Sunday, October 2, 2011

Indian Potatoes and other Native foods

Some of you will know that I have been chasing the story of Indian Potatoes around for a little while, without a lot of success in discovering what they actually are.
One of my followers told me about a place called Potato Mountain, in the Chilcotin, where Natives harvested potatoes every year and where they had special ceremonies to celebrate their harvest.
Alexander Caulfield Anderson wrote a few essays in his later years -- essays which listed the Native foods he saw in his fur trade years, mostly at Fort Alexandria, but also at Fort Colvile.
So far I have been unable to find any mention of Indian potatoes in his writings, or in those of James Anderson, his son.
But I did stumble on Potato Mountain -- the local library hosted a writer named Bruce Fraser who had just published a book of fiction called, "On Potato Mountain; a Chilcotin Mystery."
That confirmed to me that Potato Mountain did exist, and according to the map in the above mentioned book, Potato Mountain is a high ridge of land that runs north-south between the upper reaches of the Chilko River, which flows north into the Chilcotin River, and the Homathko River which runs south from Tatlayoko Lake through Waddington Canyons and into Bute Inlet on the coast north of Vancouver.
And in fact, when I look at my copy of the Canadian Board of Geographical Names (Gazetteer of Canada) for British Columbia, I find the Potato Range of mountains listed:
"Between Chilko and Tatlayoko Lakes, Range 2, Coast district."

So now that we know where the Potato Mountain is, I need to ask what kind of potatoes the Natives harvest there.
The book, On Potato Mountain, tells me this, and this statement is in the words of a Tsihlquot'in man named Antoine:
"Before my time, before Reserves, our people survive on the land and water. In summer, Tsihlquot'in fish salmon returning from sea to spawn in the streams and lakes; Chilko, Taseko, and Puntzi. They hunt deer, moose, and the caribou; pick sour berries and dig succulent roots on Potato Mountain...."

What roots? For the answer to that question, I go to the experts.
I have already told you that I never found any "potatoes" in the writings of Alexander Caulfield Anderson and his son, James Robert Anderson.
Both of these men would have been considered experts in that field, at that time at least.
But new experts have emerged; they have talked to the Natives and learned their stories and they have studied the plants that Natives used.
One such expert is a botanist named Nancy J. Turner, who is a professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Victoria and who works with the Royal British Columbia Museum staff.
She has written three or four books on ethnobotany, and one of these books is called, "Food Plants of Interior First Peoples."
In Nancy Turner's book, I am able to identify some of the plants that would have been labelled "Indian potatoes."

The Mariposa Lily (Calochortus macrocarpus Dougl.) is a member of the Lily family which also carries the name of Desert Lily, Sweet Onion, and "Wild Potato."
It is a perennial with a tapering, deep seated bulb, and striking lavender or pink three petalled flowers born singly or in pairs at the top of the plant. The plant likes dry hillsides and plains and usually grows in light sandy soil. It flourishes east of the Coast range, south of Williams Lake, in the interior Plateau and also in the Columbia and Kootenay River valleys to the east. All the interior Salish groups from the Ktunaxa (Kootenay) to the Tsilhqut'in, ate the small elongated bulbs of Mariposa Lily, which they called "Sweet Onions," or "Wild Potatoes." Generally they harvested the lily bulbs in the spring, from April to June. Nancy Turner describes the bulbs as "crisp and sweet, so people usually ate them raw.." But if enough were collected the Natives threaded and dried them, with or without steaming them first.

The Mariposa Lily might be the plant that grows on Potato Mountain, but there are other plants, including some Lilies, that are also sometimes called "Indian potato."

Yellow Avalanche Lily (Erythronium grandiflorum, Pursh), called Glacier Lily, Yellow Dog-tooth violet, Snow Lily, Indian Sweet Potato, or Indian Potato.
This lily is a perennial with an elongated, deeply buried corm-like bulb. The plant usually bears two lance-shaped leaves, pointed and tapered at the base. The flower is erect, about 15 cm. tall, bearing one or sometimes more nodding golden-yellow flowers up to 5cm across with prominent stamens and pistil. We all know what tiger lilies look like; in appearance the Avalanche Lily looks like white tiger lilies. The blooming season is from April to August, depending on the elevation. Considering that my original source also told me about "nodding potatoes," I think this plant might be the plant the Natives call Nodding Potatoes.
Avalanche Lilies grow in mountains and high valleys from Vancouver Island to the Rocky Mountains. Their slender, starchy bulbs rank with Bitter-root, wild onions, and Spring Beauty in importance as a food source for the southern interior. The Natives dig the plant in April to August, and steam them or roast them in hot ashes. To preserve the bulbs for winter they let them soften and peel and thread them on a string of twisted Red cedar bark before hanging them up to dry. In the past, these bulbs in strings were an important trading item for the Natives.

Chocolate Lilies were another bulb that the Natives ate, but it appears that these do not grow in the area around Potato Mountain, so we must ignore them for now. The Yellowbell Lily also did not grow so far north -- but the Tiger Lily did, for Alexander Caulfield Anderson described how the Natives harvested and prepared the Tiger Lily he found around Fort Alexandria. This letter was written on the 3rd September 1845, and is addressed to Sir William J. Hooker, of Kew Gardens:

"Our New Caledonian fields have already, I believe, yielded their humble treasures very liberally to poor David Douglas, who, if my memory fail me not, visited in 1833, when I was stationed elsewhere. Thus I cannot hope that my [small] collection will possess much novelty for you. The Tza-chin or edible Bitter Root of N.C. (which by the way appears to me to be nearly identical with the Tiger-Lily of our gardens) might perhaps be entitled to some little note as a bonne-bouche if cultivated in England. The mode of preparing it is either in small subterranean kilns, or by steaming until soft and mushy. It is easily raised from the seed, of which I have sent a supply; there is also some bulbs, but I fear their germinating principle will be destroyed before they reach their destination." In his manuscript, British Columbia, Anderson gives more information about the tiger lily when he says: "The natives of the latter place [Fort Alexandria] use the root as an article of food. Carefully steamed it is an excellent substitute for potato -- its flavour somewhat like that of a roasted chestnut, with a slight bitter which renders it very agreeable."

You may have noticed the 'Bitter root' word in Anderson's letter, above. Though Anderson also called the tiger-lily the 'edible bitter-root,' in this same letter he talks of another plant called spetlum, or bitter-root. The tiger lily does earn the bitter-root name Anderson gave it, however, according to Nancy J. Turner:

"Tiger Lily is a tall perennial with a white ovoid bulb, up to 5 cm. in diameter, composed of thick fleshy scales like garlic cloves." The stem is slender, the flowers are bright orange, dark spotted near the centre. The Natives used the large bulbs of Tiger Lily wherever they could find them. The flavour of the bulb was strong, peppery and bitter, and they were used like pepper or garlic to flavour foods. The Tsilhquot'in called the bulb 'beaver-stick,' and harvested the bulbs in the early spring; the Okanagan and other southern Natives harvest them in the fall.

I have mentioned two other plants: the bitter-root, and Spring Beauty. Let me now tell you what they are, from Nancy J. Turner's "Food Plants of Interior First Peoples."

Bitter-root "is a low stemless perennial arising from a branching deep-seated fleshy taproot, which is grey-skinned with a white inner core that may turn pink on exposure to the air." The plant grows in the driest areas of the B.C. interior, and is now considered rare. But to the Okanagan and the Thompson River Natives, this plant was the most important of all the edible roots. Amongst its other names is the name, 'spatlum' -- almost the same name that Anderson quoted to Hooker one hundred and fifty years ago! However, this plant does not grow in the Chilcotin district and will not be the one of the potato-type plants that grow on Potato Mountain.

Spring Beauty -- However, the Spring Beauty could be one of the Indian potatoes harvested on Potato Mountain. The Spring Beauty is a perennial that grows 5 to 15 cm. tall with one or more stems arising from a shallow corm which might be 5 cm or more in diameter. The corm is brown-skinned and white inside, and the flowers are usually white with five petals and two broad sepals about a centimeter or more wide. The plant grows in dry sagebrush hills, usually at higher elevations in the central and southern part of the province on both sides of the Cascade Mountains. The Tsilhquot'in people certainly ate this plant in large quantities. They dug up the corms after the plants had flowered, from late May to late June depending on the elevation. The corms are not deeply buried, and Natives used a short digging stick to pry them out of the earth, replanting the smaller corms to allow them to develop. They cooked the corms by steaming them, or washed them and boiled them like potatoes. In fact, Spring Beauty resembles potatoes in flavour but are a little sweeter. These Indian potatoes could also be harvested in the autumn, and are said to be sweeter at this time.

I think I am satisfied that the Indian potatoes that grow on Potato Mountain are not potatoes -- as we know them -- but lilies or other bulb/corm producing wild plants.
I don't know if any of my readers are interested in the descriptions of the plants the Natives used, or that Anderson wrote about.
If so, let me know. I have lots of information on this particular subject and can wander for hours through the edible meadows that belonged to the Natives who lived around Fort Alexandria or in the southern regions of the province -- especially now that I have Nancy J. Turner's book and can more readily identify the plants and flowers that Anderson spoke of so often.


  1. "Wapato" -- Sagittaria latifolia is a plant found in shallow wetlands and is sometimes known as broadleaf arrowhead, duck potato, Indian potato, or wapato. This plant produces edible tubers that were extensively used by the Indigenous peoples of the Americas, esp the Chinook of the Lower Columbia River living around what is now Ridgefield, WA. see:

  2. Yes, we knew about these plants but I did not include them in the listing; perhaps I should. They grew or grow around Pitt Lake, lower Fraser River. I don't know if they grow in the interior of BC. Thanks; will check the website.