Sand Verbena- Mana of the Sand

I never knew Sand Verbena (Abronia latifolia) until I took an ethnobotany class at Fairhaven College with John Tuxill in 2007. One of our assignments was to create a Coast Salish ethnobotany garden and each student selected a plant to include in the garden. I picked Cascade Blueberry (Vaccinium deliciosum) on account of its tasty berries. A lady named Amanda choose to include Sand Verbena, but I never knew why. It wasn’t until I read an article by Patricia Phelps in 2013 that I realized Sand Verbena has an edible root. Last weekend, I satisfied a longtime curiosity and dug up a Sand Verbena root from a dense patch on Lopez Island. They are huge!! Below is a description and a report on my first taste.

Description

Sand Verbena is a vining herbaceous perennial that grows from a thick taproot. Fleshy stems radiate from the taproot and lay prostrate or partially buried in the sand. The leaves are succulent, nearly round or triangular with a rounded corners, smooth with a few prominent veins on the underside. Flowers are borne in clusters on long axially stems. Each cluster contains 12-20 yellow, trumpet-like flowers with 5 cleft lobes that bloom from May to August. The entire plant except the upper leaf surfaces are covered with fine resinous hairs that cause sand to stick to it, a trait which evidently discourages animal browse.

Habitat and Range
Sand Verbena is found from Point Conception near Santa Barbara California to Cape Scott on the north tip of Vancouver Island. It grows almost exclusively on sand dunes and pure sand beaches where it is usually found out of reach of the highest tides, up above the driftwood. In Washington, it appears to benefit from the periodic human disturbances and I see it along beach paths and around picnic tables. While Sand Verbena can be locally abundant, the sandy habitat that it requires is uncommon. Probably for this reason, it is classified as rare in British Columbia and Oregon.
Ethnobotany
The large tap roots are traditionally eaten by the Chinook (Brown 1868), Klallam and Makah (Gunther 1973), and probably the Saanich (Turner and Bell 1973). Patricia Phillips (2016) uses historical plant descriptions and Indigenous nomenclature to suggest their use by the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw (see her blog too). Gunther provides the most detail with flavor and harvest season information: “The Klallam informant compared them to sugar beets. The Makah eat them in the fall.” In describing the foods eaten by the Chinook in Shoalwater Bay, James Swan (1857) lists a plant “of the Mesembryanthemum species, with a root like a yam, which, baked or boiled, is excellent. This…is found on the sea-side, in the sand near the beach.” Many plants in genus Mesembryanthemum are commonly called “ice plant,” which have succulent leaves very much like Sand Verbena.
Harvest and preparation
Finding the Sand Verbena tap root proved to be a little bit of a challenge. In extensive stands, I followed the stems through the sand for 10 minutes until I lost track of where I had been and gave up. I had better luck finding a small colony and followed stems to the center where I scraped away the sand and revealed the top of the tap root. It was huge! With a root crown that was roughly 3″ in diameter, I initially mistook it for a piece of driftwood. Using my hands I pulled back the loose dry sand near the surface. Following it downward, I began scooping handfuls of consolidated sand around the edges of the root. About six inches down the sand became damp and compacted. Using a small digging stick, I deepened the hole to eight inches, and noticing the root had tapered to an inch in diameter, I realized I had more than enough to taste and broke it off. I dusted the sand off and packed it home.
Over the next two days I had several tastes of the root. Raw, the root has a very firm texture and a subtle smell of cucumber. It is softer than a parsnip and drier than a potato, with flavor somewhere in between the two. Boiling for five minutes did little to change the roots character; it softened to that of a cooked parsnip and tasted more like a potato with a hint of sweetness and a mild peppery after taste. I fried a couple thin slices of the root for 10 minutes and these had a more peppery, though not dissagreable, taste. Perhaps boiling leaches out some of the peppery constituent. In any case, I think Sand Verbena root would serve well as a base carbohydrate for a meal and easily take on added flavoring.
Cooked Sand Verbena root that has been boiled (left) and fried (right)
Conclusions
Note the faint growth rings present in this cross section

My very limited first tastes yielded promising result. Sand Verbena has an enormous root that is easy to harvest, quick to cook, and has mild flavor, soft texture, and likely, substantial caloric value. These are all very exciting traits in a wild food. However, I find it necessary to temper my excitement with some consideration for the limited growth of this plant. It is only found along sandy coastlines and may grow too slowly on the nutrient poor dunes to harvest sustainably. A horizontal cross section of the root suggests the presence of annual growth rings. If that is true, my 3” diameter root is eight years old.