Today’s PEI plant is not only beautiful, edible and medicinal, it’s been used extensively by First Nations peoples for thousands of years. This is Groundnut (Apios americana).
I first met Groundnut in 1999, while doing botanical work on Lennox Island at the request of the community. At that time, Groundnut wasn’t on the official list of PEI’s plants (the result of a gap between Indigenous traditional and Western scientific knowledge). Coincidentally, I had recently been reading the 1846 writings of Maritime geologist (and inventor of kerosene) Abraham Gesner.
Gesner was on PEI looking for edible plants that might substitute for the blight-stricken potato and ease the mass starvation resulting from the Irish potato famine. He wrote that the Mi’kmaq showed him a plant they called ‘saa-gaa-ban’ (his interpretation) and, from his written description, I suspected it was Groundnut. As a result, I was very excited to see this plant for the first time, confirm it was what Gesner had written about, and add it to our documented flora!
A better representation of the plant’s Mi’kmaq name is Sipekn. The region of Sipekne’katik - home to the Sipekne’katik First Nation in Hants County, Nova Scotia - was named for the abundance of this important plant. Sipekn / Groundnut is a member of the Pea Family (Fabaceae) with edible fruit very much like peas, and edible, potato-like roots.
Importantly, the roots are high in protein, fat, iron and calcium, and store well over the winter. They were not only cooked and eaten, but also processed into flour used to make bread, and applied externally to heal skin wounds. Modern research has confirmed this plant’s anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic effects, and research is ongoing into Groundnut’s potential in both kitchens and pharmacies.
While Groundnut is often abundant where found, it’s only known from a handful of sites on the Island and so is considered very rare in this province. It’s much more common on the mainland, and may well have been brought across the Strait intentionally thousands of years ago.
This beautiful perennial vine is one of my favourite native species, and is flowering now. A very cool PEI plant!