Yellow sand verbena part 2


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.

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4 Responses to Yellow sand verbena part 2

  1. Abe Lloyd says:

    Very interesting! I have wanted to try Sand Verbena for several years but it is rare where I live in NW Washington. This spring I am designing an ethnoecological restoration on a sandy site and plan to include Sand Verbena. With luck, it will thrive enough for me to finally taste the root.
    I think you are on the right track sleuthing “Coos Turnip.” Have you considered looking for linguistic evidence? It sure would help if the etymology of the name tlemqa-yawa described some distinctive feature of the plant.
    I really enjoy your writing and appreciate all the references you include. Keep up the good work!

    • shichils says:

      An interesting question! I love playing with the native language so look out, I am gonna wander all over the place here.

      Poor old yellow sand verbena seems to have become less common on the OR coast, but at least there are beaches where there is a lot of it. Hopefully you can get some to grow up there! I have seen online information on trying to grow it from seed.

      About the etymology – tricky. The Coos languages are a lot different from Athabaskan languages (our southern neighbors) – Athabaskan words tend to be made up of little particles put together to make descriptive nouns, adjectives and verbs, etc. Don’t see that much in Coos, but sometimes do.

      I have gone thru every source I can find to build up a word list of 2500 words (roughly) of Hanis Coos words, plus a list of affixes from a Hanis grammar written about 90 years ago (Yikes!). So, tlomqa’yawa (to use our current tribal orthography) may have an etymology hidden within it but, due to the limited vocabulary recorded for the language, it may be an irrecoverable one. However, I have some guesses. The latter part of the word, a’yawa, is a suffix in Hanis (that appears both with an without the glottal stop) is essentially the equivalent of the English -er. Add it to a verb and it means ‘doer of verb’, like adding -er to the verb ‘dance’ and get dancer. So, it the word for “Coos turnip” in Hanis (and probably Milluk, Hanis’ close sister) means doer of tlomqa. What’s a tlomqa? Here, due to our vocabulary gaps, things get iffy. tl’om (also tlom, tlim) means fish weir. Probably a no for Coos turnip. tlimq- means to begin, to start. Hmmm. tlomqa’yawa as ‘starter, beginner’? Maybe. But I found a word that has a better fit. The verb tl’imoq- means ‘to stink, have a scent’. (I should explain here that Hanis loves wil-o-the-whisp glottal stops – they come and go – one of many language issues I have not delved into yet to figure out why that is, but I digress). So tl’imq plus a’yawa may have become tlomqa’yawa, ‘stinker, scenter’ (if you will). Now this fits because yellow sand verbenas have a strong (and beautiful) smell. When my daughter & I were at Pt Reyes and smelling (and photographing) the flowers, my daughter Morgan commented they smelled like lemons. The blossoms are very sweet with a hint of spiciness. I dunno about CA flowers, but I have noticed few native OR flowers have a strong scent, besides yellow sand verbena. (Some do, like skunk cabbage. A lot of plants seem to have scented leaves -wild ginger, sweet after death, ceanothus, sweet grass – not associated with their flowers as much). So…Maybe our plant is lil’ stinker! (Meant in a good way, of course).

      As an aside, as I was reading up on the sand verbenas, the much rarer pink sand verbena has no scent. One article I found noted that hybrids of the pink & yellow are rare, but when they are found, the flowers are pale pink and only weakly scented. Makes me wonder, do the pink and yellow have the same pollinators? Isn’t that why flowers ‘make’ scents is to attract their pollinators? One of those bio questions that makes my curious – any ideas?

  2. Rhizowen says:

    At last some detailed information on an intriguing plant! I first saw it many years ago on a trip to California. In fact, shichils, I’m pretty sure it was at Point Reyes.I have two tiny seedlings and will nurture them more carefully now I know that they’re a good edible.

    When I get a chance, I’ll read the rest of your blog.

    Many thanks.

  3. Pingback: Sand Verbena- Mana of the Sand –

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