Monday, August 20, 2012

LOOK FOR: Katniss (a.k.a. Wapato, Duck Potato, Arrowhead, Sagittaria)

I finally got around to reading The Hunger Games this summer. The main character, Katniss, has grown up hunting and foraging in Appalachia, which turns out to be a real asset when she is forced to spend weeks fighting to the death with other teenagers in a large expanse of forest. I haven't read a novel with so much foraging in it since My Side of the Mountain.

Photo credit: Jerry Oldnettel
But it drove me crazy that I didn't know one of the main vegetables she relies on: katniss. When she was a child, Katniss's father told her: As long as you can find yourself, you'll never starve.

I was too engrossed to put the book down and look it up, but as the story went on katniss sure sounded a heck of a lot like a plant I know by three other names: wapato, duck potato, or arrowhead (for some reason "duck potato" always comes to mind first -- what a great name!).

This abundance of names is why botanists like Latin names (in this case, Sagittaria). It's not just to be arcane: they help make sure we're all talking about the same plant.

And sure enough, katniss is an Algonquin name for Sagittaria. It's another nice link to the main character: she's not just a forager, but an expert archer -- just like Sagittarius.
And you can see from the leaf how the plant got its name:

Photo credit: Tom Brandt
The USDA plants database lists 10 different species of Sagittaria as growing in the mid-Atlantic. They've all got arrowhead-shaped leaves -- some skinner than others.

There are other wetland plants with arrow-shaped leaves, but you can tell Saggitaria from its beautiful vein pattern: all veins starting from a single point at the stem, with some pointing down to end in the pointy bottoms of the arrowhead.

Sagittaria was cultivated by native people of North America for its tubers, which are also eaten by ducks, geese, and muskrats. Sam Thayer gives an extensive account of how to find and harvest the tubers in his excellent book The Forager's Harvest.

In some parts of North America (including Sam Thayer's Wisconsin) there are wetlands with acres of Saggitaria growing in clean water, just begging to be eaten. The Washington, DC metro area is not in that category. All of our water is polluted, and while Saggitaria is growing somewhere in most wetlands I've visited, it is not abundant. It's just not realistic to get up your hopes of responsibly foraging for katniss in our area.

But you can find it, and appreciate knowing the connection to foragers in centuries past...and in the futuristic world of the Hunger Games.

In the wild: There's quite a bit of Saggitaria growing in the C&O Canal between the westernmost parking lot at Carderock and the Marsden Tract Campground (map). I'd love to hear about other patches!

In your yard: We've had a single Sagittaria growing in our pond for a few years...the leaves are smaller than in the wild, possibly because it wants deeper mud to form bigger tubers? We haven't mucked around in the water to figure out what's going on. Right now I'm just enjoying the lovely flowers!
Wapato is in Bloom
Photo credit: Tom Brandt