Yellow sand verbena and root, Pt Reyes CA
So a while back I wrote about how I suspected that yellow sand verbena is the mysterious “Coos turnip” that grew in the sand dunes and had sweet roots. The only ethnological literature I’ve been able to find on yellow sand verbena roots up until now was a mention that the Makah and Klallam peoples ate them.
But I was not 100% sure our about the identity of our mystery ‘turnip’ because in David Douglas’ journal of his adventures in the Pacific NW in 1826 and 1827, he said the Clatsop people at the mouth of the Columbia dug up the large roots of a purple-flowered species of Lathyrus (pea family) and ate them raw. This always struck me as odd, as while some species in the pea family have edible roots, they’re always cooked. From information I’ve been able to find, a lot of plants in the pea family have alkaloids that need to be broken down by cooking.
Playing around in google books, I found a nineteenth century report that asserts Douglas was wrong, and got the roots mixed up with those of yellow sand verbena, which do have sweet roots that are safe to eat raw. Cooper and Stuckley in Natural History of Washington Territory wrote “L[upinus] nootkatensis Dougl. (G)=Sandy prairie along coast north of Columbia river, May 20th, flowers blue with white keel…. The L. littoralis Dougl Somehwat resembles this, but I met with none of which the roots were used by Chenooks as food. They do dig in the same place the roots of an Abronia which he may have mistaken for those of lupine…”
Scottish botanist Robert Brown wrote of his observations of Native ethnobotany from his trip to the northwest in 1865, and he also saw lower Columbia River people eat the roots of Abronia arenaria (now A. latifolia, Yellow sand verbena).
So now in addition to Makah and Klallam we can add confirmation that lower Columbia river peoples ate yellow sand verbena roots. I am more certain than ever the mysterious Coos “turnip” of tɫəmqa’yawa is this plant, and it was probably eaten by many coastal peoples.