Exploring Edible Plant Life

Garden researcher Andrew Townesmith with his edible plant life booksNew insights and discoveries about the role of plants as food are being made every day, close to home and around the world. For the last 10 years, Andrew Townesmith, research specialist at the Garden's William L. Brown Center, has been exploring the vast field of edible plant life with his taste buds, sampling more than 450 different edible plants to date.

Join us on a culinary adventure throughout our yearlong Foodology celebration as Andrew shares findings, recommendations and recipes from his many taste tests.




19

A Life List

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One of my hobbies is adding edible plants to my “life list.” A life list is a concept I’ve borrowed from birdwatchers, many of whom maintain a list of all the birds they have seen in their lives. I maintain a list of all the plants I’ve eaten.

I first became interested in figuring out how many species of plants I’d eaten when I came across a statement very similar to the following: “There are approximately 50,000 edible plant species in the world, but the average American only eats 30.” I’ve never been able to track down where the estimate of 30 species comes from, but it is a widely repeated factoid (Google the quoted phrase for some examples). I was skeptical. While it’s true that Americans, or people from any other culture for that matter, commonly eat only a small fraction of the many potentially edible plants in the world, 30 is clearly an unreasonably low estimate. The table below lists just 30 species that are essentially inescapable elements of the typical American diet.

 

Vegetables

Vegetables

Fruits

Starches

Nuts/Spices/Oils

Beverages/Sweets
Celery

Onions

Apples

Beans

Almonds

Chocolate
Carrots

Peas

Bananas

Corn

Peanuts

Coffee
Chile/Bell Peppers

Spinach

Grapes

Potatoes

Olives (oil)

Sugar
Cucumbers

Tomatoes

Oranges

Rice

Black Pepper

Tea
Lettuce

Brassica oleracea*

Watermelon

Wheat

Garlic
Barley (in beer)
*Brassica oleracea is a single species which provides a number of the cruciferous vegetables: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale and kohlrabi

There are many other commonly eaten species I could’ve listed. Nevertheless, I do suspect that most people throughout the world eat well less than 100 species on a regular basis. For example, between six and 12 starchy species provide the bulk of humanity’s calories. Various researchers have tried to establish what the most important food plants are. In a paper titled “How Many Plants Feed the World?” Robert and Christine Prescott-Allen found that 103 species account for 90 percent of global food supplies, although some of these plants are only consumed in a handful of countries.

The figure of 50,000 edible plants mentioned above is high. More precisely, it depends on how “edible plant” is defined. There are roughly 10,000 species of grasses with potentially edible seeds, but most of these seeds are very small and harvesting requires too much effort to be worth it. A figure of 50,000 edible plants includes a large number of “famine foods,” which are only eaten under desperate circumstances. The total number of plant species regularly eaten in some part of the world under normal conditions is at least 3,000 but probably less than 10,000.

Clearly there is an incredible cornucopia of edible plants that are rarely eaten. I’ve made it a personal goal to try as many food plants as I can. I’ve always been somewhat of an adventurous eater, and my life list of food plants is now up to 450 species.

I’ve set myself a few simple rules for my life list:

  • I need to “fully experience” the food plant. I want it to be one of the major ingredients in a dish, not one that I can’t even taste. In the cases of herbs and spices that would be overwhelming in large quantities, I simply taste a small amount by itself.
  • I only count species. There is a fantastic diversity of varieties of edible plants which is almost overwhelming. All of the apples in a supermarket are separate varieties of a single species. While I’m fascinated by the diversity of varieties, I only count different species.
  • I need to have a reference that indicates that a plant is commonly eaten somewhere. I’m not going to try eating the seeds of every species of grass I come across.

For this last rule, I rely on two major references. Food Plants of the World by Ben-Erik van Wyk is a beautifully illustrated guide to 354 species of the world’s most important food plants (available in the Garden Gate Shop). My short-term goal is to try every plant listed in this volume. Cornucopia II by Stephen Facciola lists more than 3,000 species of edible plants and is one of the most comprehensive lists of edible plants available.

While the typical supermarket has a surprising number of exotic plants that many people have never tried (e.g. chestnuts, starfruit, prickly pears, salsify, etc.), I now have to work a little harder to find new plants to try. Ethnic grocery stores are treasure troves of new food plants. I’m lucky to be able to travel to foreign countries through my work at the Garden, which also affords me new opportunities to try new plants. There are numerous wild edible plants in Missouri, and, while I have tried quite a few, there are many more I have yet to experience. For the most part, I try new plants opportunistically as I come across them. In some cases, however, I have heard about something that I want to make a special effort to find. This may mean searching the Internet for a product containing the plant or even finding seeds so I can grow the plant myself.

How many plants do you think you have eaten? Are you inspired to count them (by whatever criteria you prefer) and seek out more of the incredible diversity of edible plants?

 
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Throughout 2013, the Garden is inviting everyone to dig deep into the roots of food, think about plants on their plate in whole new ways, connect and share with others and get inspired...
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Food Plants of the World

Food Plants of the World book coverDiscover some new edible plants to try out in your kitchen. Food Plants of the World: An Illustrated Guide, one of the references Andrew uses, is available in the Garden Gate Shop.