Mar 10, 2018
For Everybody But Ducks!
By: Lawanda Jungwirth
Well, this just seems wrong. Wouldn’t you figure that a plant called duck potato would be something that ducks would eat? Not so, and for a couple of reasons. More on that later.
I’ve seen duck potato plants all my life, but didn’t know what they were. I called them arrowhead plants for lack of a real identification, because of the large arrow-shaped leaves. Surprise! In fact, one of the other (real) names for duck potato is actually broadleaf arrowhead. I was doubly surprised to learn of the edible treasure that lies in the muck beneath the plant. More on that later too.
Duck potato grows in sunny spots in shallow standing water of marshes, ditches, lakes, sloughs, ponds, rivers and streams. It does especially well in areas where water levels fluctuate throughout the year. In perfect conditions, huge colonies can form, making a ribbon-like band following the banks of a stream, river or lake.
Leaves are large and unmistakably arrow-shaped. The Latin name is Sagittaria latifolia. Sagittaria means “arrow.” Latifolia is derived from two Latin words, latus, meaning “broad” or “wide” and folius, meaning “leaved.” So, arrow-shaped broad leaves.
Duck potato plants stand from 1 to 5 feet tall. Leaves vary in size from 4 to 12 inches long and 2 to 6 inches wide. The sturdy flower stalk is separate from the leaves, but is just as tall. Each stalk produces two to fifteen whorls of white, three-petaled flowers about an inch across. Flower centers are green or yellow. In late summer, the flowers develop into round clusters of seeds - up to 20,000 viable ones per plant! Near the end of summer, the leaves and flower stalk begin to die back and all the nutrition they’ve stored goes down into the roots and the tubers that grow at the ends of the roots.
The treasure of the duck potato is the tubers that grow like numbers on a clock around the main stem of the plant. The tubers are found at the end of rhizomes (roots) up to three feet away from the plant and from 6 to 16 inches deep in the muck. Tubers range from acorn-size to golf-ball size. Colors are white, pink or purplish (once the muck is washed off).
So, why don’t ducks eat duck potato and who does eat it? First, the tubers are buried in muck under water too deep for ducks to dig into and second, they are too big for ducks to swallow. As for who does eat duck potato - people for starters. Duck potato was an important staple for many Native American tribes. It is reported that Lewis and Clark likely wouldn’t have survived their early 1800s expedition without the nutrition provided by duck potato when game and fish were unavailable. And all the best wild food foragers of today highly recommend it!
In the animal kingdom, beavers, porcupines and muskrats eat the entire duck potato plant. Canada geese are able to dig in the muck to unearth the tubers and actually swallow them whole. Mallards and other shallow water ducks eat the emergent shoots in spring and the seeds in fall. Seeds are also eaten by other waterfowl, songbirds and wading birds. The foliage provides cover for fish and aquatic insects.
Here’s where I have to admit that I haven’t actually tried harvesting or eating duck potato myself. But every single reference I checked while researching this article assured me that they are so delicious that they are well worth the effort of harvesting them. Plus they are good for you: they provide protein, fiber, B vitamins, vitamin C and calcium.
Duck potato tubers take a bit more labor to harvest than going out to the vegetable garden to pick a handful of beans. But before I get into how to harvest duck potato, I want you to consider the effort you put forth and conditions you might encounter when harvesting other wild foods. Specifically the heat, mosquitoes and deerflies you might encounter fishing. The frigid temperatures and long hours spent in the deer stand. The mud and muck, the clunky waders, the wind, the wet dogs and wet clothing that define duck hunting. Wouldn’t you put the same energy into harvesting a food that can’t swim, run or fly away from you?
While Native American men were presumably out hunting bigger game, the women were walking around waist deep in frigid waters dislodging duck potatoes from the muck with their bare feet. The barefoot technique is still probably the best method today, although you can use a pitchfork, rake or stick to dig in the muck if you are squeamish about mud between your toes. If I were to harvest duck potato, I’d go on a warm day in September rather than wade around in cold water. But if you want to give it a try on a colder day, get out your waders and have at it. If you are going barefoot, start next to the plant and use your feet to follow the rhizomes out from the plant to their ends where the tubers are located. The cool thing is that the tubers disconnect from the plant pretty effortlessly and they pop up and float to the top of the water where they are easily collected. No need to stick your head or even hands under water. Once you find one tuber, keep digging or raking in the same spot, because they grow at various depths.
Don’t get the bright idea that you’ll avoid digging in the muck and just pull up the entire plant and the tubers along with it. The plant will just break off. You could try digging tubers with a rake or fork from a skiff or row boat, but it’s going to be more awkward than standing in the water and you’ll expend a lot more effort for a lot less reward. Just get wet!
Once you get the potatoes home, wash them well and if you aren’t using them immediately, store them in the refrigerator.
The skin of duck potatoes must be peeled off either before or after cooking as it imparts a bitter flavor. Also remove the little comma-shaped sprout from the end of each potato. Make sure to cut off any soft or rotten parts. The inside should be crisp and white.
You can do anything with duck potatoes that you can do with regular potatoes – roast, fry, or boil and mash. Boil or roast them about the same amount of time you would regular potatoes. They can also be sliced and dehydrated for later use. Reconstitute them by soaking for about 20 minutes. They can also be boiled and mashed, then dried and ground into a powder that can be used as flour in anything you’d use flour in – breads, cookies, biscuits, pancakes, a coating for fish, etc. Duck potato flour is gluten free.
The flavor of duck potatoes has been described as like chestnuts or sweet corn. The texture of mashed duck potatoes is fluffier and slightly drier than regular mashed potatoes, so a bit more cream and butter is needed.
Besides the underwater tubers, other parts of the duck potato plant are human-edible. The young leaves just as they are unfurling, the leaf stalks, and the flower stalks before they blossom all can be boiled and eaten like any green. Flower petals are edible raw and are a little sweet and minty.
Duck potato tubers are edible raw but you’d probably only attempt that in a survival situation – they are bitter before cooking.
Jerky and Duck Potato Stew
1 lb. beef, venison or buffalo jerky
1 c. hominy grits soaked overnight in a generous amount of water
1 large onion, chopped
1 lb. cooked duck potatoes
Salt and pepper to taste
Break the jerky into one-inch pieces and put in a heavy, lidded pot. Drain the hominy and add it to the jerky, along with the onion. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Lower heat to simmer, covered, until the hominy is tender, about 2 hours, adding water if necessary. For the last 20 minutes, add the cooked duck potatoes, adjusting the liquid to how you like your stew. Salt and pepper to taste.
Duck Potato Chips
1/2 to 1 lb. duck potato tubers
2 c. cooking oil
Salt (finely ground if possible)
Smoked paprika (optional)
Use a potato peeler or paring knife to peel the duck potato tubers. Slice the tubers by hand for a steak fry effect, or to 1/8 inch on a mandolin for a more potato chip effect. If you like, soak them in salt water to preseason them. Heat the oil in a fryer or a heavy pot to 350°F - 360°F. A flick of flour will sizzle instantly at this temperature. The duck potato slices will stick to each other, so slide them into the hot oil as though dealing playing cards. Don't overcrowd the pot. Fry until golden brown, about 2 minutes or so. Remove the chips with a slotted spoon and place them on a paper towel. Salt the chips immediately. Add a little paprika if you like. Repeat with the rest of the slices. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Adapted from a recipe on honest-food.net
OTHER NAMES FOR DUCK POTATO