With all the edible plants we feature on this blog, it probably seems that the Herbarium staff is more interested in eating the flora than documenting it, but today’s Plant of the Day, Indian cucumber-root (Medeola virginiana) differs from many of the other delicacies of the forest we have presented. It is not a fleshy fruit or nutrient rich leaves that are edible from this plant, but its white tuber, crisp and filled with water, that tastes about as close to a cucumber as you can get in our native flora. In the interest of not putting stress on the Domain populations (this plant is definitely not one of our most common), I don’t have a picture of the tuber, but the plant is easily identified. It is one of the few groups of herbs in our flora with whorled leaves.
While seeing the whorled leaves narrows it down to a few options, one of the distinguishing features of the Indian cucumber-root is that the leaves will always be one or two-tiered, whereas other plants with whorls will have groups of leaves emerging at many points along the stem. During the early summer months the top whorl (whether its the first or second tier) will hide a number of drooping flowers, that, though not ostentatious, are appealing in their muted colors and unique arrangement; but during these late summer and early autumn months, as the perennial is about to die back for the winter, you can still find the small black berries adorning the top whorl of leaves.
Though it may look appealing, the berries are not edible. This plant, which thrives in mesic locations with rich soils, saves all of its delicious cucumber flavor for its tuber.