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Edible Plants? AKa Underutilized crops Answered

So.. I like to read the Wikipedia.
I don't know why.
However, the other day I found a little blurb interesting.

I was reading about alternative crops when I realized I was very familiar with a few of the plants on the list. I do a fair amount of Gardening here in Northern Utah, so I was somewhat surprised to find that one of the weeds which I've been pulling for 90% of my gardening experience is actually an extremely nutrious food crop.

So this got me wondering, what other alternative food crops were out there.
I tore through the wikipedia's list of underutilized crops, and was surprised by the number of plants that just aren't used.
In many cases, I can't see a reason why such a crop isn't being used. Especially in areas where cultivation of said plant would encourage use of land that's not otherwise arable.

As a for instance, I live very near the Great Salt Lake. The flood plain of the great salt lake is salt killed, however, There is a small plant that grows on the flood plain. I was told that it was edible, but it wasn't usually eaten due to both the texture and the flavour. So, I was surprised when I noticed it's scientific name on the underutilized crop list. Turns out it's a good oil seed crop, and oil is one of those things we need.

The other thing I noticed is that alot of the crops were indigenious, rather then more commonly used cultivars. Indigenous crops that have evolved to survive in specific locations are, in many cases, better suited to survive in local areas then food crops developed through artificial selection. Utilizing indigenious plants helps mitigate the impact of agricultural activity on the environment (which is arguably more destructive then any other industrial activity), and helps to reduce pests of popular cultivars.

So with that all said, I'm interested to see what other people have donee along this line of thinking. I've noticed an instructable or two that have done just this. I'm probably put one up at the end of this year.
Mine will be focusing on Common Pigweed and White Goosefoot (scientific names are in the links to the wikipedia at the bottom).



There is a guy on youtube called "green dean" who has a super channel called "eat the weeds".
He really knows his stuff.


7 years ago

I had the distinct pleasure years ago of meeting Dr. Booker T. Whatley, the father of community based sustainable agriculture, which he referred to as Regenerative Farming. His ideas centered on organically growing a predominance of perennials, and marketing them direct to consumers through an early version of the Costco membership club program, which the members harvested themselves (pick your own). He used to write for Rodedale Press and the Mother Earth News way back in the day. His book How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres is a worthy read for anyone interested in farming or gardening.

The Wiki page was probably pulled for having unvetted material that they feared could get someone killed. Fungi aside, there are a multitude of poisonous roots and tubers that look like other benign varieties above ground and are easily confused with catastrophic results.

There are a growing number of organic and heirloom seed purveyors that offer food seed from our forgotten history. The amaranth mentioned is one of the more popular that comes to mind.

I'm rather surprised that no one has mentioned one of the most adaptable and multi-talented plants on earth that's right up there with the peanut...the evil cannabis plant.

Before the U.S. government realized that its War on Inanimate Objects (drugs) was also a golden opportunity to accelerate its hegemony, there were nations all over the globe where the weed was a staple of their economy, and not the smoking variety. This is a distinction that is lost on our government and the DEA however, I suppose because in their multi-trillion dollar farce to eradicate a life form they don't want to have to learn to differentiate between a plant that can help cancer patients and one that makes a damn tough pair of jeans.

Parts of Nepal depended on the plant for food (as a flour), oil for lighting, textiles, a heat source, fiber for paper, hemp for rope making and as a building material. This is just one example. Nepal includes some of the most rugged terrain in the world and its mountainous regions (like say... the Himalayas) are not what you would call friendly to modern agriculture. The U.S. government's insistence that no one on the planet grow cannabis is enforced through our 700 plus foreign military installations, the efforts of the State Dept., the DEA, and a multitude of bribes and strong arm tactics. Gee, I don't know why so many people of the world don't care for us.

The efforts to make all of North America into one big happy EU like country with just one currency (thank you very much NAFTA) is also having the typical effects of unintended consequences. Mexico, from whence the mother of our modern genetically engineered corn began, still has an agrarian subsistence farming based population anywhere but along our border, in Mexico City and along its coast. Many of the native corn varieties that have evolved there are super specialized to their specific micro climates and pest populations. Sometimes these can be as specific as the south side of a single valley. Thanks to our mad national ethanol / corn subsidy scam we are dumping BT corn in Mexico at such low prices that the indigenous species are unable to allow their growers to compete in their own local markets. This fixes the heirloom seed users to nothing but subsistence farming moving forward while the variety of selections previously available lessens every season. This debacle also creates monoculture vulnerabilities and water problems (most of our hybrids are totally irrigation and petro-chemically dependent for their survival). In the name of "helping" to stave off famine and suffering we are in reality creating a worse problem. Of course the truth of the matter is that there are no altruistic motives, only irresponsible profit bearing ones.

My suggestion would be to plant some hemp. The fibers are so long and so strong that they are capable of replacing every commercial product that we now rely on poisonous pulp mills for. You can do so many things with it aside from just eating it that it's ridiculous. Trees are not the renewable resource that the wood and paper pirates want us to believe. This is just common sense. Watch a tree in your yard grow over a season compared to how quickly your lawn is able to double and treble its height. The hemp plant is truly renewable annually. I haven't encountered a single tree variety yet that can replace itself fully in a year. The plant is a study in efficient generation of biomass from minimal water, average to poor soils and regular sun.

Sorry for the diatribe, but it's difficult to examine and solve the problems without at least a glance toward the politics that interfere with our pursuit of happiness and that liberty thing that I used to read about.

I'll see your hemp and raise you nettles, which can be used in teas, soups, beers, ropes, textiles and paper. However, both plants share the same problems:
  • They may grow quickly, but the fibre-mass grown per hectare per year is low compared to wood.
  • They are heterogeneous - whilst they contain useful fibres, the mechanical processes for separating both from the plants are complex (believe me, I've been there).
  • They still require chemical treatment to separate the fibres. They have very high moisture contents, making storage and transport an issue (they tend to start fermenting after a short storage time).
  • They are not available year-round.
  • Harvesting is labour-intensive.
  • Both plants contain toxic chemicals which may cause issues with both processors and end-users.

Haven't tried nettle brew yet but that certainly sounds intriguing. Must be a bugger to harvest.

Obviously we support a tremendous industrial base that has been dedicated to finding cheaper and more efficient ways of processing trees into pulp. The wood fibers that are harvested and processed are for all intents and purposes all chopped up when compare to the long continuous fibers found in the hemp plant. I would suggest that , just as with nettles, we would likely see an efficient means for harvesting and processing develop in short order if there was an increased demand for the product.

As a base component in manufactured building materials such as plywood, engineered joists and laminated beams the difference should yield much improved strengths for the same given volume of fibers used. This superior strength would I expect tend to offset the difference in fibre-mass per hectare.

In more tropical climes jute and kenaf have also been cultured for ages, and the kenaf plant in particularly far outstrips our favorite conifers in terms of fiber-mass per year. Although there are numerous other considerations when evaluating the potential of a plant as a wood substitute, the fact remains that we are not able to grow adequate amounts of trees to replace what we are accustomed to using, particularly in old growth forests. This puts increased pressures on the harvesting of younger trees to replace, where they can, the previous use of old growth timber.

Pulping is not exclusively dedicated to the chemical approach I don't believe. I may be wrong in my understanding of the process but as an alternative to things such as hydrogen peroxide bleaching there are steam powered thermechanical pulping processors that would yield the desired separated outer and inner core fibers as well as clean steam for other useful purposes.

Here's a link to an interesting paper that is reasonably recent (the newest citation that I noticed was dated 1998) and addresses the use of alternative plants for wood replacement, etc. The included table on tensile strength is particularly interesting.


The list of toxins released by trees is a varied and lengthy one. I can't find the reference list that I used to keep but here on Mr. Wilcox's wood turning page I think you'll get the idea.


The wood fibers that are harvested and processed are for all intents and purposes all chopped up when compare to the long continuous fibers found in the hemp plant.

Actually, the fibres lengths are worlds apart - depending on the wood, fibres are in the 2-10mm range. Hemp bast fibres start at ten centimetres and work upwards.

Thins is great for rope and textiles, but very hard work for mechanical paper processes at any scale. Mulberry bark fibres are much shorter than hemp, and they still only respond to methods that pre-date the English Civil War. Full-length hemp fibres quickly and easily burn out large-scale equipment (I know, I've had to explain the damage before...).

They need to be shortened mechanically, and be separated from the stem's core and skin - something which dramatically reduces yield. Once you have separated out leaves and stem-nodes, only about 20% of the stem is actually useful for papermaking.

As I understand it there are certain uses where the core is left intact, such as when used for composite wood product adjuncts. Your mention of hemp's propensity for wearing out mechanical equipment is the very reason that it is seeing more use as a replacement for glass fiber in plastic composites, where the glass fibers have always been notorious for wearing out equipment (try sanding or sawing fiberglass).

There's no question that hemp, flax, linen, wood and cotton fibers all have their own idiosyncrasies that make them better suited to one application than another. Considered from the perspective of what developing countries can grow and process when modern mono cropping methods of grasses such as wheat and corn are not available, practical or affordable, there is a viable place for the heirloom plants in today's world. Furthermore that when appropriate conditions evolve, such as an environment where traditional timber resources are stressed or constrained, things like hemp and other 'bast' material plants are a very logical and "Green" alternative. Doubtless there will be numerous challenges in adapting current methods to make them integrate into modern production techniques, but the discovery of crude oil did not produce unleaded gasoline or modern plastics without some significant effort.

As with any genetic plant manipulations I'm confident that we may soon hear of hemp plants that have higher levels of desirable fibers, more easily extracted oils and possibly more simply separated cores. All that is required is the appropriate economic stimulus (ooh, how I hate that phrase - hope no politicians read this). IMHO these conditions are quietly evolving as we speak. I'm not suggesting that our modern genetically engineered Frankenplants are the right direction, only that more traditional hybridizing of existing open polenated varieties still possess tremendous potential for "tweaking".

While hemp, manila, nettle or kenaf fibers may not be the simplest materials to process and integrate, the challenges represented there are just that, challenges that we must overcome in order to spread the load so to speak that currently exists on our other dwindling resources. When crude was at $7 a barrel nobody was particularly interested in high capacity lightweight storage batteries, but let it top $100 and all of the sudden General (or is it Government) Motors develops - then kills - the all electric Volt, only to later reintroduce it as a vastly inferior hybrid as an homage to their patron saints at Exxon Mobile. This of course corresponded to a falling of oil prices by strange coincidence.

Where timber in particular is concerned, we are not replacing old growth stands at anything remotely close to the rate at which we still consume them. Last I checked hunting sunken logs off of the bottom of river beds was quite profitable and yet for the last hundred years that the logs laid there this was not the case...so they were just ignored. Economic and political pressures can and do make all things possible. We somehow managed to send men to the moon and back with the equivalent computational power contained in a present day digital watch, I'm reasonably certain we can figure out how to use all of a plant stem after we harvest it.

The fact remains that the historic or heirloom plant seeds are generally relegated to second class citizen status by virtue of the fact that the chemical and seed companies (oft times now one in the same) can not control them for their own profitable use. There is no profit motive relatable to a seed which any third world subsistence farmer can propagate using near stone aged technique. This of course will also continue to shift as our deluded Patent office has seen fit to allow corporations to begin licensing life forms...such as our heirloom seeds. When Monsanto, et al, can reliably count on the politicians to fully support them, and the court system to act as their enforcers, then we will see some major attention paid to these biological antiques. Actually I believe that those criteria have all now been met.

I would venture to say that once the FDA has figured out a way to regulate, the IRS has sealed up a tax revenue stream strategy, corporations have a fully developed profit stratagem and organized labor unions have determined how to control the growers, we will see cannabis suddenly looked upon as some wonderful new discovery that we can't live without.

The SAS Survial Guide by Lofty Wiseman is an excellent resource for finding edible plants. Cultivating 'em is up to you.

I grow scorzonera. It is a root crop that is perennial. You can harvest it the first year or second or 5th. Tastes the same. The secret is to parboil it for 3 minutes before pealing it. Otherwise you got yellow rubbery goo on your fingers for the next week. It is a gormet vegetable that you can only get in very rare high class eateries here.
Varieties s of scorzonera are grown for rubber production.
I also grow miners lettuce. I have some camas too but I have never eaten it. (Scared because black camas is poisonous and looks similar).
Camas used to be a huge native crop here.
It gets slow cooked for a day or too and is supposed to become quite sweet.
Scunk cabbage is supposed to be edible too.
My native friends are guys and they are not into cooking.
Pity, I would love to try some of that stuff.

Does anybody know why the list on wikipedia is deleted?

Either the grammar police got to it or it was an inaccurate list with entries unsupported by facts or it is a conspiracy of the farmers receiving subsidies to grow certain crops.


8 years ago

true... the list is somewhat... spotty really, but there's some stuff one  there that's interesting.


I believe that has the definition that they're going by. Basically it has a proven food value and has been cultivated in the past for food, it should show up on the list. it's a very loose definition.

Also.. I only now realized that I may have come off somewhat off putting Kiteman... I apologize about that.
I was trying to be something approaching jhovial.

Thanks, the line "have yet to be adopted by large-scale agriculturalists" doesn't seem to fit with chick peas, but perhaps that's an erroneous entry?

Anyway, since you've been looking at these, what do you think are the best candidates for a large-scale agriculture?


I found Amaranth interesting since it's used extensively in other parts of the world as a food crop and it's noted as a serious pest for wheat and soybean crops within the US.

It seems like renewed cultivation of amaranth could be used to kill 2 birds with one stone.

If a farmer cultivated non-resistant strains of amaranth near soybean and wheat crops, it'd reduce how quickly resistance was being developed by the weedy-wild types.
Additionally, it's tendency to hold high levels of nitrates in the leaves means this plant makes particularly good mulch, so it might be something useful for people who want a 'cover crop'.

Another that was interesting was Typha or Cattail.
I've known about the culinary uses of cattail for quite a while but I saw a program on Planet green a short while ago that got me thinking about food crops in marsh or swamp land.
A grain-like crop that can be grown in marsh lands would be quite handy, and Cattail has a number of additional attributes that would make it's cultivation advantageous.


8 years ago

I am thinking about posting some Instructables about wild foods too!

Spring is just coming to my area and the season for foraging is starting.  I'd like to try cat tails, acorns, mulberries and maybe a few more.  Once fiddleheads come into season, I'll get some from a store at least and post a recipe.

Good references are Euell Gibbon's books on wild food.  Each chapter is typically a plant, where and when to find, what to use and how to prepare.

Fiddleheads.jpgStalking the Wild Asparagus.jpg

Who has defined "underutilized" and how?
I see chick peas on that list, world production being over 9M tonnes pa.


I don't see nettles on that list...?

I don't know about it being underutilized, though I can't recall any incidences of people intentionally cultivating it here in utah.

It grows wild here though, and I know it's an extremely important food source for Deer and Elk.
There's quite a number of people that enjoy it as a regular food, though it's not usually sold at the supermarket.