A resource and information centre for edible and otherwise useful plants.
February 5, 2011 9:26 AM   Subscribe

There are over 20,000 species of edible plants in the world yet fewer than 20 species now provide 90% of our food. Over ten years ago, Ken Fern began compiling a database, which currently consists of approximately 7000 species of plants.
In Plants for a Future are listed ( among others) The edibles; and a plant Top 20 as well as the Top Rated Medicinal Plants.
There is also a documentary and a book which is reviewed here.
posted by adamvasco (20 comments total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
Ah, some ideas for planting my garden come spring!
posted by orange swan at 9:27 AM on February 5, 2011

Kudzu is edible and medicinal? Wow.

Great find. There's all kinds of landscape plants that are good for more than just decoration, but are not well known for their useful properties. Some of them you really don't want to eat.
posted by Xoebe at 9:45 AM on February 5, 2011

What a name for a plant guy...Ken Fern.
posted by timsteil at 10:13 AM on February 5, 2011

Edible does not imply "delicious," "nutritious," or "easy to prepare."
posted by explosion at 10:30 AM on February 5, 2011 [7 favorites]

woah, PFAF is an excellent resource! Thanks for the link!
i haven't been able to grow as much food as I'd like (i'm limited to herbs right now), but this will be useful for my next living situation.
posted by entropone at 10:44 AM on February 5, 2011

There are some interesting stories about New World foods being ignored in the Old World - tomatoes looked too much like Deadly Nightshade to be considered edible at first and potatoes where seen as purely decorative for a while because the chefs tried to cook the leaves and ignored the root.

Gore Vidal's Empire opens with a English chef coming across an exotic novelty, a watermelon, and then attempting to cook it in the oven like squash.
posted by The Whelk at 10:52 AM on February 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

...fewer than 20 species now provide 90% of our food.

Is that a new thing? I thought that during most of history most civilizations were usually centered around one or two crops... and... something about nixtamalization. I think I got to the end of my brain there.
posted by XMLicious at 10:52 AM on February 5, 2011

tomatoes looked too much like Deadly Nightshade to be considered edible at first

It also had to do with the fact that the tomato plant does contain quite a bit of toxins. The fruit itself (obviously) does not contain harmful levels of them.
posted by entropone at 10:59 AM on February 5, 2011

Edible does not imply "delicious," "nutritious," or "easy to prepare."

I think this is a problem with this list. I'm looking through the "Top Rated Edible Plants" and thinking "I've never heard of any of these. How do I know which ones might actually be worth growing?" Presumably, the ones that are most worth growing are the 20 that make up 90% of our food.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:12 AM on February 5, 2011 [3 favorites]

This is cool. I'd like to have some information on each plant's invasiveness, but that's so dependent on where it's planted that it might be hard to compile information on it.

Kudzu is edible and medicinal?

I was surprised a few years ago to see big jars of dried kudzu root in the bulk health-foods aisle of my grocery store. (I was kind of hoping that it was being marketed on the theory that you'd gain the plant's vitality and fecundity by eating its root, but it appears to have some other putative benefit.)
posted by hattifattener at 11:54 AM on February 5, 2011

A massive database of edible plants while impressive and excellent for research, is far from a practical resource for eager aspiring plant eaters. Even the popular field guides (eg: Peterson's Edible Wild Plants) commonly available in many bookstores have limited information for someone who actually wants to go out and prepare a meal of tasty plants - - they usually aim for brief descriptions of the maximum quantity of species, instead of greater details of each plant's appearance in various seasons, the best time to pick it, and how to harvest and prepare it.

Fortunately, a new wave of edible plant books are now becoming available. The first of this new breed in 2006 was The Forager's Harvest by Samuel Thayer, followed by it's sequel Nature's Garden. Each of these books only covers about 30 plants, but does so in such detail that even the amateur herbivore is assured of some success the first time out. Another book in the same style came out last year, Edible Wild Plants by John Kallas, and while it is good, I personally prefer Thayer's amiable style (read the first pages on Amazon's "Look Inside" feature to get a taste of it).

The Forager's Harvest came as a veritable epiphany for me, after decades of blaming myself for not being able to work the popular field guides that received hundreds of glowing reviews. For those excited by this MeFi post, I can't recommend it (and it's sequel) highly enough.
posted by fairmettle at 12:25 PM on February 5, 2011 [16 favorites]

Uhhh... How did we get so far down this thread without mentioning Euell Gibbons?
posted by newdaddy at 1:36 PM on February 5, 2011

A family of South Asian immigrants was recently severely poisoned by consumption of jimson weed which the woman doing the cooking had added to a stew.

The story as reported here doesn't mention their ethnicity but I remember the story from the Washington Post in 2008.

You should be sure of what you are eating, and this is even more the case with mushrooms. Aside from the story's bold mycologist, the most common cases of amanita poisoning in the U.S. are Southeast Asian immigrants who confuse amanitas with the nonpoisonous Vietnamese straw mushroom.
posted by bad grammar at 2:06 PM on February 5, 2011

The first thing I clicked on was 'sweet violet', which we are told is a folk treatment for whooping cough and cancer. Great!
posted by yaxu at 2:07 PM on February 5, 2011

Plants for a Future is a great book! As a designer of sustainable systems, I've also used Cornucopia II: A Source Book of Edible Plants, which has most every edible plant (and a good number of fungi as well) from around the world.
posted by Dodecadermaldenticles at 6:06 PM on February 5, 2011

The linked documentary is absolutely wonderful, and ties in with my new passion for permaculture and sensible food production. I never knew about the guy and his forest garden, nor Toyohiko Kagawa, whom he cites as an inspiration.

An excellent post. Many thanks.
posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 6:12 PM on February 5, 2011

From memory, kudzu selectively inhibits the enzyme that does the initial breakdown of alcohol, meaning that you need less alcohol to get buzzed. It has been traditionally used as treatment for alcoholism, and researchers have been looking at diadzin the active compound involved as potential medicines.
posted by fido~depravo at 9:30 PM on February 5, 2011

I've read the 20 plants for 90% of food claim before, and always find it a bit silly.
It may be narrowly true, sure, I eat a lot of wheat and rice, and I suppose americans eat a lot of corn (thanks to farm subsidies), but as a westerner, I have an extraordinarily diverse diet. I just made a list in 5mins of the plants I've eaten in the last week or two and easily hit 60+ (and that is excluding betel nut leaf, and a couple of other exotic things I had at a Thai place for the first time). It helps that summer fruit is in season here, but I am pretty much an anti-vegetarian, so its not like I eat some special high plant content diet. Add to this a bunch of animal (flesh and derivatives) products and I have a diet that would be astonishing anytime in the past. Even as a kid growing up I probably only regularly ate half these plants - the fossil fuel subsidy has massively increased the scope and variety of our foods, not to mention the dividends of mass migration and cultural acceptance. Plus, of course, I've got entries like 'apple' or 'lettuce' when in fact I've eaten multiple varieties of each
Here is my quick list.

green bean
sweet potato
sweet corn


hops ;-)
posted by bystander at 2:36 AM on February 6, 2011

I live in Duluth, which a lot of people think means gardens are sparse, since our growing season is fairly short. Foods we grow and eat all year round (canning and freezing):
sweet corn
swiss chard

Wild foods I gather and we use every year:

service berries
lobster mushrooms
shaggy manes
wild asparagus
wild strawberries
wild raspberries

Things I know are out there but haven't harvested yet:
oyster mushrooms
king boletes
bears head tooth fungus
black morels

I will say though, that learning to find things in your neighborhood takes time--like years. Starts with a book, sure. But then it's a lot of walking, looking, and really paying attention to what grows when and when's the best time to get them. I have lived in my present city for 15 years, 7 in my current house. It took me two years to find the asparagus nearby. Same for mint. Three years to find ramps and shaggy mane. This last year was the first for chanterelles. It really is a lifestyle that takes patience and a good eye for observation. Talking to the elderly who've lived in your region a long time helps a lot too--they know the forgotten places and harvest times.

I'm always amused at the looks and comments I get when I am, for instance, collecting chokecherries on the side of rural roads. Old people know what I'm doing, quite often. But the young are puzzled and skeptical. How do you know you won't die? I have *never* run into another forager while I'm out--though I do know one other person in my network who does it.
posted by RedEmma at 10:15 AM on February 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Duluth: Where frozen vegetables are picked fresh daily!
I remember the Minnesota Lottery commercials from 20 years ago)

I made my own list of 41, then found 22 more from bystander's list. Trying to stick to things we use regularly. There are a number of fruits that could be added, for example, but I just counted the ones we have in a typical week. I'm guessing I could find at least 10 items in my kitchen that I hadn't thought about (not counting the spice rack). I did, however, remember to count the beloved cocoa bean.
posted by Goofyy at 8:25 AM on February 7, 2011

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