Potato beans are natives of eastern North America. Its edible beans and roots were an
essential food for native Americans and European settlers alike, attested to by its many common
names. They are members of the legume
family, and like other legumes, their roots have a bacteria that traps nitrogen.
Identification: Potato beans are vines that
reach 9½-13' (3-4 m) in length. Leaves are 3-6" (8-15 cm) long, with clusters of
5-7 leaflets. Flowers are in dense, rounded clusters,
red-brown to purplish in color, ⅜-½" (9.5-12 mm) in size,
shaped similarly to other pea family flowers,
but uniquely colored. The flowers have a spring-loaded pollen distri­bution system that is
triggered by insects. Bean pods are 2-4" (5-10 cm) long
and about ¼" (6.3 mm) in diameter.
Edibility: The beans from this plant are edible, as well
as the tubers (roots), which are crunchy, and contain starch and 2-3 times the protein of potatoes. Long underground roots
have nodules or swellings that are the tubers, which may be prepared like potatoes. Peeling is not necessary.
Henry David Thoreau
preferred his potato beans boiled rather than roasted; they can also be fried.
When boiled, the roots taste like a cross between
boiled peanuts and somewhat granular or powdery potatoes. They are a good choice for chips, since their reduced
sugar content keeps them from browning. They can be added to salads, soups, stews, or vegetable dishes.
Poison ivy is sometimes found growing near
this plant, so be careful not to harvest (or even touch) any poison ivy roots, which are just as toxic
as the rest of the plant.