By Dewayne Allday
It’s true; the edible plants our ancestors have cultivated for hundreds of years are the main ones that get placed on the kitchen table, but their “wild” edible cousins that go back thousands of years — including wild potato — will most likely remain the black sheep of the family because few see their true worth.
With all the talk of organic gardening and heirloom seeds, you’d think wild food and seeds would be at least as popular since there really isn’t any more “heirloom” than the wild cousins of modern day garden vegetables.
The surreal truth is that much of the population will happily eat genetically engineered foods without blinking an eye, but if asked by a well-known and respected forager to eat a wild plant, most get squeamish.
What if I told you there was food available that didn’t require the ground to be tilled, fertilized or watered? What if I told you that many of the weeds that you pull out of your garden and yard are more nutritious and even taste better than the neighboring vegetables? What if I told you there was a whole rainbow of nutritious and tasty flavors out there just waiting to be explored and experimented with which have histories with our ancestors going back hundreds and even thousands of years?
One such plant is wild potato vine, the wild cousin of the modern day sweet potato. The morning glory family Convolvulaceae and the morning glory genus (Ipomoea spp.) contain both the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) and the wild potato vine (Ipomoea pandurata).
Even the Irish potato (Solanum tuberosum) is a long-distance cousin of the sweet potato and the wild potato vine. All three species fall under the same order: Solanales.
Yes, a family full of various morning glories; that dreaded vine which invades your beanstalks and fencelines like an invasive weed from Hades contains a few edible species, yet many toxic ones. Luckily, it’s very easy to tell the edible ones from the inedible ones. There are actually around 68 total species of morning glory here in the United States alone but there are only around three species of morning glory, that I am aware of, worthy of human consumption. They are Ipomoea pandurata, Ipomoea batatas and Ipomoea aquaticus. Well, there are a few others with both toxic and edible parts but we will not discuss them today.
Identifying Wild Potato
Let’s keep it simple, and since you’re already familiar with the sweet potato (I. batatas), let’s look at the “wild potato vine” which is also called “man of the earth” (I. pandurata). Although the vine, leaves and flowers of this one generally aren’t considered edible, the large tuberous root is completely edible.
This particular morning glory has other common names as well, such as “big-root morning glory” or simply “morning glory.” So why does one call the wild potato vine “man of the earth” or “man root” anyway? As the name suggests, it has a very large root. The large tuberous root is just one of the numerous distinguishing characteristics that separate it from the other toxic morning glories, and if you really pay attention to the description and pictures provided, there’s absolutely no excuse for accidently harvesting the wrong plant.
Like many of the other morning glories, Ipomoea pandurata is a perennial vine with green heart-shaped leaves. The large root is the most important distinguishing characteristic.
Instead of digging up every morning glory you see, it’s much easier to look at some of the other traits that separate it from many of the other invasive and toxic morning glory species. One such trait of the edible I. pandurata is that the stems are green and some parts often having a light to dark purplish tint. The leaves are heart-shaped, and they look very similar to other morning glories including the leaves of the modern sweet potato.
Another very clear and unmistakable trait is the white funnel-shaped flowers with the telltale ruby throat. According to some sources, occasionally these funnel-shaped flowers are pure white, but I have only seen the white funnel-shaped flowers with the ruby red or reddish-purple throat.
Obviously, the proper identification of any potential edible wild plants is very important. It’s not just the identification of the plant that’s important, but the identification of the particular part of the plant that you are considering eating. Multiple identification sources for a particular edible wild plant with descriptions are very important. You have to be absolutely certain of what you’re about to eat.
If someone were to ask you what does a tomato leaf looked like would you be able to describe it to them? What about an Irish potato leaf? You also may not know that the leaves and stems of both the tomato and the Irish potato are toxic and in large quantities could poison you. A green tomato and a green potato also contain toxic glycoalkaloids. This is why identification of the plant, but also the edible parts of the plant is so important. Internet searches for this information can be hit and miss, and is therefore unreliable.
Once you find this vine, and you’re confident it is the man of the earth, lift the vine up and follow it to the base with your shovel in hand. Don’t be surprised if there are numerous vines coming out of the same root as this is not uncommon. Some roots break off into two or more trunks. Multiple vines can come off of each of these trunks and still be from the same root.
Depending on the softness of the soil, prepare for some hard digging and summertime sweat. A sharp shooter shovel works well, but can still take some time to dig up the larger roots which vary in length from 12 to 24 inches or longer.
Like most food, the younger and smaller the root, the easier on the forager’s palate.
Like a lot of edible tubers, more of the plant’s energy is stored in the root during the fall and winter months, so locating and marking the plant in summer and digging the root up in the winter gives the forager more energy to replace the calories burned while digging.
Wild Potato: In the Kitchen
Although it may appear that you need a chainsaw to cut the root into sections, a kitchen knife is all that’s required. With its heart-shaped leaves and large vertical tubers the man of the earth somewhat resembles some of the vertical wild yam species (Dioscorea spp.) which vary from edible to toxic, but are not related.
Cooking the man of the earth is similar to cooking a sweet potato. There are a few extra steps, however. The first one is to boil out any bitterness in a few changes of water — the older and bigger the root, the longer the boiling time. Boiling in excess of 30 minutes is not uncommon.
Pre-heat the oven to 400°F and bake about 40 minutes just like you would a regular domesticated sweet potato. After baking, cut off the outer bark and cut the inner-flesh into smaller strips. The strips smell like sweet potato, but they really do not taste like it. The texture reminds me of a steak, and the baked strips feel slightly sticky. You can add salt, pepper and butter just as you would with any potato.
The texture of man of the earth reminds me of meat; maybe a roast, a thick pork chop or even a steak. Edible tubers are usually one of the most nutritious parts of about any edible plant and as mentioned earlier, winter harvests provide more nutrition and calories.
Daniel Moerman states that Native Americans dried these tubers and stored them for later use. I tried this myself by cutting the root up into pieces about ¼-inch thick and then laying them in full sun, on a cast iron patio table. After all, if the Native Americans dehydrated them without a food dehydrator, then why should I use a food dehydrator? If Native Americans didn’t have a refrigerator, then why should I use one?
The final results were spectacular. The dehydrated tubers stayed dry on a shelf in my pantry for months without any mold issues. In the dehydrated state, they looked and felt just like hard wood chips, which concerned me as to their later use as food. My concerns turned to joy because around six months later, I simply put them in a bowl, added water and rehydrated them with excellent results. The roots turned soft again and the pliability and taste after rehydrating and cooking were as if it were freshly dug.
With our modern refrigerators, stoves and our dependence on the grocery store, I often think about how people survived before electricity was invented. In the history books, we see pictures of Native American men hunting wild buffalo and the women gathering wild berries, but we rarely consider how food was stored and preserved without plastic bags and freezers.
Over the last couple of decades, my interest in foraging has helped me connect the past to the present, but it also has opened up my mind and my taste buds to an entirely different and diverse menu of wild foods. Please, won’t you come and eat with me
Dewayne Allday has been harvesting and experimenting with edible wild foods in Alabama for the past 25 years. As assistant director of Appalachian Mountain Life, an environmental nonprofit, Dewayne is active in fighting for the preservation of the unique plants and animals of the Deep South. This article appeared in the June 2015 issue of Acres U.S.A.