What's Blooming Week Two Yellowknifer June 23, 2000

A Walk on The Wild Side

Wild sweet pea, Hedysarum mackenzii

The causeway to the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre is the site of this week's blooming plant. The purple blooms of wild sweet pea (Hedysarum mackenzii Richards.) can be seen on the gravel banks of the causeway as you walk from the Ceremonial Circle to the museum. Wild sweet pea favours lime-rich clays and gravels, especially along bodies of water.

This member of the pea family grows 15-35 cm high from a thick, fibrous tap root. The numerous stems have 5-13 paired, linear leaflets about 1.5 cm long. The leaflets are green and smooth above, with silvery hairs on the underside. Five to 25 purple, pea-like flowers grow along the elongated inflorescence. The flowers are replaced by the joined seed pods characteristic of the genus Hedysarum. Hedys is the Greek word for "sweet," referring to the fragrant flowers, and arum is from the Greek word aroma, which means "smell." The showy, purple flowers are sweetly scented.

It is the scent of the flowers that help distinguish this nonedible species from a similar, yet edible species called liquorice root (Hedysarum alpinum L. var. americanum Michx.). The flowers of liquorice root are pale purple or pink, and scentless. It is important to know the difference between these plants, because wild sweet pea is considered poisonous, but liquorice root has been traditionally used as food by aboriginal peoples.

Liquorice root was used by the Fisherman Lake Slave of the Deh Cho in soups or boiled with meat. These people would go to the Mackenzie Mountains in September to dig the roots, which are said to taste like young carrots. The Tanaina of Alaska also used the root for food, as well as a replacement for mother's milk. In the spring, bears dig up the root for food, which accounts for another of the common names of this plant: bear root.

If you cannot tell these two species of Hedysarum apart, it is best not to experiment with either. The accompanying photo is of the larger-flowered wild sweet pea, with the deep purple blooms and the sweet scent. This plant is considered poisonous. If you do go to the causeway to check it out, please leave it as you find it.

Wild sweet pea, Hedysarum mackenzii

Text 2000 Alexandra Milburn