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Unearthing the roots of tribal tradition.

Nancy J. Turner remembers romping through the Montana woods as a child and marveling at the profusion of yellow avalanche lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum). Decades later, as an ethnobiologist at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Turner has turned up surprising evidence that the bulb of this showy perennial once served as an important food source for Indians living in what is now western Canada and the U.S. Northwest.

"It's a beautiful flower," Turner says, "but it also has tremendous significance as a food." Her research suggests that tribal cultures of British Columbia, Washington, Idaho, and Montana relied on the lily's deeply buried bulb as a winter staple. The bulb was eaten alone or combined with other ingredients to make stews, soups, or puddings, she says.

Turner explains that from June until the first snowfall, native women would use a sharp digging tool to unearth "root" vegetables, including avalanche lily bulbs. They strung together the whitish bulbs, each about the size of a little finger, and placed them in a roasting pit. After dousing red-hot rocks with water, the women would cover the pit, allowing steam to roast the roots for about 36 hours. Finally, they dried the bulbs to preserve them during the long, cold months ahead.

Archaeologists have found roasting pits suggesting that a root-digging culture flourished in central British Columbia about 3,000 years ago, Turner says.

Some Native Americans living in British Columbia still collect and prepare the lily bulbs according to the ancient recipes, says Turner, who describes the taste of the bulbs as mild and sweet.

Ancient tribes weren't the only ones with a yen for the lily bulb. Turner says grizzly bears, marmots, squirrels, and small rodents go after the tasty bulbs, often hiding them in caches in the ground.
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Title Annotation:Indians of western Canada and northwest US ate yellow avalanche lilies
Author:Fackelmann, Kathy A.
Publication:Science News
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Mar 27, 1993
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