There are over 20,000 known edible plants in the world, a quarter of which can be grown in the UK. So why does 90% of our food come from just 20 plant species? Ken Fern has dedicated his life’s work to rectifying this situation, trying out and promoting alternative foods, and now runs the charity Plants for a Future. On their website you will find thousands of plants that can be eaten or used in other ways, and the book offers just a sample.
Fern has a few criteria for inclusion. They have to be useful, they should grow outdoors in a temperate climate, and they should preferably be perennial. In a very honest introduction, he shares his experiences of trying to live a self-sufficient lifestyle, growing vegetables and fruit organically. This, he discovered, was just too much work. “I don’t want to spend all my time growing plants, I want to be able to walk around and look at them, to sit back and enjoy them” say this self-confessed ‘lazy gardener’. The traditional foods of the vegetable patch are annuals, and they need to be grown and planted out every year. Trees and shrubs are far better value – you just plant them once, and they’ll crop year after year with very little effort.
This is a good starting point for a book on gardening, in my opinion, and I was sold from the first chapter. The main problem with this philosophy however, is that there is far less research on perennials. There is a fairly simple reason why – if you’re growing annuals, you can select the best plants every year, fine tuning your varieties for easy growth and good yields. Carrots and lettuces as we know them now are a long way from their wild ancestors, refined over two thousand years of cultivation. Not so with perennials. Some trees can take 40 years to mature and seed, so experimentation just isn’t possible in the same way. That makes the plants in this book much more unusual, and easily overlooked.
But, it doesn’t take much browsing to realise the kinds of things we are missing out on. How about onion-flavoured leaves that can be harvested all 12 months of the year, broccoli that grows on bushes, or edible yams a metre long? And we’re not just talking about food, although most of the plants here are edible. There are plants for making dyes and inks, rope and string, polish, soap, natural insecticides, or fire retardants. Short of the mythical money tree, there’s just about everything you could want here. In fact, some of the plants here do almost verge into the realms of magic, not least in the names. My favourite is Astragalus Pictus-Filifolius, a North American root which is dug up after the rain and eaten raw for dessert. Others have so many uses it’s remarkable that they aren’t better known, or are so obviously commercially viable that it must only a matter of time before they’re for sale in Tesco.
For now however, they remain obscure, and that gives the book a collaborative sort of tone. Fern, who runs a test site in Cornwall, repeatedly invites readers to let him know of plants, or send him seeds and cuttings. There are things he can’t find, or varieties he hasn’t been able to reproduce. Some of them are legendary, folkloric – “there is a tree in Northamptonshire that is said to fruit regularly” he says of the Loquat, a tree that grew wild around my boarding school in Kenya but is rare in the UK. It is like being let into a secret, a conspiracy of horticultural adventure.
That said, there are things you might want to take with a pinch of salt. I was looking forward to reading the chapter on ‘edible lawns’, only to find that the list includes plants like dandelion, daisies, and rough hawkbit, none of which are tasty, while Fern admits that white clover tastes “just like grass”, which is surely not the point. Another plant has been described as having an aftertaste of “sweaty armpits” by some of Fern’s guests, which would disqualify it as edible in by book. Or take the Houseleek: “the fleshy leaves are edible and a few of our visitors have almost liked them.” We are well into experimental eating here.
If that appeals to you, there are hours and hours of pleasure to be had from a book like Plants for the Future. I’ve made a shortlist of around 40 plants to try out, and am thinking about where they could all go. Some are woodland plants that will thrive in the shady parts of the garden – the ginger-like Snake Root, and the year-round salad plant Sweet Violet. Some I didn’t realise I could grow in the UK, such as Kiwi Fruit, or the Goldenberry. We used to pick these little individually wrapped berries through the playground fence at my primary school in Madagascar. I was also pleased to find dozens of edible flowers and ornamental plants, eliminating that difficult choice between flower-bed or vegetable patch, particularly out the front of the house. Some things I just want to grow out of curiosity, such as the twisty Serpent Garlic, Quinoa, or the Salt Bush.
If I had a complaint, it would be that the quality of the physical book doesn’t do justice to the content. It could do with many more photos, preferably one of each plant. A better book would have fewer plants (leave out Ivy or Privet, for example), more illustrations, and better presentation of information. In fact, a bit more like the Plants for a Future online database – see an example here. Perhaps Permanent Publications can be persuaded to bring out a 15 year anniversary edition with all the bells and whistles.