Despite the fact that we have been living here since 2004, I am happy to report that there are still botanical surprises at Hackberry Point. Over the weekend David Arnold, who is helping me in the garden this year, left a cutting and a brief note on my doorstep. “Barbara, What is it? David.” I could tell right away that the plant was a member of the pea family, Fabaceae, but beyond that, it wasn’t familiar. Furthermore, I was astounded that I hadn’t seen it first, and I had to call him back to find out where the plant was growing.
It turns out it was along the edge of the creek, just next to where our dock extends out over the water. After taking some pictures, I delved into my native plant books. I finally found a cool on-line key to pea family plants that helped me identify it. I determined that my new native plant was Apios americana, commonly called groundnut or potato bean.
Above: Groundnut (Apios americana)
The pinkish maroon flowers resemble miniature wisteria blooms. They look like tiny reddish replicas of the native America wisteria (Wisteria frutescens), which has more rounded bloom clusters than the non-native oriental species. Groundnut flower clusters are 1 to 2 inches long and wide. Sources say the flowers are fragrant, although I couldn’t detect any scent. (I’ll keep trying on this point.)
The plants prefer sites with wet soil, which explains their location along the creek. Since I walk by the site frequently to go out onto the dock, I can’t imagine how I missed them in previous years, especially since they produce flowers in August. I wonder if tubers or seeds floated in from somewhere else and this year for the first time the vines conquered the tangle of grapes, phragmites, and shrubs at the water’s edge.
Above: Groundnut climbing phragmites.
Groundnut grows from edible tubers, and were an important source of food for native Americans and early settlers. Since tubers form slowly, they haven’t become a popular cultivated crop. For more information on ground nuts, Orion Magazine posted an excellent article by Tamara Dean. For a more detailed botanical description, see the page on this species in Climbers.
Groundnuts also aren’t popular garden plants because they are too rampant for most garden situations. Mine seem to be happy competing side-by-side with thugs like phragmites. I’ll continue to look for more spots in the wild garden where I could plant them. While I doubt I’ll be able to find tubers because of the density of the plantings along the creek, I do plan to save seed this fall. E-mail me privately if you are interested in getting seed to start your own patch.