Yellow sand verbena is a lovely plant with sweet smelling flowers found along the Pacific coast from British Columbia to California.
Yellow sand verbena is a spreading plant that has fleshy roots running deep in the sand, to help anchor it. It was more common in the past – at one time it was found in the Oregon sand dunes. These days it is more usually seen only along the margins of the beaches.
In Erna Gunther’s Ethnobotany of Western Washington, she noted that the Makah and Klallam peoples formerly ate the roots of this plant. A Klallam informant compared the roots to sugar beets. They were usually gathered in the fall and eaten raw.
Among the Coos, there was a plant known as tləmqáá’yawa in Hanis and Milluk, was described by Coos informant Frank Drew as “a sort of turnip, that grows in pure white desert sand til they look (the leaves) like a watermelon plant. The fruit is similar of beanpods [sic], but smaller. The roots is [sic] dug out…. The roots are not cooked, but are eaten raw. The root exterior is torn off, chewed and chewed, and that is all that is done to this wild turnip. It tastes like candy, sweet.” (Jacobs 91:41)
There are few plants that grow in the Oregon dunes that have edible roots; and fewer still that have roots eaten raw. Yellow sand verbena is about the only dune plant with sweet tasting roots that can be eaten raw (although it is has to picture its achenes as resembling small bean pods – only in the broadest sense I suppose).
So, the mysterious Coosan tləmqáá’yawa is probably the yellow sand verbena.
Gunther, Erna. 1945. Ethnobotany of Western Washington: The Knowledge and Use of Indigenous Plants by Native Americans. University of Washington Press, Seattle.
Jacobs, Melville. 1932-34. Coos Ethnologic Notes, Notebooks 91-99, 101, Jacobs Collection, University of Washington Archives, Seattle.