Yesterday’s post about beans was brought to you not only by my personal enthusiasm, but by a number of informative sources I’ve come to rely on. It can be tricky figuring out the differences between where plants come from and where they are currently used, in cultures that have adopted them and bred them into new varieties, and sometimes there are no real answers. However, here are a few of the books I trust to get it as right as it gets.
William Woys Weaver’s 100 Vegetables and Where They Came From and Heirloom Vegetable Gardening. The former is available at the usual book retailers, and the latter is out of print, available used for a substantial cost, or for much less as a CD from online book sellers and some gardening catalogs. Also, check libraries. Weaver tells the best stories about edible plants, and his research is awe-inspiring; also, he cares not just about cultural history but about botanical origins, not just about growing but about cooking. He gives you insightful details like (as I was reading yesterday) how long ago strings started being bred out of string beans, and what that means in terms of dating old varieties, as well as why a tidy little bush bean is probably not a Native American crop of ancient lineage even if it’s named after an Indian tribe. And he’s often funny. (This is a serious university-sponsored blog and I am not supposed to say I have a big intellectual crush on the man and want to marry him and grow his onions, but there you are.)
Food Plants of the World: An Illustrated Guide by Ben-Erik van Wyk. This is more in the nature of a reference book, but a really gorgeous one that I love browsing in. I am relying on it for most of the plant origin information I need to build this year’s garden. It doesn’t include everything (no mouse melons!) and the entries are short, but basic information is provided for each plant on origin and history, cultivation and harvesting, uses and properties, nutrition, and common names in various languages. The book is organized alphabetically by scientific name (which is good practice for my memory, though there’s a thorough index as well) with several pictures of each food plant. Part of the fun is reading entries for plants we could never grow here, like baobab (I gather it can be a houseplant, but I don’t think I’ll try) or durian. But it’s also useful for identifying all those different brassicas, or finding out that asparagus pea and winged bean are not all that closely related after all. Family relationships aren’t clearly enough designated for my taste, though; they may be mentioned in the text but aren’t given in the header.
I’ll write another post tomorrow on some of the gardening books I’ve enjoyed recently, and would love to hear about yours too!