I wouldn't exactly say I have a lot of experience as a forager.
When I was young, my grandmother would send me into the yard to gather mushrooms after a summer rain. On other days, the two of us would harvest young dandelion leaves nestled in the lawn.
My brothers and I picked blackberries we found growing in the woods, and some days I crossed the road and jumped the ditch to find enough wild strawberries to fill my breakfast bowl. In the fall, we ventured into the woods to gather hickory nuts. If there weren't enough on the ground, the boys climbed the trees and shook the branches while the rest of us dodged the rough, hard hulls raining down.
We didn't have to hunt and gather food for survival. We did it because it was available, it was free, and it was fun.
Yet even as we pulled as much bluegill from the pond our homemade fishing poles could handle and got excited when we found a new secret source for elderberries, I never saw anything similar to the plant my husband and I recently found in our own backyard.
In the evenings we like to walk to the back of the fenceline with our dogs, but on this particular evening, we noticed something strange growing on the fence.
It was a vine with unusual thick, brownish-pink flowers. The vine not only clung to the fence, but also grew among young trees and wild shrubs at the edge of the woods.
It took no time at all to find it in a wildflower field guide. The common name for the strange-looking vine is groundnut. More research revealed this wild, native plant has quite a history. So much history, in fact, that I don't know how I never knew of its existence.
Apios americana, or groundnut, it turns out, was probably present on the dinner table at the first Thanksgiving. It was a common food source for Native Americans, who shared it with colonists.
There are other plants with the nickname ''groundnut,'' particularly peanuts, and like peanuts, this plant is related to the legume family, Fabaceae. The "nuts" are actually tubers - swollen growths attached to the plant's roots, that some say taste similar to potatoes.
If you do a bit of research, you can find recipes for Apios online and in some foraging books, such as Ewell Gibbons' ''Stalking the Wild Asparagus.''
According to several northeastern gardeners who cultivate the plant for personal use, the reason this edible plant hasn't made it into the food supply is because of its inability to produce large enough tubers but once every two to three years. Commercial growers need vegetables they can grow over one season to be profitable. In addition, the tuber needs to be boiled a good bit to rid the tubers of a sticky, latex-like juice they exude. Some claim this sticky substance is difficult to get out of their cooking utensils, but others say it's worth it. Some groundnut cooks say the starchy vegetable, which contains more protein than our common potato, should be slow-cooked over a long period of time. Still others have simply roasted it with seasonings, after boiling, of course, to make it easier to slice.
Northeastern growers try to eradicate the plant they consider an invasive weed, while others claim the best way to get rid of it is to simply eat it. It is said to grow where poison ivy exists. We didn't see any poison ivy among our plants. It also is said to grow among elderberries, and it was elderberries the Apios vines were clinging to on our property.
I still don't know where they came from or why suddenly, and after all these years, they appeared. Regardless, we don't see harvesting or eating groundnuts in our future. The flowers fascinated me enough to want to allow them to grow along my fence, but I have to wonder how far they will go before I, too, consider it an invasive weed.