The Sagittaria latifolia a.k.a. duck or Indian potato is an aqueous plant growing in water or very wet soil throughout North America. According to literature the plant was a primary food source for natives, before the coming of the more popular tuber, Solanum tuberosum, or the common potato.
After spotting a stand of the arrow-shaped foilage in a nearby pond, I attempted a bit of online research. There is very little in the way of telling one how to harvest the tuber, but I was guided to one article by a fellow forager written by John Kallas in which he tells of a wapato gathering experience on Wapato Island in Oregon.
The article is an excellent reference, because it tells how the tuber was gathered traditionally and how the author managed to uproot it.
I envisioned native women stomping around in small circular motions, smiling, conversing about family while little tubers popped up everywhere around them. With barely a wink, they would pop the tubers into backpacks while tending to small children and making stamping motions in the wet clay beneath their feet.
Traditionally the tuber was gathered by wading into shallow water and displaced by stomping. Kallas explains that the continual stomping loosens the root (which is naturally buoyant) and once it becomes loosened, the continual stomping breaks it free from whatever else is holding it down.
The first day Jack and I went out, I mistakenly held the notion that a little stomping would pay off with great bounty. I could stomp, maybe wiggle my feet a bit and tubers would begin to rise and I would have a tasty side-dish for the evening meal.
Instead, the water was freezing and it took some time and courage wondering if there were water snakes (possibly cottonmouths) in this particular pond. I used a broken limb to poke around in the water a bit and thought that maybe I could get something that way, but quickly realized if the tubers floated upward, I would still have to wade in to obtain them.
Finally I did wade in just barely above my ankle and Jack reacted immediately. I’m not sure what he thought I was doing, but he began barking in a high screeched tone that made me think (initially) that he knew something I didn’t. I came back out of the water and sharpened my eye, looking for the cottonmouth.
After I assured myself there were no such creatures in the muck, I went back in again. I was not barefoot. I didn’t know what was in the pond, so decided to keep the shoes. It didn’t take long for the shoes to accumulate gravel and in combination with my stomping activity, there was an uncomfortable feeling of small pebbles nicking at my tender feet.
I first stomped about a foot away from where the plant was emerging from the water in a circular motion for approximately twenty minutes with no results. I then decided to expand the area I was working in and started depth testing with a fallen stick I had found.
In an area approximately three feet wide and three feet in length I stomped. An hour passed and resulted in nothing but pressed clay under my feet.
I quit for the day, resolving to find another way.
The second day was much of the same, but I didn’t stay quite as long. And since then, I’ve read that an easier harvesting method, and one probably much preferred, is to dig the darn things out.
I will get the wapato. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but soon.