Friday, June 13, 2008
Indian Cucumber Root
The lilies of the field have their famous spokesperson but the lilies of the woods are glorious too, although on a less Solomonesque scale. Some of the woodland members of the lily family – like Solomon’s Seal and false Solomon’s Seal – bear Solomon’s name, but today’s topic, the Indian Cucumber Root, has quite different connections.
Name. The Indian Cucumber Root is a native American plant and a member of the lily family. The common name refers to its edible root and its reputation for having been a food source for native Americans. The scientific name is Medeola virginiana where Medeola commemorates the mythical sorceress Medea. The plant was named for Medea because it was thought to have medicinal if not magical properties. The suffix -ola means diminutive or less than.
The powerful and ruthless Medea would probably not be happy to see her name used in this kind of association. She would be more pleased with a poisonous plant, which the Indian Cucumber Root is not. It grows in eastern North America from Quebec to Florida, and I’m guessing it is called virginiana because of the possibility that it first became known in Europe from the settlers in Virginia.
When and where found. It is flowering now in the Estabrook Woods along the Rockstrom Trail and in the Greenough Woods. The flowers are not easy to spot because they are covered by the upper leaves. It is worth learning to recognize the plant by its leaf arrangement, so that in mid-June you can look under the leaves and see the flowers.
Description. Indian Cucumber Root is usually about 15 to 18 inches tall. One of my books says that it reaches three feet, but I have rarely seen one even two feet tall. It has a single stem with one or two whorls of leaves. If the plant is going to flower, it will have two widely separated whorls of leaves, and if not flowering this year it will have only the first whorl. The lower, or first, whorl has five to nine leaves and the upper whorl has three to five. The lower leaves are about twice as long as the upper ones. Young plants with a single whorl of leaves look similar to the Star Flower (Biodiversity Corner, May 30, 2008), but the leaves are larger.
The flower buds form at the center of the upper whorl of leaves, and as they open, they hang below the leaves. The flowers are small but striking. The greenish-yellow petals curl back as in the garden variety tiger lily and the Turk’s-cap lily. There are six prominent stamens and the style is divided into three long, spidery parts that extend far beyond the spread of the petals.
In the fall you may notice the purple-black berries, one from each flower. As the berries ripen, their stalks straighten out and stand up so the berries now sit above the top whorl of leaves.
Edibility. Many members of the lily family are edible. Onions and asparagus are good examples. The root, or more accurately the rhizome, of the Indian Cucumber Root is edible and tastes a bit like cucumber. The plant is not endangered in Massachusetts but it is in some states and is of special concern in others. In Carlisle it is not plentiful and should definitely not be sacrificed for eating. Also, the far-reaching might of Medea should not be trifled with. She is vengeful and may have ways of striking back at thoughtless people who would wantonly eat her namesake’s roots – and also at mindless people who cut down Christmas trees. ∆
Sources. Common Wildflowers of the Northeastern United States, Carol H. Woodward & Harold William Rickett; Newcombe’s Wildflower Guide, Lawrence Newcomb; Wyman’s Gardening Encyclopedia, Donald Wyman.
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito