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My new book on eating ferns – why eat ferns, are they toxic and what is pteridophagy?

11th March 2022

Why eat ferns?

Ferns are plants, and you can eat them just as you can eat other plants. Firstly, some ferns have historically been used to supply people with calories, including the rhizomes of bracken and some woodferns. Nowadays they might be used in a survival situation or in times of catastrophe (but see the chapter on bracken for information on its carcinogenicity).

Secondly, young spring fern shoots are easily available green vegetables with a nice texture, and, like other green vegetables, they contain vitamin C, folic acids, carotenoids, fibres etc. Dvorakova et al. (2021) found that the vitamin C and carotenoid content in ferns is similar to that of ordinary green vegetables, but ferns contain more antioxidants.

And I have some extra good news, especially if you are on a vegan diet. Fern fronds contain long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs) – arachidonic acid (20:4n-6, ARA), eicosapentaenoic acid (20:5n-3, EPA), sciadonic acid (5,11,14-20:3, SCA), juniperonic acid (5,11,14,17-20:4, JA) and other acids (Nekrasov et al. 2019; Nekrasov and Svetashev (2021)). LC-PUFAs are considered important nutrients due to their role in human physiology and difficulty with their iosynthesis by our bodies. The major LC-PUFAs are ARA, EPA, and docosahexaenoic acid (22:6n-3, DHA). LC-PUFAs are precursors of various signalling molecules and take part in the regulation of membrane properties. We usually obtain LCPUFAs from external sources, though some endogenic synthesis from the corresponding essential fatty acids is also possible.

Moreover, ferns are aesthetically pleasing. The fiddlehead or crozier shape gives green fern dishes a particularly interesting appearance. They also have a nice, crunchy texture, something my Chinese friends would call cui. This is what makes them so appreciated in Chinese, Japanese and Korean cuisine.

Most ferns are perennials, so they can form a wonderful part of a permaculture garden. For those not acquainted with botanical terminology – perennials are plants which, although they may lose leaves in winter, can produce new shoots in spring from their ‘permanent’ root or rhizome (underground stem), so there is no need to sow or plant them anew every year. Ostrich fern is especially suitable for temperate permaculture gardens, and vegetable fern for the tropics, as they have the best taste. Given the right conditions (semi-shaded, fertile and moist), ostrich fern can create an extensive stand in your garden for you to harvest each spring. Many ferns are shade resistant and can grow in parts of forest gardens that very few other wild vegetables are able to survive in.


Like many flowering plants, ferns and horsetails contain the enzyme thiaminase, which breaks up thiamine (vitamin B1). The frequent consumption of raw or undercooked ferns can cause beri-beri illness (vitamin B1 deficiency). Thiaminase is quite temperature stable, but its content can probably be greatly reduced by cooking and discarding the water, which is part of many traditional recipes. Moreover, the occasional consumption of tiaminase-containing plants is not dangerous. Such foods pose a problem only if they become everyday culinary ingredients.

Some ferns may contain carcinogenic agents. This is mainly the case with bracken (Pteridium), which contains ptaquilioside, one of the most carcinogenic of any natural substances known in nature. Fortunately, out of 21 fern species, mainly native Danish ferns, Rasmussen and Pedersen (2017) found the ptaquiloside to be present only in bracken and none of the other ferns. On the other hand, 19 of 31 fern species tested by chemotaxonomic methods in Japan are known to contain ptaquiloside and/or related carcinogens (Potter and Baird 2004). In my opinion we need more studies on fern carcinogenity to dispel fears abou it. The issue of bracken carcinogenicity is discussed in detail in the chapter on bracken. Here I should only mention that flour extracted from bracken rhizomes has not been found to be carcinogenic (Rasmussen 2021), and boiling the fiddleheads and discarding the water should also remove considerable amounts of the toxin but not all of it (Rasmussen 2021). Surprisingly, crosiers with no carcinogens  were found in the USA (Rasmussen (2021) and New Zealnd (Rasmussen et al. 2008), indicating a potential for commercial production of ptaquiloside-free fronds.

 Ferns have been consumed for millennia in many countries, and even if some studies correlate their life-long consumption with increased gastro-intestinal cancers, in my opinion the argument is weak. Occasional consumption of traditionally made fern dishes should not harm you. I cannot guarantee you will live to ninety, but I have personally eaten ferns hundreds of times. In this place I would like to quote Wilson et al. (1998):

When considering the possible harmful properties of bracken, distinguishing between the concepts of hazard and risk is useful. A hazard is a set of circumstances that may have harmful consequences; risk is the probability of harmful consequences occurring from a hazard. For example, lightning is a hazard, but the risk of being struck by lightning is very small, approximately one in ten million.


            The practice of eating ferns can be called ‘pteridophagy’ (analogous to similar terms such as ‘geophagy’ – eating soil, or ‘entomophagy’ – eating insects). Where is pteridophagy found? Although there are many areas of the world where a single species of fern is or was eaten, in some regions people have specialized in eating ferns and consume more species. These are usually places with damp climates where at least for some part of the year ferns can obtain enough moisture to thrive. Here we should mention east and south-east Asia, including Indonesia and the Philippines, parts of Africa, and, in the past – New Zealand and the Pacific coast of North America. However, the inhabitants of some moist areas of the world that are rich in ferns have never eaten them. This is the case with Great Britain as well as South America. In the province of Misiones in Argentina, only one species of fern is eaten (Pecluma pectinatiformis (Lindm.) M. G. Price), whereas about 50 species are used medicinally (Keller et al. 2011). For comparison, 23 species of pteridophytes are used in the cuisine of NE India (Yumkham et al. 2017) and 26 species in Nepal (Ojha and Devkota 2021), while at least 52 species of ferns are eaten in China (Liu et al. 2012). This shows the importance of cultural factors. In some areas of the world, the edibility of ferns has never been discovered due to a distrust in green foods, known as herbophobia (Łuczaj 2008a). The Amazon, where people generally refuse to eat leaves (Katz et al. 2012), is a good example of this.

For references see my newly published book:

The book presents around 80 species of edible ferns and horsetails used across the globe. As ferns often have large geographic ranges, knowledge of them may also be useful for you when travelling to distant countries. Such issues as possible toxicity, detoxification procedures, cooking techniques and basic identification principles for ferns are also discussed.

A whole spectrum of possible fern foods is presented: from green fiddleheads in spring, starch from bracken rhizomes and the pith of tree ferns, to eating polypody fern rhizomes as a sweet snack. As ferns often have large geographic ranges, knowledge of them may also be useful for you when travelling to distant countries.

A special effort was made to encompass the edible species commonly found in North America and Europe. The book includes plenty of examples from areas in temperate and tropical Asia, where the author took part in several ethnobotanical expeditions and witnessed local people gathering ferns for food and making dishes out of them. The fascinating tradition of using ferns in New Zealand was not neglected either. The book also presents traditional fern cooking recipes from all over the world.

Writing this post I would also like to recommend a book about wild foods of Japan (Eating Wild Japan) writtinen by Winifred Bird. She shared two recipes with me and I was greatly inspired by her book containing lots of info on fern uses in Japan.


Hogweed, borscht and the food of people and bears

1st July 2020

Hogweed Heracleum is a common perennial of fertile meadows, roadsides and gardens. Its range encompasses Eurasia and North America. In Europe the commonest native species is common hogweed Heracleum sphondylium. Hogweed is a forgotten vegetable, once very important for the Slavs. Various species of hogweed are also used as food in North America, Russia,t he Cacasus and China (e.g. Hedrick 1919; Maurizo 1926, 1927; Hu 2005; Moerman 1998, etc.). The English name of the dish borscht (and similar names of the dish in Slavic languages, e.g. the Polish barszcz, and Russian borshch comes from the plant itself. A wider monograph of its use in Poland was written by Professor Rostafiński (1916) and the majority of information about it in this chapter comes from that work. The use of fermented leaves and stalks of hogweed in Poland, Russia and Lithuania was also mentioned in the famous English Herbal by Gerarde in 1597. He wrote:

“The people of Polonia and Lithuania use to make drinke with the decoction of this herbe and leuen or some other thing made of meal, which is used in stead of beere and other ordinary drinke”.

Of course it also appear in Polish herbals. And here is what Marcin from Urzędów wrote in his Polish Herbal from 1595:

“When hogweed is fermented in the Polish way, it is good to drink in fevers, thirsts, since it alleviates thirst and cholera, and greed for food is awakened by seasoning with it. (…) Seasoned with eggs and with butter and eggs it is good to eat on those days when the meat soup is not eaten, because it can be used as a meat soup”.

While Szymon Syreński in his Herbal from 1613 writes:

“Our hogweed is known to all of us, in Russia, in Lithuania, in Żmudź [i.e. Samogitia – a region of Lithuania] (…) It is very tasty as medicine and for the table. Both root and leaves. Although the root is only used for medicine, and the leaves for dishes. (…) The leaves are commonly gathered in May. (…) hogweed soup is tasty and good as it is made in our country, Russia and Lithuania. It is made either alone or with capons, or with other seasonings, like with eggs, cream, millets”.

Chopped stems, leaves and inflorescences were thrown into barrels or other containers with water poured over them. After a certain time they were fermented. Fermented hogweed could contain small amounts of alcohol. It was, then, something between beer and pickled cabbage. The fermentation of hogweed happens quickly. In a warm place by the stove, it becomes pleasantly sour in two days, and after a few days it smells stronger than pickled cabbage (pers. observations).

As previously mentioned, the seventeenth century sources consistently relate that  hogweed was in common use and was one of the main soups. It was also an ingredient of the menu of the professors of the oldest university in Poland, Jagiellonian University in Kraków: “Throughout the whole of Lent on Wednesdays hogweed was served as a soup, with peppered fish, vegetables and carp, and on the first day of Easter first beef clods with eggs, then hogweed, pork, capons with honey cakes, peas and lamb”. (Karbowiak 1900). King Władysław Jagiellończyk (who reigned both Poland and Hungary), when he visited the Hungarian capital missed the hogweed greens and ordered for it to be prepared (Rostafiński 1916).

A sparse account of the species in Priest Kluk’s Dykcyonarz roślinny (i.e. Plant Dictionary) bears witness to the fact that the use of hogweed got rare in the eighteenth century. However, Priest Ładowski in The History of the Natural Kingdom of Poland in 1783 writes: ”Soup is simply made, that they call borsch”. And Jundziłł in his Applied Botany from 1799 relates that hogweed “in our country in Lithuania only and in some other northern countries is used for food. The young leaves are collected, pickled usually with other vegetables of ours, and are often a peasant food. Or dried in the shade, in the shape of celery, kept for future use”.

Gerald Wyżycki also writes of hogweed in his Herbal, published in Vilnius (1845): “Our peasants collect leaves in spring, pickle them and boil a tasty dish out of them called borsch, it substitutes for pickled cabbage very well”.

At the end of the  nineteenth century borsch from hogweed was still a popular dish in the Polesie region, particularly in the former Pińsk area, now in Belarus (Secieszyn near Klecko, Rawonicze, Kuchcice, Kozmiatyna), and also in Nowogródek. A few letters in response to Rostafiński’s survey bear witness to this. A few pieces of information also exist on the consumption of hogweed soup  within the present borders of our country up until the mid XX century – in Łapsze in Spisz (Doliński 1982), in the area of Bielsko-Biała (Łuczaj & Szymański 2007), in northern  Podlasie (Pirożnikow 2008b, 2010). This soup was also known from the  nineteenth century in the north of the country, in the area of Kościerzyna I northern Poland (Łuczaj & Köhler 2012). The use of hogweed soup was also recorded in what is now western Belarus, east from the Białowieża forest in the area of Słonim, Wołkowysk and Prużanna. There it was called borszcz (in English spelling borshch), the same as the sour soup made from it (Graniszewska et al. 2013).

What is interesting that in some languages hogweed is associated with bears (see e.g. Latin names ursi branca). Further below I will quote (slightly modified) information from a passage which I wrote in our collective article about names of plants associated with bears The bear in Eurasian plant names: motivations and models led by a prominent Russian linguist Valeria Kolosova (Kolosova et al. 2017). Bears are typically omnivorous animals, their diet includes succulent shoots and leaves, fruits, insects, and meat (Bojarska and Selva 2011). Omnivory of the bear gave it in many cultures the attribute of medicine animal, knowing all the plants and foods in general. As bears were often believed to have supernatural powers (due to their size and long hibernation period) people observed with great attention bear’s way and the way they foraged. We can thus assume that a large proportion of bear names in plants referred to their diet. The literature on bear ecology gave us dozens of bear food plants, and some of them had bear-related names in some languages. The main example of such plants is hogweed (the genus Heracleum) reported as one of the mainspring foods of the bear from many countries, e.g. the USA, China, Japan, and Poland (e.g. Atwell et al. 1980, Hewitt and Robin 1996, McLellan BN, Hovey  1995; Schaller et al. 1996; Tomasz Kozica – pers. comm.). Also “bear’s garlic”, Allium ursinum, was reported as important bear food in Croatia (Kusak and Huber 1998). There was also an evidence from Mr. Sándor Tímár (Eastern Carpathians) of bears eating ramsons Allium ursinum and victory garlic A. victorialis (Hung. vadfokhagyma, wild garlic), though the plant was not named after bear in this area: “The bear does not eat anything during winter, he licks his paws, and licks so much that by spring they are white. And then he eats first from that plant (wild garlic), in order to clean his stomach from the “deposits”. He is such a clever animal. He searches for what he has to eat after the winter sleep” (Kolosova et al. 2017).

Bears eat a large diversity of wild fruits so it is not surprising that some of them got the names of bear berries, though it is probably impossible to say if it was because they were main fruits eaten by bears or rather those fruits which are less eaten by humans, left for the bears, like Arctostaphylos uvaursi. Bears have also been observed using plants for self- medication, so some of the plants which are not typical bear food or do not resemble bears in any way may have acquired their names from incidents of humans observing a bear using this plant as medicine. This was the case with Ligusticum porteri which was observed as being sought after by bears and was regarded as bear medicine by Native Americans (Sigstedt 2013). It is possible to assume that some plants – their fruits, stalks or rhizomes – were eaten by bears, though dialect dictionaries seldom give explanations, and we do not always know the folk ideas behind this or that nomination.”

The literature cited above makes me think that bears could become an inspiration (and probably have been such inspiration in the past!) for humans searching for food in the woods and woodland clearings. What is also hopeful is that such a large “carnivorous” animal can sustain itself for weeks only on vegan food. Please note, however, that the more north you go, the less vegan the bears are.


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Bojarska, K., Selva, N., 2011 Spatial patterns in brown bear Ursus arctos diet: the role of geographical and environmental factors. Mammal Reviews. 42(2), 120–43.

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Siege of Sarajevo and wild edible plants

30th March 2020

In times of impeding crisis, it’s worth reaching for the experiences from attempts at survival in situations of total crisis which don’t go that far back. One such great challenge for the nations of former Yugoslavia were the wars started after Yugoslavia’s breakup. The civil war which took place between 1991–1995 was the most bloody conflict in Europe since World War II. During this time, the part of former Yugoslavia that suffered the most was Bosnia and Hercegovina, an ethnically and religiously diverse republic located between Croatia and Serbia. One of the stages of this war was the siege of Sarajevo, which lasted 1430 days, from April 5th to February 29th 1996, and was led by the forces of the Serbian Republic and the Yugoslav People’s Army from the capital of Bosnia and Hercegovina against the majority, who wanted Bosnia and Herzegovina to be independent.

For the greater part of this siege, there was no electricity in the city, and people managed to sustain themselves thanks to the gardens surrounding their houses, green spaces in the city, and aid dropped by the army. In mid-1993 a 800 metre tunnel opened underneath the airport. It was the only route connecting the city under siege with the free part of the country inhabited by Bosnians. It allowed for them to transfer weapons and food.

One of the great figures of this siege was prof. Sulejman Redžić (1953-2014), a botanist who created shows on his radio station on how to enrich one’s diet by picking plants in the city, and then wrote a work that documented human nutrition during the siege. Sadly, this researcher was found dead in a forest near Sarajevo at the peak of his scientific career. The circumstances of his death are uncertain and may even point to political motives.

I first encountered Sulejman when reviewing his article. He then invited me to lecture as a guest at a plenary session of a conference he was organising. Spending time in Sarajevo, I heard many stories on how people coped with nutrition, both from Sulejman and his assistants as well as other Bosnians I had the chance to meet.

Life was really difficult. There was a shortage of everything. People ate whatever they could make out of airdropped pasta or powdered milk, they searched for nettles, and most of the space in gardens was taken up by vegetable patches. The first winter was the worst. There were even shortages of water and people hid from artillery fire in empty, unheated flats. Many people lost 20-30 kg of their body mass.

After surviving the first year and digging the tunnel, people started to cope better.  

Here’s a link to an article on the use of wild plants for survival in Sarajevo:

Redžić, S., 2010. Use of wild and semi-wild edible plants in nutrition and survival of people in 1430 days of siege of Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992–1995). Collegium Antropologicum34(2), pp.551-570.

He later also wrote an article on the use of mushrooms and lichens in a different region of Bosnia and Hercegovina:

Redzic, S., Barudanovic, S. and Pilipovic, S., 2010. Wild mushrooms and lichens used as human food for survival in war conditions; Podrinje-Zepa Region (Bosnia and Herzegovina, W. Balkan). Human Ecology Review, pp.175-187.

Young leaves and stems were the most often eaten parts of plants. The most frequently eaten plants were: nettles (Urtica dioica), dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), common chicory (Cichorium intybus) and the common mallow (Malva sylvestris). Other often eaten species included the amaranth (Amaranths retroflexus), the common houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum), sorrel (Rumex patientia and R. acetosa), the common primrose (Primula vulgaris) and parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) roots. Other than that, they used the white clover (Trifolium repens), chickweed (Stellaria media), charlock mustard (Sinapis arvensis), wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum), spotted dead-nettle (Lamium maculatum) as well as the bulbs of the Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus).

I was very moved by the conference in Sarajevo and my meetings with its inhabitants. I fell in love with the Balkans. Thanks to one conversation in the pub in the evening after lectures, with, among others, some researchers from Croatia, I started studying wild vegetables sold on the Dalmatian coast the following year. Since then I’ve gone to do research in The Balkans a few times a year, which, in the past few years, has been possible thanks to my NCN grant no. 2015/19/B/HS3/00471 entitled Traditional collection of wild edible plants on the islands of Dalmatia. Maybe now thanks to the quarantine in Europe I will find more time to write about this on my blog…

With prof. Sulejman Redžić in Blagaj, a dervish monastery near Mostar

Conference attendees – mainly researchers on medicinal plants in Balkan and Middle Eastern countries and Turkey

Tunnel connecting Sarajevo with the world during the siege

Prof. Redžić talks about crossing the tunnel


Change everything or go back to how things should be?

24th March 2020

Like many of you, I am writing this post while remaining in partial isolation. In the course of a few days, the world has changed beyond recognition. A paralysis in transport, the slow downfall of the economy, empty streets. I wanted to write about what’s going on from the point of view of someone who has been preparing for this eventuality for many years now. I would like to share some loose thoughts that you can expand on yourselves. I’ve always hated cities and felt that in the case of any crisis, life in a city can become hell. This is what’s happening now, with people stuck in their flats. What if they run out of water? So remember: live in a place where you are 100m away from a source of water.

In a crisis, what matters is family and close friends who live nearby, within a brisk walk’s distance. After all, who will hand you water when you have a fever? Until only a few days ago, one of my daughters was doing an internship in New York City. I told her a few weeks beforehand not to go, I told her everything was going to collapse. She took the last flight back from New York to Scotland. My other daughter is also in Scotland. I sadly failed to convince them to come to Subcarpathia.

Tradition, with family at its forefront, is our best bet in a crisis. It’s good to know that my parents and sister live only a few villages away, and that I am now self-isolating in my log cabin in the countryside with someone who is very close to me.

Traditional taboos – such as those to do with kissing and embracing strangers – often protected us from epidemics. The veils covering Muslims were like masks that protected them from infection. They are mainly worn by women, who were at great risk of viral infections and their repercussions on foetal development. Traditional wisdom is often something tested by dozens of generations. Knowledge about wild plants is a kind of such knowledge. The fact that some plant has been traditionally eaten by generations is a hundred times more important to me than some lab results from one scientific publication.

Isolation forces us to meditate on the local. To limit travel. To grow our own potatoes. To visit places close by, not the ones further away. To take care of our gardens. In the past 18 months, I visited Laos 4 times to conduct my research in the markets of Luangprabang. I felt guilty for flying so much, but I could also sense that this might have been the end, that I might never get the chance to go there again, or at least not be able to visit anytime soon… Every time I go away, I have all of my affairs sorted out beforehand, I always take into account that I might not return, and I take a lot of cash with me.

The global crisis will turn everything on its head. It will mark the end of capitalism as we know it. No, I don’t want communism, but the sort of capitalism we’ve been living in is unhealthy. Maybe finally the culture of loans will come to an end, and international corporation owning more than some countries, tax resident in offshore locations will fall. It’ll be the end of a world based on usury. Let those dodgy guys who took loans to make money on renting out flats in Kraków suffer, I’m not at all sorry for them. Let them go bankrupt.

From the point of view of this crisis, I think I live slightly too deep in the countryside. I’m a 1.5h walk away from the closest town, Frysztak, and 2h away from Krosno. I think I would prefer to live half that distance from some traditional market settlement.

I look at my shelves of preserves. I see dozens of jars of plum jam and marinated mushrooms. There’s always a lot left, and some go to waste. Now, however, I treat them like a treasure for the time of crisis. They might come to use. I hope I don’t have to eat them all… I hear people complaining about others making food provisions! But that’s the way people used to live… They worked in the fields from spring to autumn to then be able to eat what they’d managed to pick for the remaining half of the year. Grains, pasta, a barrel of sauerkraut, dried mushrooms and 300-or-so jars of preserves (and homemade alcohol, of course) are not only a safety measure against the coronavirus crisis. They are a safety measure against any crisis. An asteroid, a volcanic eruption, cholera. We should always have provisions for a few months in our house. Let yourselves have that in your homes, too. Some countries practiced this very recently… for instance, Croatia and Bosnia during the war in the 1990s, or Georgia at the same time, after the fall of the Soviet Union. When I went to Croatia a few years ago, many houses had large provisions of alcohol and food, the memory of war still being fresh. I met many an old lady with a few hundred litres of rakija. And now they’re better prepared than we are.

I’ve been living in self-isolation for a long time. For over twenty years, I’ve been sorting out most things online and living in the countryside. I go to work at the University of Rzeszów once or twice a week to run classes and attend meetings. I do all of my work remotely. I hate the city, even a shithole like Rzeszów. Now perhaps more people will be able to live like I do. Because some have wanted to yet couldn’t. I think that in a few days we will switch to working online to the extent of not wanting to go back to driving into the city, often pointlessly. How many times did I have to drive for 50 minutes in traffic to some stupid 10-minute meeting. We could save so much petrol! Shopping once a week, homegrown potatoes, maybe a sheep instead of a lawnmower. Don’t worry!

In the case of a crisis, we begin to see what’s really important. Food and doctors are important, while Wi-Fi, petrol stations, car mechanics, some shops and factories are in second place. The rest are parasites: the clergy who take money for funerals, the boring teachers, the officials who have you stored in their databases. In a crisis, anarchy takes over, but it’s also quick to self-organise. However, everything begins with food and having someone who can make us a hoe, a spade and an axe.

I would always get worked up when I heard on TV that Poland should consolidate farming and arable land in the hands of a small number of big owners. No! Poland’s fragmentation is its strength. The fact that in a month’s time, something like 1/3 of Poles will have access to their own land and will be able to plant their own potatoes on it. The fact that so many families have access to half an acre of arable land is a real treasure.

And, to end on a positive note, the death rate of the virus is very low. A maximum of 0.1% of the population will die and the virus itself will die down in a few months. You might want to limit your social activity, but don’t let yourselves go crazy. Let’s treat this as allowing our system a few more weeks to get themselves together, make tests, relieve hospitals. But don’t let your government limit your rights. Closing borders, locking people up in prison for not going to hospital, surveillance, the right to confiscate cars and property. We shouldn’t be fooled by people who will try to enslave us on the sly using the virus as a pretext. Maybe we’ll come back from this to a different country – with a basic income, a clean garage, a new book, the skill of growing potatoes and foraging for wild vegetables, cleaner air and better people to rule our beautiful world.

The picture was taken in Georgia, a country which never lost its gastronomical autonomy and spirit of companionship. I’ve used it here to comfort us. Let’s drink to countries free to maintain their orchards and traditional farming and shepherding. I bought some Georgian wine for the time of crisis, so I’m now raising a toast to this!

If you want to read more about my way for economic safety and foraging go to:


Banana and sweet flag

9th January 2019

Among thousands of plant species that are similar to each other, there are some characteristic ones that are difficult to mistake, and at the same time incredibly useful. The banana, for example. The banana is a large plant that can reach over a dozen metres in height, but it’s a gigantic perennial rather than a tree.

It is generally known as a plant with edible fruits. Its flowers are also edible and are sold as a vegetable in the markets of southern Asia, e.g. in Thailand, Laos or Cambodia. The leaves can be used in many ways, as natural plates for meals (India), for rolling up dishes that are roasted on hot coals, or even as short-term hut coverings. The banana seems to be hard to replace. Its mealy fruits with a unique taste and massive, non-poisonous leaves make it a plant of great value. In our climate, we could use other large leaves instead of banana leaves, but when we look around us, there are not all that many plants with big leaves to choose from. Horseradish works really well. It is actually traditionally used in Poland for baking bread on and its leaves are wrapped round fish grilled in fire. My daughter loves to eat grilled sausages and hold them in horseradish leaves.

What other leaves were used in Poland for baking bread on? As research by the Polish Ethnographical Atlas has shown, in addition to horseradish, cabbage was widely used, along with the fragrant leaves of sweet flag (Acorus calamus, also called calamus) in the north-east. Much less often, maple, sycamore, and oak leaves were used in some villages.

Vuknius-style sour dough rye breadwith sweet flag leaves on the bottom side

I’ve also heard of the use of grape vines for this, which is probably a more recent fashion, but may well be a traditional practice in the South, as after all both the Balkans and the Middle East are famous for their stuffed grape leaves, dolma or sarma. Just like we use cabbage for our Polish gołąbki, the Southeners in the Balkans, Turkey and the Middle East use grape vines, the Romanians and the Hutsuls stuff the bitter leaves of coltsfoot, while in Moldova they even used to use marsh marigolds for this purpose.

Actually, once I took part in a project reviewing all the leaves used for food wrapping in the former Ottoman empire and we managed to get to 82 species! For more details see here:

Dogan, Y., Nedelcheva, A., Łuczaj, Ł., Drăgulescu, C., Stefkov, G., Maglajlić, A., Ferrier, J., Papp, N., Hajdari, A., Mustafa, B. and Dajić-Stevanović, Z., 2015. Of the importance of a leaf: the ethnobotany of sarma in Turkey and the Balkans. Journal of ethnobiology and ethnomedicine, 11:11:26.

Romanian-style sarma rolls made with coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) leaves in my cooking classes

Why, when writing about naturalness, am I writing about stuffed leaf dishes? Because the leaf as an architectonic product or a substitute for paper or vessel is something natural, deeply primitive. Before bread was made, rice was cooked or stuffing it in leaves was invented, meat, fish, insects and bulbs had been roasted on embers.

Besides roasting on the surface of the ground, the practice of pit cooking is also widespread among primitive people even of places very far away from each other. The Maori, Australian Aborigines, and Native Americans from the coast of the Pacific all did this.

They would make a pit, often surrounded by stones, in which they would light a fire and then remove at least some of the hot embers. They would make a layer of green leaves with bulbs or meat between them. Meals cooked in such a way have an amazing aroma and usually cook evenly (it is easy to burn a lot of things when roasting them over a fire). Another strength (and at once weakness) of this method is the long preparation time. We put the produce in in the evening, and breakfast is ready for us in the morning. Burying food in the ground is also a primitive method of its preservation. In Poland, too, cabbage used to be pickled directly in pits, similarly to how the people of Siberia prepared wild plants. There were also cases of meat being conserved by burying a whole animal underground. Peat is especially useful for this purpose. Mammoths conserved in peat, which are probably still good to eat, have been found many times in Siberia. A good stomach can take a lot… Once, during a botany class, I stole a piece of coconut from a friend. I was surprised that the meat was so hard (although it did taste of coconut). Only then did I notice a stamp with the Russian two-headed eagle on the shell – Carskiy Imperatorsky Universetet (Tsars Imperial University). It was a museum specimen from the end of the nineteenth century.


Seven Spring Herbs

8th January 2019

On the seventh of January, the Japanese celebrate a special holiday, nanakusa-no-sekku 七草の節 (The Festival of Spring Herbs), which marks the end of the New Year festivities. Nowadays, most Japanese people buy these plants in the supermarket only once a year, but until quite recently these wild weeds were collected throughout the winter and spring on an everyday basis. The tradition originally concerned the seventh day of the lunar year but was moved to the seventh day of the European calendar, which means that in some areas in the North it may be more difficult to collect these species for the Festival. However, most of Japan has quite a mild climate and some weeds can still be found in the fields in winter, only temporarily covered by snow.

Haru no nanakusa is served as a simple rice gruel with boiled herbs (nanakusa-gayu). The number seven is very important to the Japanese and has magical connotations. Usually the following plants are mixed in nanakusa:

  1. seri 芹 (せり) (Asian dropwort Oenanthe javanica ssp. stolonifera) – beware that the European dropwort O.croccata is extremely poisonous, whereas its Asian counterpart can be eaten)
  2. nazuna 薺 (なずな) (shepherd’s purse Capsella bursa-pastoris) – a common weed throughout Eurasia
  3. gogyo 御形 (ごぎょう) (jersey cudweed Gnaphalium affine)
  4. hakobera 繁縷 (はこべら) (common chickweed Stellaria media) – a common weed throughout Eurasia and beyond
  5. hotokenoza 仏の座 (ほとけのざ) (henbit dead-nettle Lamium amplexicaule)
  6. suzuna 菘 (すずな) (field mustard Brassica campestris ssp. rapa), now called kabu (蕪)
  7. suzushiro 蘿蔔 :(すずしろ) (radish Raphanus sativus var. hortensis), now called daikon (大根)

There may be deviations from this list in different parts of Japan, depending on local traditions and the plants’ availability. For example, mugwort Artemisia sp. can also be used. The custom came from China around the 8th century. It was first introduced bu the royal court and then became popular among all the inhabitants.

If you want to know more about traditional foraging in Japan I highly recommend you the book by Winifred Bird published in 2021 in Berkeley (Stone Bridge Press). Bird lived several years in Japan and wrote someting edging journalism, a foraging guide and and an ethnobotanical review. A masterpiece.

On the morning of January the seventh or on the eve of this day, a spoon for eating rice and/or a wooden mortar are placed on a chopping board, indicating an auspicious direction, and a song with the words: „before birds from the Continent come to Japan, we are going to collect nanakusa” is sung. The herbs are chopped while chanting.  

This film shows hitting the weeds with seven kinds of tools:

And another film:

Shepherd’s purse is one of the most widely collected and eaten wild vegetables. It’s not always wild. It can easily be grown from seeds and cultivated like a normal vegetable. It’s especially popular in Shanghai, where you can easily buy ji cai hou dun dumplings. There’s also a beautiful legend to do with Shepherd’s purse that was what first brought me to China.

I was always fascinated by this country. When I was three, I tried to learn Chinese characters. Later, I became very interested in the Chinese art of Feng Shui. When temporarily living in Norwich, England, I rented a room to a Chinese student, who taught me Chinese. This made me regain my interest in this place and two years later, in 2005, I bought a flight to Beijing. However, my main destination was a suburb of the ancient city of Xi’an, a place called Hanyao. I had read about the Hanyao legend in a book called “Road to Heaven. Encounters with Chinese Hermits” by Bill Porter.

Here’s the legend: Wang Pao Ch’uan was the youngest daughter of a prime minister from the T’ang Dynasty. He wanted to marry her to a politically suitable man, but she kept refusing all of the candidates. Eventually, her father made all the men who wanted to ask for her hand gather together, and she was supposed to climb the Great Goose Pagoda and throw a ball of silk from it.

Great Goose Pagoda in Xi’an

The man who would catch the ball would become her fiancé. She saw a poor traveller, P’ing-kuei, standing in the crowd. She had met him the day before and threw the ball to him. But her father did not respect her choice and the young couple had to leave the palace. They were forced to settle in an empty cave in a loess cliff that was formerly used for making pots. Unfortunately, a war with Tanguts from the North broke out soon after they had settled there, and P’ing-kuei joined the army. One of the prime minister’s sons-in-law organized a trap and P’ing Kuei was captured and imprisoned by the enemy. In spite of receiving the news of her husband’s death, Pao Ch’uan faithfully waited for his return. P’ing Kuei came back 18 years later to find her collecting shepherd’s purse. She had been eating it all the time throughout those long 18 years. Now the place is a small Daoist temple, and inside it a wax figure cabinet which depicts the story. They are also meant to serve shepherd’s purse dumplings, though I couldn’t find any when I was there in September 2005.

The gate of Hanyao in 2005

A loess cliff in Hanyao, a very typical feature of central Shaanxi landscape
One of hermit huts in the cliff
A cleaning lady guided me around
This is where Wan Pao Ch’uan lived
A holy pine tree
Wan Pao Ch’uan and her husband
A Demon House from Hanyao
Another part of the Demon House story

The original affluent society

30th December 2018

The ‘original affluent society’ is a term coined by the American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, who first introduced it at the Man the Hunter symposium in Chicago in 1966.

The symposium was of great importance. A breakthrough occurred in the way that the lives of primitive hunter-gatherers were perceived. Until then, they were associated with poverty, hunger, and primitivism. Then they became associated with a sort of ideal of a ‘golden age’, because apparently they didn’t go hungry, and their spiritual culture was often very elaborate (as were the less visible aspects of their material culture).

Sahlins called the economy of hunter-gatherer societies a ‘Zen economy’. Sahlins argues that hunter-gatherers can achieve a sense of affluence by not needing much and by satisfying these basic needs in any way possible.

Sahlins quotes Lorna Marshall, who spent years living among the Basarwa of Botswana:

They all had what they needed or could make what they needed (…) They lived in a kind of material plenty because they adapted the tools of their living to materials which lay in abundance around them and which were free for anyone to take (…) They borrow what they do not own. With this ease, they have not hoarded, and the accumulation of objects has not become associated with status.

Sahlins pays special attention to the large amount of free time at the hunter-gatherers’ disposal. Based on works by McCarthy and McArthur on Arnhem Land and by Richard Lee on the South African !Kung tribe, his view is that hunter-gatherers work for only around twenty hours per week, that is, half the time people work nowadays.