Books for Nature Lovers
Food Plants of the World
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Food Plants of the World is a timely, easily used guide to over 350 plant foods. The book is a beautifully illustrated, scientifically correct reference for the botanically curious, the gourmet chef, and who wish to enrich their culinary experiences with such foods as the Barbados cherry (in the Malpighiaceae family), the mammee apple (Clusiaceae), or the leaves from the stinging nettle (Urticaceae).

The book begins with a general overview of plant foods with brief but informative sections on regions where they originated (e.g., Central Asia, Africa, or South America) and summaries of plants grouped by type (from cereals, pulses, and fruits to herbs, vegetables, and beverage plants). But the main part of the book is devoted to individual entries on 354 food plants. Each plant is allotted a single page with a format and presentation that is visually inviting, easy to follow, and packed with information. Indeed, those who pick up the book will inevitably end up reading sections that catch their eye - like cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus, a relative of raspberries), with its bright red fruit, or turmeric (Curcuma longa), with its striking yellow and white flowers and gnarly ginger-like rhizomes, which are ground to make turmeric powder. Each page gives the Latin name in the title and common names as subtitles and has illustrations on the top half with text at the bottom. Using a footnote-like format, the entries end with the full Latin name, the plant family, and names of the plant in different countries.

The illustrations are colorful and clear and appropriately illustrated the features of each plant. Furthermore, the images are well chosen to invite further investigation by the reader. Typically, there are three images - often one of the plant, another a close-up of the flower, fruit, or stem, and the third of the edible portion of the plant. For guava (Psidium guajava ) the pictures show a branch with four spectacular white flowers with their spiky whorls of white stamens, a branch with guava fruits, and finally a picture of eleven ripe yellow fruits - one cut longitudinally and another in cross-section to expose the peach pink flesh and show the arrangement of seeds. For wasabi (Wasabia japonica) the pictures include the plant, the flower, the stem, and a composite picture of wasabi products, including the pale green wasabi powder made from the stems and roots.

The text is equally informative, with a brief description of the plant, its origin and history, and how it is cultivated and harvested, followed by its uses, nutritional value, and interesting notes. The author does an excellent job of getting the most important anecdotes into each description. For example, he reports on the overpowering, unpleasant odors of both durian fruits (Durio zibethinus), so odiferous it is banned from hotels and airports, and ginkgo seeds (Ginkgo biloba) yet notes that the flesh of durian is considered exquisite by many (despite its odor) and that the seeds of ginkgo can be cleaned of their offending smelly coat, eventually yielding the tasty inner seed.

The entries include a wealth of information. Van Wyk covers culinary concepts (e.g., figs can be "served as hors d'oeuvres with Parma ham or cheese?or in drinks such as figuette [dried figs and juniper berries soaked in water] and to flavour coffee" [p.195]) as well as culinary cautions (for yam beans, "the ripe seeds are poisonous - they contain high levels of rotenone" [p.273). He also offers horticulture tips (ginkgo trees are "exceptionally hardy and withstand pollution and high salinity remarkably well" [p.201]) and nutritional information, including the facts that soybeans have a "high protein content (30-40%)" and that "low levels of breast and colon cancer in China and Japan are associated with the high consumption of soybeans" (p. 201). 

Plants are organized alphabetically by genus, which has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantages is that if you know the generic names, you can easily find a plant. Furthermore, all congeneric species, those that share the same genus, are grouped so that one can easily surmise evolutionary relationships among congeneric species. One of the best examples is the sixteen different cabbages (allBrassicas) (pp. 95-110), including the eight different varieties of the species Brassica oleracea. Indeed, collards, Chinese broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, curly kale, and sprouting broccoli are all the same genus and species - but have been bred by agriculturalists to have these eight amazingly distinctive forms. But this organization also has two disadvantages: First, very few people are well versed in the Latin names of plants - for them there is excellent cross-referencing in a very complete index - but this means extra work to find plants when you do not know the genus. The second disadvantage is that if plants are related but do not share the same generic name, they are not close together - so that evolutionary relationships beyond the generic level are difficult to figure out unless you again reference the index, which gives the page numbers of all entries for each plant family. If you do this, you will find that the sumac or poison ivy family (Anacardiaceae), famous for its dermatitis-inducing resins, includes cashews (p.57), mangos (p.240), pistachios (p. 299), marula fruits (p.340), hog plums (p. 355), and the South American peppertree (p. 387). Or if you are like one of my friends, who is allergic to members of the carrot family (Apiaceae), you will find fifteen different entries for the carrot family including such plants as dill (p. 59), devil's dung (a spice used in oriental cooking, p.194), fennel (p.196), and parsnips (p.281). If the plants were organized by families, and then by genera within families, it would be easier to make these fascinating evolutionary connections among plants. 

The guide ends with four additional brief sections. One on nutrients, diet, and health covers basic nutritional information (e.g., descriptions of simple sugars, polysaccharides, fats and vitamins). The last three sections are a summary table for all plant foods, a glossary of terms, and a reference list. All are helpful in making the guide accessible to a broad audience with different botanical backgrounds.

The botanical world is richly edible. In Food Plants of the World van Wyck uses vivid images and descriptions to bring bounty of this diversity alive. This is a major contribution to expanding our culinary tastes and exploring the diverse world of the plant kingdom. 

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