Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


Sagittaria species

By Adam Benfer

Arrowhead was a favorite food of many Native North American tribes. All thirty some varieties or species of arrowhead (Sagittaria), members of the Water Plantain Family (Alismatacea), are edible and can be used in the same ways. Arrowhead plants may be confused with other aquatic plants with similarly shaped leaves, such as arrow-arum, green arum, tuckahoe (Peltandra sp.), wild calla (Calla palustris), and pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata)(Fernald and Kinsey 1958: 87). Use the description bellow to verify that you have selected the correct plant before consuming it. Arrowhead is also known as duck potato, arrowleaf, swan potato, wapatoo, wappato, katniss, swamp potato, and tule-potato (Angier [2008] 1974: 12).


Though there is some variation in types of arrowhead plants, all can be identified by the following description. Arrowhead is a perennial aquatic herb with arrow-shaped leaves that grow alternately from a rhizome. Each leaf, which ranges from 1.5 to 6 dm long, grows on one stem. The whole plant can reach heights of up to 1 meter (3 ft). Arrowhead flowers bloom in sets of 3 on a central stem from July through September. Each flower has three white 1-2 cm long petals and has many stamens. Walnut sized tubers or corms develop on roots/rhizomes about a meter from the central part of the plant. These tubers contain a milky juice (Clarke 1977: 140)(Medve and Medve 1990: 90).

Geographic Distribution

Arrowhead plants grow in shallow aquatic habitats, such as swamps, marshes, pond edges, and shallow rivers and streams throughout most of the southern half of Canada, the United States, and Mexico (Angier [2008] 1974: 12).

Food Use

For the Ojibwa and other tribes arrowhead tubers were high valued food sources. Native North Americans consumed them raw, boiled, dried, backed, roasted, mashed, ground into flour, or candied with maple sugar. The Cheyenne are also known to have gathered the plant stocks bellow the flower, peeled them and ate them raw (Moerman 1998: 500). Be sure to only eat from arrowhead plants growing in unpolluted waters. To gather the tubers, use your hands or feet to follow the rhizomes that extend out from the center of the plant’s roots in the mud and water. Remove the tuber growing at the end of each rhizome. Scrub the tubers clean and them boil them in salted water for 15 minutes. Though the skin is edible arrowhead tubers are more palatable when peeled. the best times for collecting tubers is in fall or early spring. Tubers are high in starch and phosphorous (Medve and Medve 1990: 91). While the roots and tubers can be raw

Other Uses

A number of tribes are known to have used the arrowhead plant for medicinal purposes. The Navajo used the arrowhead plant to treat headaches, the Ojibwa ate the corms (tubers) for indigestion, and the Algonquin of Quebec used the root to treat tuberculosis. Some other uses of the arrowhead plant include a Cocopa gambling game and Iroquois corn fertilizer (Moerman 1998: 500).


Every 100 g of fresh arrowhead tubers contains: 103 kcal food energy, 4.7 g protein, 0.2 g fat, 20 g total carbohydrate, 0.8 g crude fiber, 1.60 mg thiamine, 0.25 mg riboflavin, 1.4 mg niacin, 5.0 mg vitamin C, 1.5 mg ash, 12 mg calcium, 165 mg phosphorus, 22 mg sodium, 922 mg potassium, 51 mg magnesium, 0.7 mg zinc, and 6.6 mg iron (Marles et al. 2000: 273).


Angier, Bradford
[2008] 1974 Field guide to edible wild plants (revised & updated). 2 ed. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books. Clarke, Charlotte Bringle 1977 Edible and useful plants of California, California natural history guides. Berkeley: University of California Press. Fernald, Merritt Lyndon, and Alfred C. Kinsey 1958 Edible wild plants of Eastern North America. Rev. ed. New York,: Harper. Marles, Robin James, Canada. Natural Resources Canada., and Canadian Forest Service. 2000 Aboriginal plant use in Canada's northwest boreal forest. Vancouver: UBC Press. Medve, Richard J., and Mary Lee Medve 1990 Edible wild plants of Pennsylvania and neighboring states. University Park [Pa.]: Pennsylvania State University Press.
Moerman, Daniel E.
1998 Native American ethnobotany. Portland, Or.: Timber Press.