"Around the World in 80 Plants" by Stephen Barstow

Writing about Hablitzia tamnoides in April I mentioned Stephen Barstow, the prime mover in the introduction of this special plant into our vegetable gardens, and author of Around the World in 80 Plants. This was my present from Stew last Christmas and here is my promised review of it. Stephen is happy to be contacted about his work so I also wrote to him with some questions and you can read his answers below.

Around the World in 80 Plants is a gardening/foraging/travel/ethnobotanical work all in one. Stephen takes the reader around six different temperate regions of the world, giving detailed introductions in each region, to those of his eighty favourite perennial edible plants which either hail from that region or are most closely associated with it. He has all these plants growing in his garden and dines on many of them frequently.
Photo of book " Around the World in Eighty Plants"

But be prepared if you embark on this journey for more than just an armchair plant tour. I love this book chiefly because it widened my vision, of both plants and people. And this it did in three main ways....

Firstly, the journey starts in Europe and taught me far more details about wild plants I already knew as edible. I learnt, to give just one example, about a wealth of special selections of dandelions, how to cook 'dandinoodles' and how I might go about making dandelions palatable if they are too bitter.

Secondly, I visited parts of the world with foraging traditions involving plants I'm familiar with but which I had never considered as sources of food. The shoots of old man's beard, for instance, and of butcher's broom (the latter is a curious spiky plant which grows nearby my parents' cottage in Wiltshire), are both used cooked in the western Mediterranean. It is one thing to read a rare and brief reference to a local plant being edible (or at least not poisonous!) but it is quite another to discover that there is a living tradition of their use in another country. There is now some butcher's broom in a pot in our backyard. It is a long time since I have travelled abroad and experienced other cultures directly, but if it grows and I gather and cook the shoots I will feel closer to those communities who do the same. (Likewise with mallows, eaten by Palestinians on the West Bank and in parts of rural China.)

Thirdly, I began to move my focus from seeing perennial vegetables as a limited list of individual plants, such as Babington leek, or scorzonera, to viewing those same plants within the context of their genus or family, members of which are often to be found across the globe. Did you know for instance that there are at least four different Scorzonera species used for food? And Stephen mentions forty plus species and varieties of edible Alliums! One that he rates highly and tells fascinating stories about (including the possibility of it being cultivated by the Vikings) is the victory onion. His book gives tips about where you might source many of the plants he mentions and I have found seed for this one listed in Thomas Etty's catalogue.

This is a very tiny dip into a book which is really packed with information and stories about the plants (actually far more than eighty are mentioned), the people who grow them (and how they use them) and the people who introduced them to others. There is cultivation and cooking advice too and some recipes both for traditional dishes and some of Stephen's invention.

My only complaint about the book is that I could have done with a slightly bolder type for easier reading. But if, as I hope, Stephen is planning to continue his research and his travels, then that's just a little detail for the publishers of his second edible perennial adventure book!

Welcome Stephen!      You write in your book, "It amazes me again and again how many wonderful veggies we have right in front of our noses but just don't see."  I especially like this sentence because despite reading Richard Mabey's "Food for Free" as a child it's only in recent years that the scale of this abundance has begun to dawn on me. Not only plant blindness, but food blindness. Why do you think it has come about that some plants which are both extremely common and highly nutritious are more likely to be hated as weeds than valued as food? I'm thinking of things like nettles, ground elder and dandelions.

I'm sure there are several reasons for this. Here are a few:

Cultural bias: For unknown reasons, certain excellent vegetables of any kind are just not used; e.g., why are broad beans traditionally almost totally ignored in Norway, whereas just across the North Sea in the UK they are one of the most important vegetables grown; many but not all cultures seem to have understood that harvesting your weeds (cryptocropping) increases the total yield and adds diversity and interest to the diet.

Memories of hard times: During the last world war foraging became a necessity in many countries; people younger than 90 have little memory of those hard times and people from my generation (young in the 70s/80s) started to harvest these "famine foods" again and began to understand that many actually tasted good!

Easy access to herbicides and lobbying of the agrochemical industry:  a generation of people have been brainwashed to believe that a garden should look manicured and lawns should be a monoculture.

Lack of knowledge: It's only within the last 20 years or so that it's been shown scientifically that wild plants including many weeds are more nutritious than the main crop.

Botanical conservatism: The attitude that we must at all costs conserve the native flora as it is….EU and national plant black lists (invasive "weed" species) pay no attention to the usefulness of those plants….we should in many cases embrace invasives as actually improving  our edible flora for future generations…

I imagine that your ethnobotanical discoveries were incidental at first. But as you have become more involved in the search have you developed a method for getting information about edible plants around the world and the traditional ways in which they are used?

That we have a national useful plants society and that a local group should be formed where I live in the same year as I moved here really made me realise what a wide range of edible plants we were surrounded by, and then finding a book Sturtevant's Edible Plants of the World in Seattle on one of my work trips around the world to teach South Pacific islanders about ocean wave energy. Having some knowledge of ornamentals that I also grew in the early days helped me recognise some of them in that book. 

Later Ken Fern's amazing ahead of his time work on the Plants for a Future database and his open source attitude helped enormously as did Stephen Facciola's Cornucopia II. When the World Wide Web arrived, both seeds of unusual plants and information became much more accessible. With the first on-line web translators and later Babel Fish and Google Translate, information became even more accessible. 

Living in a foreign country (Norway) and speaking a foreign language had certainly also made me realise how much information was just not known because of the language barriers and just how anglocentric much of the literature was! Within ethnobotanical research, the UK was, for example, years behind the Scandinavian countries in documenting the traditions of plant-people interactions and much information is lost!

How do you tell all those Alliums apart (or perennial kales come to that)?! It seems that naming and distinguishing edible cultivated plants is an even harder job than identifying wild plant species, what with different local names, mis-identifications in the nursery trade and seed/plant swaps, and complex hybrids, landraces and selections too.

The Allium family is complex but for me really encapsulates the incredible diversity there is in the plant kingdom! With maybe 900 species of Allium, evolution has resulted  in almost all the variations one could imagine (flower colour, flowering time etc.). They are difficult to tell apart and it is estimated that even some 60% of Allium species in botanical gardens are wrong! Luckily, we have experts/oracles like Mark McDonough in the US and Wietse Mellema in the Netherlands, who I met first on gardening fora such as the Scottish Rock Garden club (SRGC) and North American Rock Garden club (NARGS), now on the Alliorum group on FB. 

Luckily, there are no poisonous Alliums and as long as they smell like Alliums, you won't end up poisoning folk! The fact that Alliums easily hybridise  is probably the biggest problem, but nurserymen and gardeners aren't that aware of it, so errors get easily perpetuated. However, it does throw up some interesting plants now and again, like Norrlands onion (see the book). On-line flora are also useful here, such as Flora of China. I would recommend folk to source edible perennials in specialist nurseries. There are many like Edulis (UK) and Naturplanteskolen (Denmark) that are becoming more common!

Perennial kales are mostly the same species, so here it's a case of separating the different cultivars. At the start there weren't that many and they are quite distinct with a bit of experience. However, there are many new forms, bred by amateurs (see the Plant Breeding for Permaculture forum on FB), so things could get more complicated, but ultimately I can see the more simple heirloom varieties alongside a new more distinct range with coloured, frilly leaves etc.

Many of my own favourite edible plants seem to come from the seaside; sea kale, sea beet, wild cabbage, Babington leek, sea pea and oyster plant (there are many more - and now I have learnt from you that sea aster is edible too). Do you think there is any reason why that might be?

The sea shore is where one finds the greatest plant diversity due to all the narrow econiches due to the zonation from the deep to shallow water seaweeds, land plants that have adapted to having their feet in water regularly (halophytes like Aster tripolium), then you have the nitrogen rich band where seaweed piles up after winter storms and then on to coastal meadows and woods. Our local spring foraging forays are generally along the shoreline as we can collect a lot of food relatively quickly and learn a wide range of species in a small area.  It also seems that a larger percentage of the higher plants in such areas are edible, probably due to the lower grazing and insect pressure in such areas, so that plants do not need to produce deterrent chemicals. 

It was very interesting to read that the Sámi people living in very northerly areas still manage to include vegetables in their diet. Could you say which edible plant that you have researched grows in the most extreme conditions?

Probably Polygonum viviparum as I can find it on top of local mountains. The sizeable tubers are loaded with carbohydrates and knowledge of this plant's edibility could help people in mountain areas over its extensive range survive shorter and longer periods. Here's its range: 

Might there be a second book in time?

I have a few ideas, but there's no way I could write Around the World in 80 Plants today as there's just so much happening as a result of the book. I would need to retire from my job first…

Thanks Stephen for some great answers. I've been wondering about those seaside edibles for a long time! Now I'm off to thumb my copy again and reread the entry on Polygonum viviparum.

N.B. I sell a range of perennial vegetable plants on my website.