Indian Potato (Hedysarum alpinum, H. hedysaroides)
Bear Root (Hedysarum mackenzii)
Other Names: Eskimo potato, masru, Alaska carrot, licorice root (H. alpinum; H. hedysaroides); Wild sweetpea (Hedysarum mackenzii).
Pea Family: (Leguminosae).
Bear Root Physical Description: Hedysarum mackenzii (PICTURED ABOVE) a: grows to 2 1/2 feet; b: showy reddish-purple flowers that are arranged in clusters (racemes); c: pods (loments) are hairy, cross-veined, and have 3 to 8 joints; d: undersides of leaves are whitish and felty. Veins are hidden. Roots are inedible and can cause severe digestive upset. This species is regarded as poisonous.
Indian Potato Physical Description: Hedysarum alpinum (PICTURED ABOVE) e: grows up to 2 1/2 feet; f: flower clusters are tapered and narrow at the top; g: pods are smooth and net-veined. H. alpinum pods have 1 to 3 joints; h: leaves are smooth; veins on underside are obvious. Roots are edible.
Habitat and Range: Indian potato and bear root share similar habitats, namely gravel river bars, roadsides, rocky hillsides, and meadows. H. hedysaroides and H. alpinum are noted as edibles in the Hedysarum genus. Collectively they range from northern Alaska and the Yukon to British Columbia. Their range frequently overlaps with H. mackenzii, a species reported to be toxic. Species of unknown edibility, such as H. boreale (the Yukon to Oregon) and H. sulphurescens (British Columbia to Washington) also occur.
Hedysarum: Genus to Be-A-Ware: Unlike many genera where some species are more tasty than others but all are harmless, the Hedysarums have distinct differences in safety. To harvest, you must be aware, noting subtle variations in leaf and flower structure between species. Foragers careless in identification are risking digestive disturbances.
Though H. mackenzii isn’t apt to be lethal, it is unsuited for human consumption. Athabascans refer to mackenzii as ‘brown bear food.’ Alaska’s other Hedysarum species (alpinum/hedysaroides), however, are highly regarded for human use. Both H. alpinum and H. hedysaroides have smooth leaves with obvious veins on the underside of their leaves. H. hedysaroides has a shorter and darker colored flower cluster than alpinum. The top of the clusters in both are tapered, and narrower in appearance than H. mackenzii. Pods are smooth and net-veined.
Harvest Calendar: Early spring or fall after frost for roots. The time of the harvest creates a problem for foragers. The plants are most easily and positively identified during the summer, precisely when the roots are dry and stringy. Foragers should mark a patch carefully, taking note as to whether any toxic bear root is present. In fall, when the foliage has died back and the roots are sweet, the forager can return and safely harvest.
Natives, who rely heavily on this food source, can identify Hedysarum species simply by the appearance of the root. The ‘bear food’ tends to have shorter, less branched taproots.
Food Use: Like garden parsnips, the roots of Indian potato are sweetened by frost. The plump fall or spring roots can be washed and eaten raw like carrots, grated into coleslaw, sliced and stir-fried, steamed as a dinner vegetable, simmered in stews, or added to boiled dinners. Try tatercakes when camping, serve them as a breakfast pancake, or as a supper potato substitute.
Dena’ina Athabascans feed the softened roots to infants who lack mother’s milk. The food is an important staple, which is stored in quantity in underground food caches. The Dena’ina refer to H. alpinum as k’tl’ila meaning “rope,” an apt description of the root that grows to two feet long. H. mackenzii is ggagga k’tl’ina, which translates as “good food for bears.”
Interior Athabascans gather Indian potato in fall and store the roots, mixed wish fish oil and Rubus chamaemorus berries in cellars for winter use. Flora Kokrine, an Athabascan born in Tanana, Alaska, favors roots fried in oil. Elder Howard Luke of Nenana says he adds the roots to moose soup.
Kobuk River Eskimos crush H. alpinum root, called ‘masru’ and use as butter. Roots are often taken from mouse holes and replaced with fish or other food. According to Inupiat teachings, masru should always be eaten with oil. Eating the root plain can cause constipation.