When I first started growing groundnuts over 20 years ago, I had little information on how to produce the plant or use it. It was an edible wild plant I remember reading about in high school when I was diving into those survival in the wild books. I remember ordering the tubers from J.L. Hudson Seedsman and putting them in these long narrow paper pots. When I checked back in the fall there were no tubers in the pots. They had disappeared completely and found residence at the bottom of the tray where they swirled around in great profusion. I remember thinking what a wonderful growth habit. I also met a number of people that knew of early ripening selections on different river systems in the Northeastern U.S. and sent me seeds and tubers of wild populations that had very good yields. Many of them were from Virginia and North Carolina. One I called Densituberous which was a U.K. selection with smaller tubers that grew quite well in Michigan due to the cloudy weather I get. As my collection increased I exchanged seeds and tubers to create a long line of very interesting selections and seedlings. Like many Apios collectors I was fortunate to get the Dr. Blackmom, Louisiana State University selections as well as some other numbered selections from those large wonderful southern varieties. I hope to write more about this at a later time. There were so many selections I grew I found them to be a bit like apples in that they all had unique individual characteristics to them. All of them were very good and easy to grow for the most part.
Once at the farm we had a big “fry off” combining the groundnuts with Chinese yam and Jerusalem artichokes. All my employees loved it. It was delicious. At one point I had figured out how to root cuttings from the vine as well. This spring (2021) I removed the entire collection and plan to move it again in the springs of 2022-23. After sending out thousands of packets of tubers over the years, I still wonder how people are using them. Here are a few thoughts and discoveries of my experience with the groundnut.
Some of the best data on yield relates to the cranberry fields on the east coast and how to destroy the groundnut. This research supports the use of herbicides to rid the tubers once and for all from the fields. It is quite difficult to remove. I remember discussing this with a farmer who told me on one edge of his cornfield was packed with groundnuts. This was at the lower end near a wetland. His discing made it all the worst splitting up the tubers and roots. Because of the tenacious long runners, groundnuts grow in great profusion in disturbed river banks or edges of ponds and streams. His cornfield was kind of an artificial way of keeping the plant going strong. Groundnut is also nitrogen fixing and does produce nodules. I have seen this on many of the roots after five years of age. But not all of them do this. It is kind of hit or miss in this department. If a plant is defined as ‘weedy’ then that in itself may be a call to action to make it a new crop plant. We need more weediness in our crop plants. They need to be more vigorous and healthy and not ‘dumbed down’ in cute compacta sterile plants. Unfortunately this is the major current trend in the nursery and floral industry. As a result it wouldn’t surprise me people are currently breeding this type of groundnut which will be a whisp of its former self. In general, people do not relish vines too.
The groundnut does produce a secondary crop of peas too. This is an advantage in that it can be reproduced that way too. For a while people thought certain varieties were triploid or seedless. It turns out that was not true and several customers of mine had large quantities of seed of some of those so called fruitless ones. You could easily develop a line of groundnut from seed varieties that could be used for the peas in culinary uses as well as the second crop and harvesting the tubers. If the tubers are left in the ground for several years, the field is now a perennial bean-pea that can be harvested the same way beans are today. Eventually the roots are harvested as a secondary source of protein. Wow!! There is so much to explore here right at our finger tips. The highly fertile groundnut along with its perennial root make this a wonderful opportunity for anyone interested in reproducing their experiment many times in different climates with little cost and overhead. It is likely that there are many wild selections that were cultivated at one time that would likely be perfectly good to use as is without breeding at all. A good time to hunt for these is during flowering time. You can see them quite easily in the wetlands near here. See the flowers above.
In my preliminary measurements, the yields of one of my Clusternut selections is slightly more than soybeans per acre. I think more research on culinary applications as well as harvesting equipment could easily be done. The issue becomes what can you do with the tuber on a broad scale in the processing realm to make it so people will eat and enjoy it. You are going to need a lot of it to make this a reality. Think in terms of protein and how people consume chicken, fish, pork, beef and tofu or other beans. This is the market you are tapping into.
Groundnuts have a shallow root system that skips along the ground. They can literally be found on the surface of the soil sometimes. They grow the opposite of sunchokes. For years, I tried to grow them in grow bags. This turned out to be a bad idea. The yields were greatly reduced every time I tried this method. It did not matter the size of the grow bag. However I did like the idea of containing the planting for harvest, shipping and packing reasons for the nursery. So with that knowledge in mind, I created small raised beds 10 ft. square with a bottom layer of Dewitt Weed barrier underneath. I then filled up the planting area with 6 inches or more of an organic soil media I had made using Espoma holly tone, chicken manure and gypsum. These amendments were added to a standard Canadian peat moss and perlite mix. The groundnuts were then planted about one inch deep into this mix. The groundnut needs to stretch out and run. You will need regular irrigation with this method. I was running irrigation three times a week with this system. Some of the runners on certain varieties will grow up to 10 ft. in a single season. The more runners, the more nuts are produced on the strings. In some ways, this runner type growth is hard to contain and that is actually a good characteristic to have. Yet it is harder to figure out a way to use this energy in a trellis type growing system. The roots can remain good for at least five years but will begin to break down after that.
The world needs new sources of protein outside of animal agriculture. Not as a substitute but a food with high levels of minerals and healthy protein with no fat while being easy to digest. It should be a compliment to existing forms of plant based proteins too. They should be easy to produce and profitable to the farmer. Ole Modern Day agricultural has dug out of its closet the soybean again as well as pea isolates and various other fungus trying to convince the world that these are vegan friendly, earth friendly or something else friendly so you can cozy up to them in the supermarket. Apparently there is very little regulation on these products and the labeling of them. Groundnuts present a massive challenge as there are no processing facilities to handle them. There is no simple means of growing them commercially and no harvesters either. For now they are kind of a ‘cult classic’ grown in small amounts by some farm to table restaurants. Nice but inaccessible to the average person and not likely at the places most of us eat.
Groundnuts have been around the world several times. Its use as an alternative tuber, the groundnut has been attempted in almost every country on earth. What happened? Potatoes are far easier to grow, use and store. The yields are far greater. But potatoes are not high in protein compared to the groundnut either so it is not a fair comparison. Yet at one point, groundnuts ended up in Ireland after the potato famine. Japan and Korea have plantings of it and use it. I believe this plant should be widely distributed and used by all cultures as a healthy protein source. Its durability in a variety of soils and climates may play a role of its use in the future. One of my customers took the Clusternut groundnut I selected and planted it in an area of what would be considered the opposite of all groundnut soils in southern Texas. The climate and soils are very hot and dry with little organic matter. He came back to find that an armadillo had destroyed the vine but it had since regrew and looked entirely healthy and vigorous growing over 5 ft. in a few weeks. Lets make the groundnut a plant we must share to help the world lower its use on animal proteins.
For a while people suggested to me new names for this crop and would send me emails on this very subject. The idea was not to have it associated with the peanut. At first someone suggested Apios. This is the genus name. I think translated it means handsome Icelandic gentleman. It was Latin. So this is not a usable name but then again Aronia is now used for chokeberry. Not everyone uses the word groundnut to describe peanut but it is still used in many countries. Recipe books often have groundnut stew in it referring to the cultural use of the peanut. But when you read about the global use of peanuts the word groundnut is used very little or not at all. Peanuts are synonymous with groundnut in many ways. Peanuts are universally accepted as a crop plant and groundnut is regionally accepted and in certain culinary uses. Using the word groundnut for Apios is not conflicting much with peanut in my opinion. So for that reason I kept the word groundnut as it fit the plant and its edible tuber as a nut that grows in the ground. Peanuts technically are not nuts but we accept it anyway.
Another idea that someone brought to my attention years ago is the word hopniss. From what I know of it, it has no connection to the plant or is even a descriptive adjective. I think if you going to use a new name to describe a new food plant then consider the consequences of naming it for the general public and not your own interests or beliefs. Many years ago Frieda Foods trademarked the word ‘sunchoke’ and used this name instead of Jerusalem artichoke. I think that was a good idea. It is still used today. Personally a better idea would remove the word -choke entirely from the common name. They have not done the same with Aronia. The common name is still chokeberry. ‘Choke’ and anything edible should not be in the same sentence.
If you are going to grow and call it a groundnut, certainly that is preferrable than hopniss by a long shot. Hop sounds like the hop plant which should be avoided as it adds even more confusion. Groundnut is more like a nut that grows in the ground as far as nutrition goes too. Hopniss means nothing to people at this time and would not likely change no matter how many times you repeat it. For now it makes more sense to the customer which is the end user to use groundnut.
In general, I think nursery, plant breeders and most of agriculture have caught on to this by selecting the names of fruits including cultivar names as well as species. Using the right names to highlight the value of a plant like seaberry or honeyberry gives it an identity so it is not confused by other common names of plants that are related in some way. The cultivar names can then reflect other characteristics or heritage of the plant itself. I have never been a fan of using peoples names for most plants. If you look at dahlia breeders, you can see the great names used to highlight new creations in this very crowded arena of flower breeding.
Want to join me in my groundnut evolution revolution? Lets elevate the groundnut for all cultures to benefit from this unused protein source. Lets expand this indigenous North American plant into the menus of the world. It is already on the move. Lets help move it along its path and make it available to all. Keep your eyes open for the burgundy flowering peas!