock (the indiginous Eastern Long Island Native American tribe) name for the Ground Nut plant.
The plant is a climbing vine that develops pinkish-lavender and maroon flowers which form in clusters that appear in mid to late August. It can also produce pea pods just below the flowers and these pods are also edible. These "pea pods" can be dried to produce seeds. Most Ground Nut plants though, in areas approximately north of New York City are propagated via their root systems and the Ground Nut tubers. Each tuber, even very small ones, will produce a new plant. The maturity of a plant can be roughly determined by the number of leaves on a leaflet. Young first year plants will have 3-5 leaves on a stem. Very mature plants may have up to nine leaves on a stem. The mature, well established plants will also have much thicker vines and larger leaves. Ground Nut leaves will open up to catch the sun and fold up if there is too much sun. At evening time when sunlight is waning the leaves will hang down to catch all the light available. Also during a heavy rain the leaves will hang down to offer less resistance. The plant is also very photo-tropic, and when newly sprouted it will use this feature to search it's immediate area to find something to climb on such as a branch of another plant or a pole it can wind around in order to climb and get more sun exposure.
The Ground Nut is an aboriginal plant to the United States and it's remnants have been found in archaeological digs of Native American campsites in southern New England that go back 9,000 years. It's habitat ranges from northern New England to Florida and even Texas, and from the east coast to across the Mississippi. It does not seem to be native to the west coast of the US but we now have many customers there who are growing them with great success...
If you do a search on the Internet for the Ground Nut you will find many references that are actually talking about the peanut which apparently is also known as a Ground Nut in much of the world. This is an entirely different plant and not at all related to the apios americana/tuberosa. The Ground Nut was originally known as apios americana due to it's aboriginal American origin. Then other writers began using the name apios tuberosa and this name became prevalent for a long time until about twenty years ago. Now the name apios americana has re-emerged and this is now the most common modern appellation.
I first encountered the existence of the Ground Nut in Mary Rowlandson's captivity narrative but she doesn't explain what she means by a Ground Nut. She says the Indians gave her some Ground Nuts to eat but what did that mean? Were they nuts they found on the ground? Acorns? Ground up nuts? It was a few years before I discovered, in another old book, that it was a plant and the book fortunately gave the latin name as apios tuberosa so I could look it up. As it turns out, the plant has it's own fascinating history apart from Mary Rowlandson. You can read about that in either my book "The Mary Rowlandson Story", which includes her captivity narrative, or in a separate pamphlet completely devoted to the Ground Nut. The book or pamphlet cover essentially everything you need to know about the Ground Nut: where to find them in the wild, how and when to harvest them, how to cook them and how to grow them.
If you like you can even contact me to purchase some Ground Nuts which you can grow. This way you can create your own Ground Nut garden without having to go out in the woods and risk getting poison ivy. This is a real possibility since Ground Nuts and poison ivy tend to grow together in the same area. In the early spring before the Ground Nut tubers begin to sprout is generally considered the best time to harvest them for a spring planting. But use heavy gloves, don't dig with your bare hands. Unfortunately poison ivy roots are reported to be a thousand times more powerful than the leaves and if you come in contact with them you can end up in the emergency room with a systemic poisen ivy reaction. This actually happened to my artist-illustrator Terrie, but that's another story. Her illustration of the Ground Nut plant is now part of a permanent exhibit at the Montauk Point Lighthouse Museum at the very eastern tip of Long Island, New York.
We are now taking orders for Ground Nut bulbs and plants. Each year the demand has greatly increased. The number we have for sale is limited. So it's best to reserve yours as soon as possible. Tubers (the bulbs that are otherwise known as the ground nuts) will be shipped starting in April or whenever the spring weather permits. At some point we will switch over from selling bulbs to selling young plants. Any extra bulbs we have left after our initial orders are filled are planted in starter pots. There is a brief delay until they sprout and then we can resume sales. At this point we will be shipping live plants. Same price, same deal, purchase two or more and get free shipping. By the following fall each new plant should produce about 10 new bulb-like tubers depending on how it develops over the course of it's growing season. For food purposes, it is best to allow the plant to mature for at least three years to develop tubers large enough for cooking. It is also very strongly advised to grow your Ground Nuts in an above ground container garden. This is the only practical way to grow Ground Nuts. This method also has the benefit of effectively increasing your growing season by at least a month or more which means more and larger Ground Nuts to eat. It's also much much easier to work on your raised bed container garden, no stooping, bending or crawling around on the ground. Also, your plants will be protected from hungry critters and problem insects.
For planting purposes, we harvest our bulbs/tubers in the early spring as soon as the ground can be worked, for eating purposes the Ground Nuts are harvested in the fall after the first frost has killed off the plant above the ground. For further information on all aspects of growing Ground Nuts successfully we recommend our newly revised pamphlet. You can also email us your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. I believe we are the only supplier to also provide our customers with year round "Nutty" Tech Support on all aspects of growing Ground Nuts.