Wapato Harvesting for Planting at Collins Bay
On a dry day in late summer, Benton SWCD’s Holly Crosson and Melissa Lemein along with myself, an OSU student volunteer, went to local landowner Marvin Gilmour’s farm to harvest wapato (Sagittaria latifolia) tubers for future planting at Collins Bay. Collins Bay is a side-channel of the Willamette River with around 11 acres of marsh habitat. Marvin Gilmour, one of Benton SWCD’s Board of Directors, is a third generation farmer in Benton County who manages 400 acres of wetlands, and has a large amount of wapato that makes itself at home on his property.
Wapato is also referred to as ‘duck potato.’ Wapato grows in slow Pacific Northwest streams, and does well in underwater mud. The native Kalapuya tribe used to harvest wapato tubers with their toes. Tubers are thick parts of roots that form underground. The tubers can be eaten raw or cooked, and have a potato-like taste. Wapato feeds and shelters important wildlife and gives nutrients to the water. As well as being an important food source, there are also a few medicinal uses for which Native American tribes have used wapato. The Cherokee used the leaves to reduce fever, the Chippewa used the root for indigestion, the Iroquois used wapato for joint pain, boils, and constipation, the Potawatomi used a wapato poultice to aid wounds… and the list goes on (Moerman, p.500).
On collection day, Melissa, Holly, and I carpooled to Marvin’s property in North Albany. It was a hot and hazy late summer day, and the sun was lush and warm. Marvin showed us to an area often submerged in water, but at this time the area was dry due to the season. This made it relatively hard to dig for tubers, given that we were using only our bare hands. Marvin and his team drove the tractor over the dried mud time after time, loosening up the top layer to permit for easier scouring. Every time I found a tuber, it felt like I was finding gold. They are beautiful, and the ones we found ranged from about 1 to 2 inches long. We spent a few hours digging for tubers and ended up with approximately 1,000. We also collected wapato seed pods, which were more apparent and seemed more plentiful than the tubers at first. After the seed pods were sorted and cleaned, when included with a previous summer collection effort, over a million seeds were discovered.
After we finished collecting, Marvin explained how to store the bulbs. We didn’t want them to dry out, because they had to still be viable for planting at Collins Bay in the fall. Marvin has experience with this. He poured some dried sawdust pellets into multiple buckets, and Melissa helped mix the pellets with water until the pellets began to disintegrate into tiny wet pieces. The texture and consistency reminded me of soggy cereal. Then, like a layer cake, we layered the wapato tubers into the wet sawdust. We layered and layered, until all of the tubers were resting peacefully in an environment of adequate moisture.
The buckets were then stored in a dark closet, and moved ultimately to a dark and cool shed until it was time for them to be planted at Collins Bay this fall. We are excited to monitor the progress of the wapato, and are hopeful about witnessing their success in the spring and summer. As a volunteer, it has been a great experience to help begin this project by harvesting tubers, and I can’t wait to continue my role as a volunteer in visiting the tubers as they establish themselves at Collins Bay.
- Willamette River Aquatic Plants: Survey and Restoration Tour
- Radical Botany Blog Post: Honoring Our Ancestral Plants: Wapato
- “Native American Ethnobotany” by Daniel E. Moerman (p.500).