Big changes are scary, but they are also exciting. For years, almost decades, we have focused on growing our business. Growing the farm, to make just a little more money. Every winter, we would say, “If we could just get into one more market…” But the reality is that growth is expensive. The bigger we were, the more we wanted to produce, and the more help we needed. And farm labor is expensive, especially in relation to the price people are willing to pay for their food. That realization was ultimately the reason I started thinking about downsizing. Shrinking the farm. Concentrating on what was important.
One of the things I really missed in the scale up was all the variety that I was able to grow in the old days. Growth and efficiency mean eliminating things that don’t sell as well or aren’t as profitable, so we lost a lot of our old diversity and excitement. Now that I’m focusing more on variety, I’ve been exploring some obscure seed catalogs and websites, and I’ve been struck by the realization that although there are 620 families of plants, nearly 99% of our food plants come from just a handful of them.
I’ll focus on the vegetable families for now:
Grasses, Poaceae or Gramineae: This includes grains, like corn, wheat, oats, rice, rye, barley, and millet. Worldwide, rice, wheat, and corn account for half of all the calories eaten by humans, and have done so for centuries. This family also includes sugarcane, lemongrass, and bamboo, eaten as tender shoots.
That said, although grass is edible by humans, the human stomach hasn’t evolved to digest that much cellulose, and our teeth haven’t evolved for that much abrasive chewing. Grass is high in silica, and grazing animals have teeth that are adapted to continually grow and replace worn down surfaces. Bellyaches, gas, and malnutrition would be the result from lots of grass-eating.
Legumes, Fabaceae: This family includes, peas, beans, soybeans, garbanzos, lentils, peanuts, carob, mesquite, and tamarind, as well as clover, alfalfa, and licorice. They are very high in protein, and when eaten with a grain, they work together to form all the amino acids necessary as a complete protein food. Most, if not all, primitive cultures figured this out and made some combination their staple diet. Think of rice and beans, corn and beans, barley and peas, soybeans and rice. You get the idea. I was surprised to discover that even the desert southwest had(s) legumes as part of their diet: Tepary Beans and Mesquite Beans.
The bean family also includes Locust trees, from which we get locust bean gum, an emulsifier and ice-cream enhancer.
Sunflowers, Asteraceae or Compositae: This group includes lettuce, chicory—endive, escarole, and radicchio, artichokes, jerusalem artichokes, salsify, and chamomile.
Nightshades, Solanaceae: While there are toxic members of this family (most likely the reason for the Europeans temporary refusal to eat tomatoes brought back from the Americas by explorers), there are many edible family members. This family includes tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, tomatillos, ground cherries, and potatoes (not including sweet potatoes).
While most edible nightshades tend to be from warmer climates, we do host a few wild members of this family, including Hairy Nightshade, Black Nightshade, and the dreaded Deadly Nightshade, used as both a poison and a heart medicine in ancient times.
Squashes and Melons, Cucurbitaceae: It’s interesting to note that squashes are New World plants, and melons and cucumbers are old world plants. The New World (American) members of the family are all the hard squashes—delicata, butternut, pumpkins, and some gourds. Squashes also include zucchini and pattypans, which are eaten in their immature stage. If left to mature on the plant they become a hard-shelled squash similar to a pumpkin, though not as tasty. The Old World (European and Asian) members include cucumbers, melons, luffa, bitter melon, and the adorable Cucamelon.
Crucifers, Brassicaceae: This is a huge, varied, highly nutritious family! It also has two large main groups which fall into European and Asian eating patterns. The Asian group, Brassica rapa, includes napa cabbage, bok choy, turnips, radishes, mustard greens, mustard seed, canola, and arugula—it’s a huge family. The European group, Brassica oleracea, includes round cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, rutabagas, kale, collard greens. Horseradish, Alyssum, and countless others are in other subgroups of the Brassica family. You can recognize them by their simple, cross-shaped flowers, which is where the family gets the name “Crucifer”.
Crucifers are perfectly suited to our climate, preferring relatively even temperatures, not too much heat, and plenty of moisture. As a result, we host a number of weeds that are brassicas, including Shepherd’s Purse, Pennycress, and Watercress.
Onions, Amaryllidaceae: This is a small, but pungent family, which includes onions, garlic, shallots, leeks, and chives. We have no wild members of this family here, but ramps are a wild leek common to the east coast of north america. Also in this family are tulips, which are edible— the Dutch survived on tulip bulbs through a famine in the 1700s.
Carrot and Parsley, Apiaceae: Another huge and varied family of aromatic plants! This one claims carrots, celery, parsnips, fennel, parsley, cilantro/coriander, dill, cumin, caraway, chervil, lovage, angelica, and anise. It’s a family quite at home in the northwest, so we have weedy members here, like Queen Anne’s lace, and poison hemlock.
Goosefoots (Beets), Chenopodiaceae: This family includes beets, chard, and spinach. Recently amaranth and quinoa were added to this family as well. These guys love it here, and our most abundant weeds are redroot pigweed (amaranth) and lambsquarter (quinoa). Both are edible and high in protein, not bad while eaten young, and the seeds are just as edible as their famous cousins.
There are other plant families, from which we get just one or two foods. Rhubarb, sorrel, and buckwheat come from the Buckwheat, Polygonaceae, family. Basil, mint, rosemary, sage, marjoram, oregano, thyme, and lavender come from the Mint, Mentha, family. Sweet potatoes come from the Morning Glory, Convolvulaceae, family. Asparagus is in it’s own family, Asparagaceae. Okra is in the Mallow, Malvaceae family, with hollyhocks, hibiscus, and the Caribbean favorite, Sorelle.
There are also obscure families from which diverse ethnic groups obtain food. Prickly Pear Cactus paddles (Nopales). Specialized tubers from the Andes, like Oca, Yacon, and Mashua, and even some Dahlias.
I’m looking forward to exploring ALL of these vegetable families this year.