By Janelle Eklund
During the summer you can usually drive down the road - almost any road in the Copper Basin - and be swept away by the beauty of pink flowers lining the road. Role down your window and you most likely could drink in the sweet aroma of Indian potato and sweet pea.
Many people wonder what those brilliant flowers are. They look very similar so it requires a stop (of course in a safe spot), get out, and take a close look to get a positive identification.
If you are looking for food this identification is vital to your health. Indian potato (sometimes it is called Eskimo potato) roots are edible and sweet pea is very poisonous. The easiest way to identify them is when they are in flower but, unfortunately, this is not the best time to harvest Indian potato.
The flowers of Indian potato grow on a long stem. The little flower clusters are big on the bottom and taper as they reach for the top of the stem - kind of tapered like a tree. The flowers of the sweet pea sit in clusters around the top of the stem. They just look more 'clustery' and don't taper like the Indian potato.
Once both of these plants go to seed it is very difficult to identify them. The Old Edgerton was in full bloom with Indian potato one summer. On my morning walk I only noticed a few sweet pea plants and made a note of where they were. I went back and got my camera to capture their glow, along with the Indian potato that was next to them and very prolific.
I watched these beauties explode to life so fast. The flowers didn't stick around long, and it seemed in a heartbeat they morphed into their next seed stage of life.
A week later I went back to the same spot to see if I could distinguish between the two plants. I was hard pressed to find the sweet pea. I finally saw some subtle differences and brought home a sample of each to identify. Once they go to seed you must look at the pods, leaves or roots - or refer to a plant specialist - to get a positive identification.
The pods of the sweet pea are hairy, cross-veined, and have 3-8 joints. The Indian potato pods are smooth, net-veined, and have 2-5 joints.
Sweet pea leaves are somewhat whitish and fealty and the veins are hidden. Leaves of the Indian potato are smooth and the veins on the underside are obvious.
The root of the Indian potato grows to two feet long. The root of sweet pea is shorter and the tap root is not so branched.
Harvest time for the root of the Indian potato is either in the spring or fall after frost. If you do harvest the root mark the plant when it's in bloom to be sure you have the right plant so when you go back to harvest you know what you are harvesting. Still, identify it again as described above. When you do harvest in a dense patch, only take one or two out of every ten roots so you don't disturb the population.
Once you have positive identification Indian potato roots are very good in soups, coleslaw, eaten like a carrot, stir fried, steamed, boiled - take your pick of how to prepare.
Remember to be safe and respectful when harvesting wild plants.
From my light to yours-
Who We Are
WISEfriends are several writers connected with Wrangell Institute for Science and Environment, a nonprofit organization located in Alaska's Copper River Valley. Most of these articles originally appeared in our local newspaper, the Copper River Record.