Drawning of fern unfurling


It can be challenging for archeologists to study what vegetables Indigenous people in the past were eating since leaves and fleshy parts of plants do not usually preserve in the ground for very long. Researchers do sometimes find seeds associated with plants with edible green parts that were likely gathered and eaten by people living in Arkansas for thousands of years. We also have a specific example of edible greens being depicted in rock art (see below).


Fiddlehead ferns  

“Fiddlehead” ferns are a growth stage of ferns when they are just coming up and in the process of unfurling. Fiddlehead ferns also refer to a specific type of fern (commonly called Ostrich Fern) that grows in the Eastern United States. Ferns are only edible at this stage- and only some species of ferns are not edible at all (so don’t go around eating them if you haven’t done additional research). Also, fiddlehead ferns need to be cooked before eating. Even so,  fiddlehead ferns were likely eaten people living in Arkansas thousands of year ago.

This rock art image on Petit Jean Mountain is interpreted by researchers as a fiddlehead fern.

Ferns emerge in early spring. There are ferns growing around the WRI Station and in the Native Arkansas Plant Walkway at WRI.

Ferns don’t flower and make seeds. Rather they reproduce using spores (the brown dots on the underside of mature ferns).


(Portulaca oleracea) 

Purslane is a low growing plant that spreads easily.

Purslane has small yellow flowers.

Purslane sprawls along the ground and is a good ground cover to keep weeds at bay between plants.

Purslane seeds are tiny and black with a dimply texture. To non-paleoethnobotanists, purslane seeds look quite similar to goosefoot seeds. Purslane seeds are also edible and contain a good amount of protein and fatty acids (Mohamed and Hussein 1994).


(Amaranthus sp.) 

The leaves of amaranth are edible, and almost certainly gathered by Indigenous people of Arkansas and included in cooked meals for added nutrition and flavoring.

More information about amaranth and Indigenous peoples’ use of its seeds as food can be found by clicking here.


(Chenopodium berlandieri) 

The leaves of young goosefoot plants were gathered by Indigenous people. They are a good source of vitamin C and have a good amount of protein.

More information about goosefoot and Indigenous peoples’ use of its seeds as food can be found by clicking here.


Bye, Robert A Jr.

1981   Quelites- Ethnoecology of Edible Greens- Past, Present, and Future. Journal of Ethnobiology 1(1): 109-123.


Chapman, Jefferson, Robert B. Stewart, and Richard A. Yarnell

1974   Archaeological evidence for pre-Columbian introduction of Portulaca oleracea and Mollugo verticillata into eastern North America.  Economic Botany 28: 411-412.


 Gremillion, Kristen J.

1993    Crop and Weed in Prehistoric Eastern North America: The Chenopodium Example. American Antiquity 58(3): 496-509.


Scarry, C. Margaret

2003    Patterns of Wild Plant Utilization in the Prehistoric Eastern Woodlands. In People and Plants in Ancient North American, edited by Paul E. Minnis, pp. 50-104. Smithsonian Institution, Washington.


Simopoulos, Artemis P., Helen A. Norman, James E. Gillaspy, and James A. Duke

1992   Common purslane: a source of omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants,  Journal of the American College of Nutrition 11(4): 374-382.


Tankersley, Kenneth Barnett, Denis G. Conover, and David L. Lentz

2016   Stable carbon isotope values (δ¹³C) of purslane (Portulaca oleracea) and their archaeological significance. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. 7:189-194.