Story last updated at 10/14/2009 - 1:38 pm
The chocolate lily is a familiar sight to us Southeastern Alaskans who roam about the duck flats and saltwater shorelines or hike the freshwater riverbanks at the time of their summer bloom. This wild lily has purple-brown flowers and beautifully contrasting yellow anthers with a green stigma. It can grow up to around two feet tall here.
In the estuary of the Thorne River on Prince of Wales Island, the lilies grow over large areas among an array of other colorful flowers - blossoming blue lupine, yellow buttercup, white cow parsnip, red indian paintbrush and shocking pink shooting star - set off by the deep greens of their leaves and the tall grass. A great place for photography, it is also a good idea during the summer bloom to take note of the location of chocolate lilies. Once they die back in fall, it can be difficult to find them when harvest time comes.
(Incidentally, for those unfamiliar, check a tide book and proceed out on the tidal-effected estuary with plenty of low tide time. There are usually small canals threading through the grassy meadows and one doesn't want to find them deeper on the way back out.)
The chocolate lily, called Indian rice due to its edible root, has also been designated other less complimentary titles regarding its unreal, foul aroma - reminiscent of, well, manure. I'd rather not repeat them. After all, the plant is just doing its own thing and if we can't appreciate the scent of rotting things and barnyard effluvium, that is our problem. It works for the flies that pollinate the chocolate lily.
Regardless of the questionable fragrance, the chocolate lily roots have reportedly been a staple food source for Native peoples since prehistoric times. They are usually dug in fall after the foliage has yellowed and the plant is storing starches and sugars for the upcoming winter. Although not rice, the root resembles tight clusters of white rice around a main bulb. It is all edible but remember to put a few grains back in the hole to replant.
The chocolate lily is tasty when steamed with garlic butter. To preclude excessive bitterness, you can soak them overnight, cook in a change of water or add lemon juice.
Other uses might include adding the "rice" to stews, soups and casseroles. The root can be dried and ground into flour but it is hard to imagine gathering enough to make more than a small, supplementary supply.
Mice apparently harvest and stash chocolate lily roots but it is unknown whether they prefer to steam them with butter or garlic. Probably both.
Although it would be pretty tedious to harvest enough chocolate lily to consider it a major food source, it is still nice to know where and what to gather if need be.
Chocolate lilies can be consumed raw in the field, making them a valuable resource as emergency food if properly identified.
We can all be thankful for the bountiful resources here in good old Southeast Alaska.
Carla Petersen is a remote-living freelance artist and writer. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org