The only roots which I have seen used as food by the Eskimo are the roots of a species of Knotweed Polygonum bistortum. The roots of plants of this genus, known to the Eskimo as Mā'sū, or Mā'shū, are frequently dug and eaten in summer, but usually only when there is a scarcity of meat or fish for food.
June 11, 1911
My Life with the Eskimo - Notes on Plants
NOTES ON PLANTS
Very few plants outside of the trees and woody shrubs are put to economic use by the Eskimo. North of the limit of trees, the various species of shrub and ground willows are burned, as is also the Northern Dwarf Birch ( Betula nana Linn .). The latter, known as “ partridge-brush ” in the Great Bear Lake region, as ēk -fuk'tok by Alaskan Eskimo, and as av-al-lū'kret by the Coronation Gulf people, burns with a fierce heat, even when green , and can be used in a camp-stove if twisted into bunches. On the Barren Grounds, a species of heather, Cassiope tetragona (L.) D. Don. , is much used for fuel, particularly in the summer - time. It burns either green or dry, and can even be dug from under the snow and burned in winter. This species, or one very similar to it, is common in various places – in the Endicott Mountains, Alaska; King Point, Yukon Territory ; Langton Bay, Coronation Gulf, Dismal Lake, Dease River, and Great Bear Lake. It is called Ik -hlū'tit by the Coronation Gulf Eskimo ; Pi-la -rau -ū'it by western Alaskan Eskimo ( Port Clarence) ; and Tu -kak -shi-ū'uit by Mackenzie delta Eskimo. The inner bark of the Mountain Alder, Alnus alnobetula ( Ehrh .) Koch ., is often used to stain the inner side of tanned skins red .
The only roots which I have seen used as food by the Eskimo are the roots of a species of Knotweed either Polygonum bistortum ( Tourn .) L., Polygonum viviparum L., or Polygonum fugax Small. The roots of plants of this genus, known to the Eskimo as Mā'sū, or Mā'shū, are frequently dug and eaten in summer, but usually only when there is a scarcity of meat or fish for food. These roots are fairly edible, either raw or cooked, having a slightly sweetish taste, but are somewhat woody and fibrous. On the Colville River, Alaska, the Eskimo preserve the Masu roots in sealskin “ pokes," and eat them in a somewhat fermented state. Several species of small ground -growing berries are often eaten by the western Eskimo, particularly a yellow berry called Ak'pek (the Cloudberry, Rubus chamæmarus Linn . ), the At'tsi-ak (Alpine Bearberry, Mairania alpina (Linn .) Desv. ), and the paun'rat (Crowberry, Empetrum nigrum Linn .). These berries are eaten by the Coronation Gulf Eskimo, except the akpek, the use of which is unknown, although in the opinion of white men and of the western Eskimo it is the best of all local berries. They are eaten by the Mackenzie Eskimo, but they say they did not use them extensively until taught to do so by the Alaskan Eskimo (not more than twenty -five years ago) . The leaves of Oxyria digyna (L.) , a species of sorrel, are frequently mixed with seal-oil and eaten as a sort of salad by the western Eskimo. The plant is called Kõ'na-ritj by Alaskan Eskimo. The partly digested stomach contents of the Barren Ground caribou are frequently eaten frozen in winter. Stomachs filled with reindeer-moss are considered much better than those from caribou which have been feeding on the coarse, woody fibers of grassy plants. As with most other viands, this dish is not considered complete without a liberal dressing of seal-oil.
The collecting of plants on the expedition was only incidental for the greater part of the time, owing to lack of facilities for preserving and transporting specimens. A collection mainly of flowering plants from the north coast of Alaska was completely lost. A small lot of plants which survived the vicissitudes of northern travel were turned over to the New York Botanical Garden, Bronx Park, New York City, and were very kindly determined by Dr. P. A. Rydberg, as follows:
Coronation Gulf. Mouth of Kogaryuak River, eighteen miles east of Coppermine River, Arctic coast, Canada, June 18th, 1911 .
Salix arctica Pallas. Rather small specimen.
Draba hirta L. Tall specimen.
Astragalus sp. An unknown species, somewhat resembling A. alpinus, but more slender, with small, narrow , grayish , hirsute leaflets, purple only on the tip of the keel, black -hairy calyx shorter than in A. alpinus. No fruit is found, which makes it impossible to characterize the plant fully.
Lupinus arcticus S. Wats. A form more grayish - pubescent than the Victoria Island specimen.
Hedysarum mackenzië Richards. A low specimen.
Rhododendron lapponicum L. (This species is abundant on south side of Coronation Gulf.)
Cassiope tetragona D. Don. Luxuriant specimens. ( Used for fuel .)
Pedicularis lanata Willd. Fair specimen.
Pedicularis arctica R. Br. Good specimen. Southwestern Victoria Island, fifteen miles east of Point Williams, July 21st, 1911 .
Salix phlebophylla And. Specimen with rather large leaves.
Papaver radicatum Rottb. In fruit.
Dryas integrifolia Vahl. Both the typical and the lobed -leaved forms.
Potentilla pulchella R. Br. Good specimen with rather narrow leaf. Lupinus arcticus S. Wats. The typical form.
Mairania alpina (L.) Desv. In leaves only. It is probably the red - fruited form .
Androsace chamæiasme arctica Kunth . Excellent specimens.
Statice sibirica ( Turcz .) Ledeb . Good specimens.
Chrysanthemum integrifolium Richards. Small specimen. Cape Bathurst, Arctic coast, Northwest Territory, Canada, July 6th, 1912.
Salix anglorum Cham. Typical.
Oxyria digyna (L.) Compt. Good specimens. (Often eaten as a relish . )
Ranunculus nivalis L. Good typical specimens.
Draba glacialis Adams. In young flowers, small- leaved.
Cochlearis grænlandica L. In flowers.
Androsace chamaeiasme arctica Kunth . Excellent specimens.
Primula borealis Duby. Just beginning to bloom , therefore pedicils rather short .
Phlox richardsonii Hook. Best specimens seen of this rare plant.
Pneumaria maritima (L. ) Hill . Good specimens. King Point, Arctic coast, Yukon Territory, Canada, August 27th , 1912.
Polygonum fugax Small. Out of bloom and spike gone, but probably this form.
Vaccinim Vitis - Idæa L. Only a fragment. Valeriana capitata Pallas. Rather small specimen.
The Knotweed has some effects that might show us why it was considered famine food.
Although no specific mention has been made for this species, there have been reports that some members of this genus can cause photosensitivity in susceptible people. Many species also contain oxalic acid (the distinctive lemony flavour of sorrel) - whilst not toxic this substance can bind up other minerals making them unavailable to the body and leading to mineral deficiency.