A root “that our French call rosary”: Foodways in Indigenous and French North America

Renée Girard

In early modern France, foraging practices were associated with a ‘primitive’ style of food procurement, with times of dearth, and with poverty. God had given nature to his children for them to control, and agriculture was understood as a determinant of civilization. Foraging practices, it was believed, brought humans back to the level of animals. The French explorers and missionaries who wrote about their culinary experiences in the Northeastern part of the North American continent at the time of contact paid little attention to the non-cultivated plants used by the diverse Indigenous groups they encountered. Imbued by their own food culture, they failed to acknowledge not only the plants, but also the Indigenous science behind the management of those natural resources.

In a document dated to 1666 and attributed to the Jesuit Pierre-Joseph Chaumonot, we find a depiction of the crests or totem of nine Iroquoian families.[1] Among the Turtle, Wolf, Bear, Beaver, Deer, Small Plover, Large Plover and the Kilion (Hawk), an organic shape stands out. Chaumonot identifies it as the totemic symbol of “la famille de la pomme de terre.” The only information he provides is that the “pomme de terre” is the sixth family, and that it belongs to the second band known as Sconeschionoron. The crest brings to mind the description Thomas Harriot gave in 1590 of a root that grew in Virginia, “a kind of roots of round forme…growing many together one by another in ropes, or as thogh they were fastened with a string.”[2] This root is in fact the Apios Americana, known as the groundnut in English, or, as the French like to call it, la patate en chapelet, because of its visual resemblance to a rosary.[3]

Detail of Mémoire au sujet des neuf familles iroquoises, Archives nationales d’outre-mer (France) FR CAOM COL C11A 2 fol. 263-269

The Apios Americana, native to North America, grows from as far south as Florida all the way up to Gaspé, and from the Great Plains to the Maritimes. This wild root, very rich in protein (three times more than the Irish potato), was an important source of food not only for the Mi’kmaq, Abenaki, Wolastoqiyik, and Innu, but also for the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat who practiced agriculture. The type of groundnut those groups had access to is a triploid form of the plant. Unlike the diploid Apios Americana that grows in southern areas and reproduces through its seed, the triploid form is infertile and can only be propagated vegetatively.

Therefore, the first groundnuts to grow north of Massachusetts had to be introduced by humans through exchanges or commerce and planted in strategic areas by Indigenous peoples. The importance of human agency in the propagation of groundnut tubers in northern regions is reflected in the fact that most of the Apios Americana found in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Vermont, and Ontario are from the same clone.[4] Iroquoian, as well as Algonquian, nations usually left caches of food along their regular routes to provide sustenance during their journeys. Planting some groundnut tubers near riverbeds ensured reliable and welcome supplies along waterways. It would suffice to plant a few tubers in frequented areas like portage routes for them to spread and provide nourishment during travel. The plant growth could be encouraged by digging out the roots, which aerates the soil and facilitates their natural propagation. Once the roots were installed, nature participated in their propagation through spring freshets. The floating capacity of the Apios explains how an entire river system could be colonized by a single clone.

Detail of Mémoire au sujet des neuf familles iroquoises, Archives nationales d’outre-mer (France) FR CAOM COL C11A 2 fol. 263-269

Considering the nutritional value of the root, why is it, then, that such a valuable source of energy as the patate en chapelet was not more favored by the French settlers and seems to have disappeared from the Indigenous diets? In his 1712 Mémoires on the seigneuries and habitations of Québec, Trois-Rivières, and Montréal, the surveyor Gédéon de Catalogne provides a list of trees and most common fruit bearing-plants. There is no mention of the root. It appears that more than a century after the beginning of French- Indigenous cohabitation, not much of the latter’s plant knowledge had been transferred to the newcomers. Catalogne himself admits his ignorance about an infinite number of Indigenous plants and medicinal herbs.[5] It is difficult to understand the reasons that would prevent settlers, in a time period when food was scarce and the arrival of supplies from France were highly unreliable, from paying more attention to knowledge that could be lifesaving.

Detail of Mémoire au sujet des neuf familles iroquoises, Archives nationales d’outre-mer (France)  FR CAOM COL C11A 2 fol. 263-269

French newcomers knew about the root. Champlain is considered the first to mention the plant, which he does in Des Sauvages published in 1603 where he states that south of Québec, near the Batiscan river, he ate some small roots which had a very good taste like truffles.[6] However, Pierre Biard’s depiction of the root is much clearer. The Jesuit recalls in his Relation that, during his stay in Port Royal in the spring of 1613, there was a threat of famine among the French, so he went up the river to collect some of the roots the Mi’kmaq call Chiquebi. He regretted, however, that once the Mi’kmaq had collected them, the French could only find a few of the tubers “enfilées l’une à l’autre sous forme de chapelet ”[7] (like a rosary), which he claimed were better than truffles. Towards the end of the century, Nicolas Denys provided a similar description of a root highly appreciated by the Mi’kmaq, which they call Chicamins.[8] We find another reference to the patate en chapelet in Paul Le Jeune’s 1634 Relation, where the Jesuit writes that the Innu he is travelling with eat a root “that our French call rosary.”[9]

However, looking at the colonial documents produced by the different observers, administrators, travelers, and missionaries, readers get the definite impression that there was a lack of interest in the wild plants that were part of the Indigenous diets, especially the roots collected through foraging. Descriptions are imprecise and incomplete, and there is little explanation about the uses of the plants. It is often difficult, for example, to grasp if an author is referring to the groundnut or the sunchoke, two very different plants that both produce edible tubers. In general, references to diverse roots offer no more details than ‘racines’, which clearly illustrates the attitudes French had toward foraging, toward the culinary use of wild food, and more specifically toward roots.

Detail of Mémoire au sujet des neuf familles iroquoises, Archives nationales d’outre-mer (France)  FR CAOM COL C11A 2 fol. 263-269

The structured hierarchy that characterized the French society of the Renaissance was essentially a global vision of how the world was organized. In the Western world, agriculture was perceived as a definite attribute of civilization. Hunter-gatherers were thus situated at the lowest level of humanity, not far from the animals who fed themselves from the forest. In the linear scale of progress, their place was at the bottom, as they were believed to be controlled by nature instead of in control of nature. Plants, like humans, were defined according to a similar linear hierarchal system.  In opposition to the fruits that grew in trees close to God, roots did not receive the civilizing rays of the sun. They were consequently considered at the lower level of the scale and fit only for peasants.  Furthermore, according to Galenism, the medical system of the time, roots could only be digested by a peasant’s robust stomach. The French 17th century moralist Jean de La Bruyère depicted the French peasants who worked the earth as animals with human faces who retired at night in their lair to feed on dark bread, water, and roots.[10]

Apios americana, via Wikipedia

In New France, it appears that French settlers searched for wild plants and roots only when threatened by famine. Marc Lescarbot recalls that in Port Royal it took a shortage of food to convince men to dig some roots. They did so with such vigor that they cleared four acres of land, which they used after to sow grains and vegetable, destroying the natural habitat of the native Apios.[11] Once their fields were cleared, the habitants did cultivate some roots, such as turnips, beets, carrots, and parsnip, but it is difficult to assess how much of these served as fodder. There are no records of any attempt to cultivate the Apios in New France. However, in Québec, the name patate en chapelet has survived in villages situated close to rivers,[12] which suggests that some settlers did resort to the roots introduced by the Indigenous people along the portage routes.

Distribution of triploid Apios Americana in Eastern Canada. Janet A. E. Seabrook et Leo. A. Dionne, in “Studies on the genus Apios.I. Chromosome number and distribution of Apios Americana and A. priceana,” Canadian Journal of Botany, 54 (22), (1976), 2568.

Because of its slow growth and labor-intensive harvest, and despite its high protein content, the Apios Americana was never able to compete with the much more productive Solanum tuberosum, known as the potato. Native to South America, the potato eventually became the favored root in New France in the late 18th century, but not before much hesitation in the population. Not adapted to traditional methods of Western agriculture, the patate en chapelet fell into oblivion. Meanwhile, the colonial systems like missions, and eventually reservations, greatly reduced the free access of Natives to their original lands. One of the many consequences was the imposition on Indigenous peoples of the settlers’ dominative approach to nature and, subsequently, the systematic erosion of their various food systems. The case of the openauk, pisque penay, chiquebi, chicamin, oupin, penak, to cite just of few of the many indigenous names of the Apios Americana, is a clear illustration of this process. Once an important part of Indigenous diets, by the 20th Century the root had “fallen into almost total disuse.”[13]


Renée Girard is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History and Classical Studies at McGill University. Her research examines the role of food in the French- Indigenous relations in 17th century New France and how food served as a tool of interpretation, communication, and domination for both parties. She can be contacted at renee.girard@mail.mcgill.ca, and found on Twitter at @reneegirardb.



[1] Mémoire au sujet des neuf familles iroquoises, Archives nationales d’outre-mer (France) FR CAOM COL C11A 2 fol. 263-269.

[2] Thomas Hariot, A Brief and true report of the newfoundland of Virginia (London, 1590), 16.

[3] Paul Le Jeune, Relation de ce qui s’est passé en la Nouvelle France en l’année 1634 (A Paris: Chez Sebastien Cramoisy, 1635), 132. “que nos François appellent des chapelets.”

[4] Janet A. E. Seabrook et Leo. A. Dionne, in “Studies on the genus Apios.I. Chromosome number and distribution of Apios Americana and A. priceana, Canadian Journal of Botany, 54 (22), (1976), 2570.

[5] Gédéon de Catalogne, “Mémoire de Gédéon de Catalogne sur les plans des seigneuries et habitations des gouvernements de Québec, les Trois-Rivières et Montréal, 7 octobre 1712,” Bulletin des Recherches Historiques, Vol. XXI, No. IX, (Sept 1915), 263.

[6] Samuel Champlain, Des Savvages ov Voyage de Samuel Champlain, de Brouage, fait en la France nouuelle l’an mil six cens trois… (A Paris: Chez Claude de Monstr’œil, 1603), 16.

[7] Pierre Biard, La Relation de la Nouvelle France, des ses terres, naturel du païs, & de ses habitans (Lyon, 1616), 13.

[8] Nicolas Denys, Description geographique et historique des costes de l’Amérique Spetentrionale: avec l’histoire Naturelle du païs (A Paris: Chez Loüis Billaine, 1672), 353-354.

[9] Paul Le Jeune, Relation de ce qui s’est passé en la Nouvelle France en l’année 1634 (A Paris: Chez Sebastien Cramoisy, 1635), 132.

[10] Jean de La Bruyère, Les Caractères de Théophraste, traduits du grec, avec les caractères ou mœurs de ce siècle (1687) (Paris: Chez Estienne Michallet, 6ième ed.  1691), 410.

[11] Marc Lescarbot “La Relation Derniere de Marc Lescarbot Paris 1612” dans Lucien Campeau Monumenta Novae Franciae 1, La Première Mission d’Acadie (Québec: Presses de l’Université Laval, 1967), 193.

[12] Marthe Faribault, “L’Apios tubéreux d’Amérique: histoires de mots”, Recherches Amérindiennes au Québec, Vol. XXI, No 3, (1991), 68.

[13] Gretchen Beardsley, “The Groundnut as Used by the Indians of eastern North America,” Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts … v.25 (1939), 513.


Featured Image: Mémoire au sujet des neuf familles iroquoises, 1666, Library and Archives Canada, FR CAOM COL C11A 2 fol. 263-269.

Latest Comments

  1. Ralph James Turner says:

    Is this the same plant that became called the apo that grew at 3000′ elevation in Eastern Oregon that the Indians collected every year until about 1920. My father witnessed their gathering it and perhaps did not have a spelling to go by. Also does it grow and is it cultivated in Puerto Rico?

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