Whoopee for Wapato!

With the amount of rain we've been having lately, the soil here can truly be described as saturated. Not all root crops enjoy these conditions - most don't; over the years I've lost oca, mashua and ulluco plants to soggy soil and rain rot.

Soil at Oca Acres tends to be on the heavy side anyway and so rather than bemoan this misfortune, perhaps it's time to embrace its wet and watery tendencies and grow plants that actually enjoy these conditions. Or maybe that's the best way to ensure we have a drought next year.

In fact, the aquatic environment provides a number of useful foods of a rooty persuasion. I may post about some others in the future, but for now I'll concentrate on one of my favourites: the wapato (Sagittaria latifolia). Wapato is the Chinook Jargon term for this North American arrowhead species, which can be distinguished from our native plant (S. sagittifolia) by the golden bosses in the centres of its white three-petalled flowers; S. sagittifolia has a dark eye. Both species have characteristically  arrowhead-shaped leaves. Wapato is now quite widely available as an ornamental from aquatic nurseries in the UK and I have seen it naturalised on several occasions. Bear this in mind when you grow your own plants and don't allow it to escape.  Nutrient rich, slow moving water is what it likes and where conditions are suitable, large colonies form. You have been warned.

The plants overwinter as small tubers, technically referred to as turions. These have the obliging characteristic of floating to the surface when severed from their runners. First Nations women used to collect them in the autumn by wading chest-deep into lakes with a canoe by their side. They would loosen them from the mud with their toes and scoop the bobbing harvest into the canoe. Some people get all the fun jobs.  

Cruising up Highway 101 from San Diego to Olympia WA sounds like the storyline from  pretty good road movie. It was certainly picturesque as the cliffs, dunes and tall trees rolled by.  The main problem was the necessity I felt to pull over at every likely looking body of water to hunt for wapato - it was hard to get up the proper momentum for such a long haul and my travelling companion became a little tired of my antics. Worst of all, I am ashamed to say that over a stretch of more than one thousand miles, I failed to locate a single wapato plant. Still, those redwoods weren't bad.....

Back in the days when I was a bona fide seed merchant, I imported some wapato tubers from Wisconsin, where they are sold as game food for waterfowl: duck potato is yet another of their names. I'm still unsure what the UK plant health authorities thought about a bag of muddy arrowhead roots with organism-filled ooze entering the UK, but I received their official blessing nonetheless.

So what are they like as a food? Surprisingly good, which explains why they were widely traded over a large area by native peoples. They are usually peeled and cooked before eating and prepared in this way have a slightly mealy, granular quality that soaks up the flavours of whatever sauce they're sitting in. And various forms of S. sagittifolia and S. trifolia have a long history of cultivation in China and other East Asian countries. In the beatnik-botanical peregrination described above, we stopped off in Chinatown, San Francisco for oriental arrowhead tubers. Despite extensive searching in a number of shops and supermarkets, we drew a complete blank. Eating bucket-sized portions of Ben and Jerry's while strolling through Haight-Ashbury helped make this disappointment easier to bear.

As for dimensions, my wapato tubers have always been on the small size of useful, although I have had ones approaching the magnitude of a golf ball on occasions.  A good hot summer and plenty of nutrients will probably help to fill them out; the latter I can do something about, but the former is currently beyond my control.

So, armed with this knowledge and back story, this spring I decided to put an end to the duck potato deficit of the last decade and welcome wapato back onto our plot. I obtained three turions and planted them in a watertight container filled with some silty soil I had collected from a nearby stream.  I kept the container topped up and watched as the first thin leaves pushed through the mud, pierced the water's surface and unfurled their trademark leaves.

After a while I became slightly concerned that the leaves were more angustifolia than latifolia - narrow, not broadleaved, gracile rather than robust. This I took to be an indication of nutrient deficiency.  I rectified it by adding some liquid feed in a time-honoured manner, the details of which are available on application. The plants responded rapidly to my fertilisation activities and their leaves grew broader and more lustrous. As well they might: Sagittaria species have been used to purify eutrophicated water prior to its discharge into rivers and lakes.

The invigorated plants went on to throw up more leaves and shoots, although the slugs seemed to enjoy grazing off any leaves that they could reach.

 In late summer, the flowers appeared. Wapato reproductive biology seems a little complicated, with some plants being dioecious (male and female on separate individuals) and others monoecious (male and female plants on the same individual).  My plants proved to be dioecious, with both male and female plants present.  This is a good thing because it means that in future I'll be able to collect the seeds, select the progeny and produce a brand new improved wapato for our conditions. That's what I tell myself, when, like the wapato tubers, I'm feeling in a buoyant mood. It may even be true.

As the autumn progressed and turned into early winter, the plants decayed away to nothing.  I knew it was time to harvest. The water was freezing and the smell not pleasant. I was not keen, but it had to be done - I thrust my hands into the mud and loosened the tubers, which floated to the surface just like they were supposed to. After the harvest, as I waited for the feeling to return to my fingers, I counted my self lucky that it was my digits of my hands and not the phalanges of my feet I was using.

Although the tubers were fairly small, there were lots of them. Not a bad return on the three I had planted in the spring - enough to eat and plenty to plant. Welcome back, Wapato.


Catofstripes said…
Good haul from a start of three. I think these would grow well with me, I have just the place for them but I fear it catches the outflow from the septic tank and although that wouldn't bother the plants it makes me feel a bit icky.
Ian Pearson said…
Ah!, I have a two stage aerobic digester flowing on to three acres of wetland. Very wetland this year!

Sounds like just the thing.
orflo said…
I have sag. trifolia, imported from Japan a few years ago, where it seems to be eaten only in the Christmas/Newyear period. The plants grow fine, but the tubers don't size up really, they are about half of the size of the tubers that came in originally. Perhaps they need more warmth over here to become bigger? You can also eat the young green leaves, flower stalks (although mine never flower...)
Cabra Marron said…
could I use your photos of tubers in a slide presentation I am doing in st. louis?
Rhizowen said…
Go ahead Cabra, as long as you credit me.
G. Tingey said…
How do you cook these?
I have been growing S saggitifolia in a tub for some years ....