Wapato (Sagittaria latifolia) can be found in fresh water ponds, marshes and lakes throughout all of North America except Nevada, Alaska and the Northern Territories of Canada. This aquatic plant, which is usually emergent (above the water) but can be partially submerged, is known by many other common names including: broad-leafed arrowhead, tule potato, duck potato and Indian potato. Although it is widespread, I always think of wapato in association with the Pacific Northwest where indigenous people made extensive use of wapato tubers for food. Eaten raw or cooked, wapato tubers provide an excellent source of starch. The tubers can also be dried for the winter and ground to make a flour. Lewis and Clark ate wapato, most likely introduced to them by the Indians, while in Oregon. Muskrats also enjoy wapato and stash it for the winter. Lucky was the Native American who came upon a muskrat store of wapato. Wapato fruits (flattened, winged achenes or dry seeds) are also edible.
In sharp contrast, this plant, which was valuable as food to indigenous tribes and early settlers, is now often considered a noxious weed. Wapato can form extensive plant colonies in ricefields, irrigation and drainage ditches, swampy areas and even streams – impeding water flow and contaminating crops. What an irony that an early native plant that was an important food is now destroyed to allow cultivation of an introduced food species.
I think the wapato plant is very pretty. The leaves that emerge above the water are arrow-shaped with parallel veination. Those leaves remaining submerged below the water are lanceolate. All wapato leaves are basal with long stalks and are sheathed at the base. The white flowers occur in whorls of three on a leafless stalk. Wapato flowers have three rounded petals and three greenish sepals. Although both sexes can occur in one wapato flower, the sexes are often found on separate flowers. When the flowers are only male or only female, the upper flowers on the stalk are male and contain 25 to 50 yellow stamens while the lower flowers are female and have a sphere of green carpels bearing undeveloped seeds.
Wapato is a Chinook word meaning “tuberous plant”. The Latin genus and species name translates to “broad-leaved arrowhead”.
These wapato plants were growing along the bank of the Tule River in the McArthur Swamp (Shasta County CA). Since the plants were not numerous I chose not to dig up and photograph any tubers. However, Leonard and I sampled wapato tubers in the past. Raw or baked wapato tastes perfectly fine.
Depending on one’s perspective, it is interesting how wapato can be a friend or foe.