Simon’s Simples: Pignuts (Conopodium Majus)

Pignuts (Conopodium Majus)

Pignut or Earthnut

Although these tasty tubers are beloved of pigs (hence the name) they are a most unusual and rewarding woodland snack and there was a time when they were a popular nibble for country children on their way to and from school. Now pignuts don’t really seem to do very much medicinally but I have put an article on them here for a very special reason. Your relationship with nature – and this is at the heart of everyone’s health in this day and age. Pignuts to me, are a nature food. Like a spell – the taste and texture of these crunchy little earthnuts draw me into the land. Eating one or two before entering the wood pulls me into the scene. Another name for these fascinating tubers is Earthnuts.

You might have noticed my references in this book to how people living in nature, without access to our modern devices of distraction, have a very intimate relationship with the plants around them – partly because their lives depend on those plants and relationships. Just because we in the supposedly ‘civilised’ Western world have chosen to live lives often separate from nature doesn’t mean we are any less reliant on it. I mean – think what would happen if the bees all died out!

The older name for Earthnuts is ‘Earth Chestnuts’ and this gives you a clue to their taste – a chestnut texture but with a more earthy taste. There’s nothing like re-affirming an intimate contact with nature by carefully digging one of these up during a quiet walk in the woods. Do it with your fingernails. As the earthy taste hits the senses you are drawn more completely into contact with the woodland around you. Somehow the sense of millennia of time infuses you and your memory is drawn back to primordial man. Digging up roots with your fingers (OK use a stick then) certainly puts us humans in touch with our roots.

The fern like leaves appear along with the Lesser Celandine in the spring. During May and July they develop umbellifer heads with white flowers not unlike Cow Parsley. According to Gerard and others the Dutch once ate them ‘boiled and buttered, as we do parseneps and carrots’.

Unearthing a pignut is a delicate operation, which is why a stick or penknife can be a bit clumsy. The root disconnects from the tuber very easily and this can be several inches from where the stem appears above ground.

Follow the stem of the plant under the earth using careful scraping. Eventually you will reach the pignut, which is covered with a chestnut coloured skin. If you can wash the nut at this stage it avoids getting muddy fingernails while peeling. As soon as I found the one shown in the picture, an earthworm appeared and dived into the hole it left!

Scrape off the papery outer coating to reveal the Earthnut. Pop it into your mouth and concentrate on savouring the earthy taste of nature – some real, raw wild food.

Gerard’s Herbal mentions that ‘There is a Plaister made of the seeds hereof, whereof to write in this place were impertinent to our historie’. This means that there were probably witches doing something unacceptable again with pignuts that we can only guess at!

Finding an Earthnut

Earthnuts get a mention in Shakespeare’s Tempest, from Caliban – a real ‘nature boy’ – as he promises:


I’ll show thee the best springs; I’ll pluck thee berries; I’ll fish for thee and get thee wood enough. A plague upon the tyrant that I serve! I’ll bear him no more sticks, but follow thee, Thou wondrous man.


A most ridiculous monster, to make a wonder of a poor drunkard!


I prithee, let me bring thee where crabs grow; And I with my long nails will dig thee pignuts; Show thee a jay’s nest and instruct thee how to snare the nimble marmoset; I’ll bring thee to clustering filberts and sometimes I’ll get thee young scamels from the rock. Wilt thou go with me?

The Tempest: Act 2, Scene 2

Caliban is talking about where crab apples grow, the wild – nature itself and a proper wild diet of apples, pignuts, jay’s eggs, small monkeys, hazelnuts and baby seagulls. Perhaps we should accept his invitation as far as the Pignuts at least – and of course the ‘clustering filberts’ (next).