Field Guides

Edible and Medicinal Roots of Missouri

When most people think about root vegetables, recognizable favorites like potatoes, carrots, onions, and so on are usually the first things that come to mind. However, the variety and utility of root vegetables in nature is much broader than just these common standbys. In Missouri alone, there are many species of plants whose roots have been used by humans- for food and otherwise- throughout history. From the distant past to modern times, roots native to Missouri have seen a wide array of agricultural, medicinal, and even scientific uses. The roots that can be found in Missouri serve purposes from food to spice to muscle medication and soda flavoring, even seeing some use towards things such as cancer remedies.


What is a Root?

First, it is useful to understand what precisely constitutes a root. Roots are – usually underground – plant structures, and are different from plant stems in several key ways. First, they do not have leaves and the associated anatomy.¹ Their function is, generally, to provide a solid anchor for the aboveground portion of the plant and to transport water and nutrients up into the stem.¹ That a portion of a plant is underground does not necessarily mean it is a root; roots possess root caps and their branches radiate from internal tissue, not buds.¹ This distinction is actually important: that onions come to mind at the thought of a root is a misconception; they are specialized flowers – bulbs – not root formations.

A Brief Explanation of Roots

Root systems vary widely between different species of plants. Generally speaking, plants will either possess fibrous roots or a taproot.²⁸ Fibrous roots are thinner systems of roots that spread through the ground, securing the plant through surface area.²⁸ These types of roots are ecologically important, as certain fibrous-rooting plants help to secure soil from erosion.²⁸ Conversely, taproots are thick roots that burrow down deep into the soil, with comparatively fewer offshoots branching out into the ground around the plant.²⁸

Almost all root systems make use of mycorrhizae systems.²⁸ This is, in effect, a symiosis between the plant’s root system and a fungus wherein the plant provides the fungus with resources and nutrients – mostly sugar – and the fungus provides the plant with greater amounts of water and nutrients from the soil.²⁸

Root networks make use of xylem tissue to transport water from the ground into the stem and other areas of the plant.²⁸ In effect, xylem is vascular tissue specialized for material transport.²⁸

The Roots of Missouri

On Taxonomy

A taxonomic discussion of the roots of Missouri would not be incredibly productive, because each root plant has its own entirely different taxonomic classification; this article focuses on a specific trait shared by many plants rather than on a specific taxon. Needless to say, all of the following species belong to the Plantae Kingdom, but beyond that there is a great amount of variety from Division down to Species.

On Foraging – A Brief Warning

This guide lists several types of edible root plants that grow in Missouri. Despite the fact that they are edible, the author does not encourage or endorse the consumption of these plants. If you do decide to forage for roots to eat, use extreme caution and identify the plants carefully.

Edible Roots

Medicinal Roots

Full List, Alphabetical


American Ginseng (Panax quinquefolius)

USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. Vol. 2: 618.


American ginseng can primarily be found in the American Midwest, though it also grows in certain provinces of Eastern Canada.² It grows in deciduous forests, primarily in rich soil on North-or-East-facing hills.² ³


American ginseng has seen a long history of use as a medicinal root. It was harvested by Native Americans for its medicinal properties, and is now used as an ingredient in some Asian herbal medicines.² Ginseng is believed by some to have medicinal value as a panacea/cureall; though there has been much debate over its legitimacy, certain modern studies have pointed towards the efficacy of ginseng being real.⁴ As a result of this, American ginseng is frequently harvested in the United States for export.² The vast majority of this is exported to China.²

American ginseng is usually consumed powedered with food, or as a tea.⁴


American ginseng is considered to be a vulnerable plant, and is protected by certain regulations under CITES – and therefore the federal govrnment.⁴ Ginseng may only be harvested if it is older than five years at least, and certain states require licenses and mandate set harvesting periods throughout the year.⁴

  • All leaves occur at the top of a stem ²⁹
  • Leaves are palmate compiund ²⁹
  • Leaves possess 3-5 leaflets each ²⁹
  • Flowers May-July: small green-white flowers
  • In summer-fall, clusters of red berries are produced
  • Plant will generally by <20″ in height


American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea)

“American lotus” – public domain via USFWS Midwest Region


American lotus is generally found in stillwater ponds and lakes, especially those with muddy beds.⁷ ⁸ It can be found  all throughout Missouri.⁷


American Lotus roots were used by Native Americans for food.⁷


The Missouri Department of Conservation recommends that American Lotus not be introduced to small ponds because of its rapid rate of reproduction.⁷

  • The typical “lotus flower” – a single, large (~8″), pale-yellow flower, blooming June-September ⁸
  • Flowers elevated above the water by one thick stalk ⁸
  • Flowers possess 20+ petals
  • Disk-shaped leaves that form a floating cup for the flower and fruit ⁸
  • Grows its roots into mud ⁸
  • Possesses “acornlike [seeds], anchored in deep pits.” ⁸

Black Haw (Viburnum prunifolium)

“Blackhaw” via Katja Schulz on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. This image has been modified from its original size. Original image:

Black Haw is distributed throughout Missouri.⁹ It is usually found in rocky and dry areas, and grows best in full sun.⁹
In the past, rural Americans ate fruit from the Black Haw.⁹ In modern medicine, its use has been considered as a remedy for conditions and ailments including menstrual cramps¹⁰, and more generally as a muscle relaxant for conditions such as bronchial spasms.¹¹
Haw is difficult to identify, but the following characters are strong indicators:
  • Opposite 1-3 inch long leaves ⁹
  • Leaves elliptical ⁹
  • Fine-toothed leaf margins ⁹
  • Dull-green upper surface with pale, smooth underside ⁹
  • Small white flowers, 2-4″ wide, visible April to May ⁹
  • Small dark blue berries that fruit September-October ⁹

Carolina False Dandelion (Pyrrhopappus carolinianus)

“False Dandelion (Pyrrhopappus carolinianus)” by gailhampshire on Flickr. Used under Creative Common Attribution 2.0 Generic. Orignal image at:

The False Dandelion is a weed that occurs throughout Missouri, and can grow in a wide variety of environments.¹²
The roots of the False Dandelion are edible, and were used for food by Native  Americans.¹²
This plant is considered a weed / pest,¹² and given its widespread nature it is a major target for herbicide, which itself has important environmental implications.
  • Blooms May–October ¹²
  • Leaves gone by flowering season ¹²
  • Few stem leaves that are alternate; up to 6″ in length ¹²
  • “Fruits in dandelion-like puffball.” ¹²

Cattails (Typha latifolia)

“Cattails” by Salim Virji on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-Sharelike 2.0 Generic. Original image at:

Cattails can be found throughout Missouri in swampy and marshy areas of water. ¹³
Several parts of the cattail are edible, but in particular, their roots can be made into a tasy jelly.¹³ Culturally speaking, cattails are also useful in the making of paper or roof material.¹³
Cattails are a conservation threat: their rapid spreading and growth means that they have a tendency to choke out other plants in a water ecosystem, which is quite problematic.¹³ Moreover, they can grow in manmade sewer and stormwater drains, causing blockages.¹³
  • Easily identifiable by their iconic “hotdog” flower on a thick central stalk ¹³
Three varieties exist, identified separately by their different leaf types:
  • T. latifolia (common) – 1″ wide flat leaves; up  to 8′ in height ¹³
  • T. angustifolia (narrow-leaved) – 1/2″ rounded leaves; up to 6′ in height. Angustifolia’s male and female spike sections are clearly separated. Female sections are “ark brown and ½-¾ inch in diameter” ¹³
  • T. domingensis (southern) – less common in Missouri. Once again, male/female spike sections are clearly separate, but female spike sections are  “medium brown and ¾-1¼ inches in diameter” ¹³

Chicory (Cichorium intybus)

Cichorium intybus L. Chicory aka blue daisy, bunk, coffee weed

Chicory is distrubed throughout Missouri and can successfully grow in many environments as a weed.¹⁴
Chicory is generally seen as weed, but actually is traditionally used as a flavoring for coffees.¹⁴ Chicory roots can be harvested for inulin,¹⁴ which is used as a dietary supplement to remedy constipation¹⁵ and more speculatively as an industrial diet supplment for pigs.¹⁶
  • Firm-stemmed with angular branches ¹⁶
  • Blue-white flowers that bloom from May to October ¹⁶
  • Leaves shrink in size as they get further from the base ¹⁶
  • “Milky latex” sap ¹⁶

Common Evening Primrose (Oenothora biennis)

“Common Evening primrose {Oenothera biennis}” by Drew Avery on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. Original image at:

Common Evening Primrose can be found in many habitats all throughout Missouri, favoring open areas with exposed soil.¹⁷
The roots of the Evening Primrose are edible when cooked.¹⁷
  • Brightly-colored yellow flowers with four rounded petals visible from June-October ¹⁷
  • Alternate lanceolate, light-green leaves ¹⁷
  • Leaves up to 6″ long ¹⁷
  • Short or nonexistent petioles ¹⁷
  • Grows up to 6′ in height ¹⁷

Greenbrier (Smilax glauca)

“Glaucous Greenbrier, Smilax glauca” by desultrix on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license. Original image at:

Greenbrier occurs throughout much of Missouri, preferring places that are moist/wet such as swamps, streambanks, etc.¹⁸
The roots can be boiled into a concentrated liquid which can be used to make a beverage semblant of root beer.¹⁸ ¹⁹
There are eight varieties of smilax in Missouri, which are incredibly difficult to distinguish between.¹⁸  Interestingly, between these varieties, there are smilax plants that have woody stems as opposed to herbacious stems, an unusual trait for a monocot plant.¹⁸   According to the MDC, there are three main identifiers for smilax:
  • White-waxy texture on the underside of leaves ¹⁸
  • Stout, round stems ¹⁸
  • Frequent spines on older stems ¹⁸

Jerusalem (Sunflower) Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus)

“The Flower of Jerusalem artichoke” by Charlotta Wasteson on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. Original image:

The Jerusalem Artichoke generally grows near streams, rivers, and in other areas or rich, disturbed soil.²⁰ It is common all throughout Missouri.²⁰
Jerusalem Artichoke is grown industrially as food and livestock feed.²⁰ It was also cultivated by Native Americans.²⁰

“Jerusalem Artichokes tubers” by on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. Original image:

Jerusalem Artichoke is difficult to identify in comparison to other sunflowers because of its frequent interbreeding with them.²⁰ The MDC recommends that its leaves be used for identification:
  • “[the leaves] are mostly opposite, but alternate in the upper third of the plant; also that the leaves are long, lanceolate, 3-veined, coarsely toothed, long-tapered at the base with winged petioles, and rough-hairy above, downy below.” ²⁰

Mayapple Mandrake (Podophyllum peltatum)

Via LearningLark on Flickr:, used under Attribution 2.0 Generic creative commons rights. This image has been resized from its original.

Mayapple mandrake grows throughout Missouri and across the midwest United States.⁵ Mayapple mandrake typically grows in relatively open forests or in fields.⁵ It can grow in both wet and dry conditions.
Mayapple mandrake is edible; its fruits can be made into a variety of food items.⁵ However, every other part of the plant is poisonous, and in some people even causes dermititis.⁵ According to multiple studies, the mayapple mandrake produces a natural compound which has applications in the treatment of certain cancers.⁵ 
  • Single flowers develop, and only on plants with two leaves 
  • Flowers bloom March to May, and are white (very rarely pink) up to 3″ across ⁵
  • Flowers possess visible green pistils ⁵
  • Up to 1′ wide leaves ⁵
  • Up to 1.5′ tall ⁵
  • Ovular pale-green fruit up to 2″ long ⁵


Orange Daylily (Hemerocallis fulva)

Via Steve Rainwater on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareaAlike 2.0 Generic. Original image:


Found throughout Missouri in abandonded fields, pastures, and similar sites.²¹ It is immune to most diseases and not preyed on by most insects.²¹


Orange Daylily flowers are edible, and the roots can be eaten raw or cooked.²¹

  • 3 sepals with 3 petals of orange color; slightly smaller sepals; blooms May-August ²¹
  • Each flower lasts only one day ²¹
  • Narrow hairless leaves of up to two feet in length ²¹

Prairie Blazing Star (Gayfeather) (Liatris pycnostachya)

“Blazing star skies” by Justin Meissen on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic. Original image:

Occurs in most grassy open areas, spread throughout Missouri.²²
The roots are edible raw or cooked.²² Native Americans also used some varieties of Liatris medicinally.²²
  • Mostly identifiable by its densely-packed and vibrantly purple flower, which blooms from July to October ²²
  • Narrow leaves starting at 20 inches long and shortening up the stem ²²

Queen Anne’s Lace (Wild Carrot) (Daucus carota)

“Daucus carota, 2015, Queen Anne’s Lace, aka Wild Carrot, DO-kus kar-OH-tuh (Greek name + carrot), 4 Ft biennial weed, Bi, white, Bloom Month 7a, In Bed W2 for 3.1 years Common plant (weed) in the garden and lawn. It was introduced from Europe, and the carrots that we eat today were cultivated from this plant. It is a biennial plant. Never ate the root.”

Queen Anne’s Lace grows in most open areas of disturbed soil.²³
Queen Anne’s Lace is edible if it’s harvested young.²³ More importantly, it is the counterpart subspecies to domesticated carrots, making it incredibly closely related to a massively popular staple in modern agriculture.²³
  • Grows into small white flowers in numerous bunches from May to October ²³
  • Roots in a strong taproot ²³
  • Branching stems ²³
  • “Leaves pinnately divided into straplike leaflets (twice-compound)”  ²³

Sweet Cicely (Anise Root) (Osmorhiza claytonii / longistylis)

“Sweet cicely” by Melissa McMasters on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. Original image at:


Anise roots grow statewide in Missouri forest undergrowth.²⁴
Anise roots are extremely important for their culinary usages; they can be substituted for anise oil.²⁴ Their aromatic properties are rich flavors make their excellent ingredients.
  • Coarse-toothed lateral leaflets²⁴
  • Carrot-like roots with heavy anise scent²⁴

Water Shield (Brasenia schreberi)

“Water Shield (Brasenia schreberi)” by Aaron Carlson on Flickr. This image was resized to better fit the page. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic ( Original image at:

Water shield typically grows in ponds and lakes throughout southeast Missouri.²⁵
The roots of water shield were eaten by Native Americans.²⁵
  • Ovalular floating leaves between 4-5″ in length ²⁵
  • Thick jellylike undercovering ²⁵ 
  • Small red-purple flowers on top.²⁵

Wild Ginger (Asarum canadense)

Wild Ginger roots. Taken by Ethan Page.

Wild ginger can be found throughout much of Missouri.²⁷ It usually grows in rich soil in forests or on riverbanks.²⁷
Wild ginger roots can be used, like one might assume, as a substitute for ginger.²⁷ Moreover, wild ginger used to be used as a sort of cureall, though it has fallen out of popularity as a remedy with modern medicine.²⁷
  • Ginger leaves usually hide their flowers; the flowers themselves are three-parted and red-purple, blooming from April to May ²⁷
  • The plant grows low and is hairy ²⁷
  • Large, heart-shaped leaves ²⁷
  • Leaves are shiny and have a hairy surface ²⁷
  • Up to 6″ in height ²⁷

Wild Potato Vine (Ipomoea pandurata)

“PO wild potato vine cdm” by Virginia State Parks on Flickr. Used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic ( Original image:

Wild potato vines can be found in wet soil: near lakes and streams, ditches, fields, and so on.²⁶ It is distributed throughout all of Missouri.²⁶
Wild potato is, of course, a relative of potatoes that are cultivated agriculturally.²⁶ Its roots are edible,²⁶  though less appealing than most modern types of potatoes given that they have not been bred selectively.
  • Trailing or climbing vine ²⁶
  •  Flowers cluster in numberse between one and seven
  • “Each flower on a long peduncle, funnel-shaped, to 3 inches long, white with a dark crimson or purple center.” ²⁶ These flowers bloom May to September ²⁶
  • Heart-shaped, pointed leaves up to 6″ in size
  • “Root a tuber to 2 feet long and weighing 20 pounds or more, often branched, leglike.” ²⁶


1. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Root.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 14 Feb. 2019.

2. “American Ginseng.” Official Web Page of the U S Fish and Wildlife Service.

3. “American Ginseng – Panax Quinquefolius.” United Plant Savers.

4. Burkhart, Eric, and Michael Jacobson. “American Ginseng.” Penn State Extension, 9 Nov. 2019.

5. “Mayapple.” MDC Discover Nature.

6. Poulette, Abigail. “Closer Look.” Organic Gardening, vol. 54, no. 4, May 2007, p. 80. EBSCOhost.

7. “American Lotus.” MDC Discover Nature.

8. “AquaPlant.” AquaPlant.

9. “Black Haw.” MDC Discover Nature.

10. Yarnell, Eric. “Herbal Medicine for Dysmenorrhea.” Alternative & Complementary Therapies, vol. 21, no. 5, Oct. 2015, pp. 224–228. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1089/act.2015.29024.eya.

11. Yarnell, Eric, and Kathy Abascal. “Spasmolytic Botanicals: Relaxing Smooth Muscle with Herbs.” Alternative & Complementary Therapies, vol. 17, no. 3, June 2011, pp. 169–174. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1089/act.2011.17305.

12. “Carolina False Dandelion.” MDC Discover Nature.

13. “Cattails.” MDC Discover Nature.

14. “Chicory.” MDC Discover Nature.

15. Micka, Antje, et al. “Effect of Consumption of Chicory Inulin on Bowel Function in Healthy Subjects with Constipation: A Randomized, Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Trial.” International Journal of Food Sciences & Nutrition, vol. 68, no. 1, Feb. 2017, pp. 82–89. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1080/09637486.2016.1212819.

16. Rideout, T. C., et al. “Excretion of Major Odor-Causing and Acidifying Compounds in Response to Dietary Supplementation of Chicory Inulin in Growing Pigs.” Journal of Animal Science, vol. 82, no. 6, June 2004, pp. 1676–1684. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2527/2004.8261678x.

17. “Common Evening Primrose.” MDC Discover Nature.

18. “Greenbrier.” MDC Discover Nature.

19. Deane. “Smilax: A Brier And That’s No Bull.” Eat The Weeds and Other Things, Too, 19 Sept. 2017.

20. “Jerusalem Artichoke (Sunflower Artichoke).” MDC Discover Nature.

21. “Orange Day Lily.” MDC Discover Nature.

22. “Prairie Blazing Star (Gayfeather).” MDC Discover Nature.

23. “Queen Anne’s Lace (Wild Carrot).” MDC Discover Nature.

24. “Sweet Cicely (Anise Root).” MDC Discover Nature.

25. “Water Shield.” MDC Discover Nature.

26. “Wild Potato Vine.” MDC Discover Nature.

27. “Wild Ginger.” MDC Discover Nature.

28. “Plant Roots.” Basic Biology.

29. “American Ginseng.” MDC Discover Nature.

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