December 2, 2012

A Botanical Feast

Not long ago Bill and I attended a fun program at Dawe's Arboretum in Newark, Ohio that featured food plants from around the world. Organized and led by the arboretum's botanist, Dr. David Brandenburg, the program grouped the plants by their botanical family, which produced some surprises for all of the participants. The program started with a review of some basic plant biology and the differences, to a botanist, between fruits and vegetables.

Then we went into a room that featured many, many tables of foods from every continent except Antarctica--this picture shows about half the tables:

The first two families that Dr. Brandenburg showed us, the grasses and the legumes, are the most important food families and they basically "feed the world". The grasses include sugar cane and all the true grains like wheat, oats and barley. Interestingly, buckwheat and quinoa are in other families and are not true grains. No plants contain all the amino acids that are necessary as the building blocks of proteins for animals, but grains + legumes give a complete diet. I was surprised to learn that jicama is a legume, and licorice is from the bark of a root of a legume native to Asia! 

Most of the foods that we consume originated outside of North America. In fact, if we were to only eat plants native to North America just about all we would have would be pecans, cranberries, Concord grapes, sunflower seeds and a few other nuts and berries.

For centuries humans have selectively bred plants from around the world to create the food that we eat today. For example, we learned that cabbage, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, broccoli and cauliflower not only are all in the same family (mustard), they are all the same species of plant! Thanks to human intervention, they are all descended from a kale, Brassica oleracae, that originally grew wild in Europe.

The Composite or Aster family is one of the largest plant families, but is not as important as grasses and legumes to our diet. Here is a plant in that family that is familiar to most of us:

This roadside weed is chicory, one of our loveliest wildflowers. Native to Europe, it became naturalized in North America long ago and its roots were used to brew a drink, often by people who couldn't afford or who didn't have access to coffee. I never would have guessed that this humble plant is the same species as two popular "yuppie" vegetables, radicchio and Belgian endive!

So after learning about these and many other plant families, we were served a lunch prepared by high school students from C-TEC (Career and Technical Education Centers) of Licking County, Ohio. The main dish, a quiche, featured Japanese Goba Root which comes from the burdock plant. Readers might remember burdock as one of the plants that I discussed in a previous post, found here. This is a picture of the long taproot that is used in many Asian cuisines:

It had kind of a bland flavor and I don't think I'd go out of my way to have it again, but I'm glad I tried it once!

Here is the entire menu that we enjoyed at Dawes, and a photo of the dessert:

Chickpea and Tamarind Hummus with Caraway and Cumin Lavash

Brie in a crust with Green Apples and Ancho-Guava Jam

Wild Arugula, Fennel and Pomegranate Salad with Buddha’s Hand Vinaigrette

Japanese Gobo and Horseradish Quiche 
with Bacon and Swiss cheese

Blueberry Cherry Crisp with Coconut Milk, Vanilla Bean 
and Grains of Paradise Ice Cream

Iced Green Tea

Punch (ginger syrup, pineapple juice, and sparkling water)

A botanical feast indeed! And many thanks to Dr. David Brandenburg and Dawes Arboretum for such an excellent and unique program.


  1. It was really surprising to learn what plants our foods were developed from. Had our ancestors not been hunter gathers, it sounds like we wouldn't have been able to get enough protein because it took time to develop the plants needed for a vegetarian lifestyle.

    I'm also trying to square away the paucity of native North American plants with a demonstration garden I saw at Fort Ancient. I photographed bush beans and squash. And wasn't corn developed on this continent? Anyway it was a very interesting post.

  2. Good question! Corn (maize) was most likely bred from a grass called teosinte, which didn't much resemble the corn we know today, in Mexico many thousands of years ago. Squash also probably originated in Mexico, and beans were probably domesticated in South America. So without a great deal of selective breeding there really wouldn't have been much nourishing plant material in North America before humans arrived. By the time of the Ft Ancient and Adena cultures in Ohio, trade routes from Central America were well established so corn, beans and squash seeds would have been available. Thanks for the comment!

  3. South America seems to have made a number of contributions to the world's cuisine: the potato, the sweet potato, chocolate, vanilla, chili peppers, peanuts, and papaya.

    And I just read that avocados originated in North America in what's now Mexico, so we have that going for us, too. Mmmm... guacamole. :)