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My interest in the study of famine food-plants began in 1966 when I was an undergraduate student in the anthropology department of the University of Arizona. In my last semester, I wrote a term paper on Native American food preparation techniques, for Professor Bernard Fontana's class, "History of the Indians of North America." This research became the catalyst for an interest in the socio-anthropological aspects of human food habits, which lasted for the next fifteen years.
After exhaustively searching the ethnographic literature in the University of Arizona's anthropology and main libraries, I had 103 typewritten pages of food preparation information representing several dozen Native American and Native Canadian tribes. Although I stopped at 103 pages, I could have continued to gather material from the literature at a seemingly endless rate. I was so excited by this study of human food habits, that I decided to compile a bibliography on the subject. This project soon expanded from Native North America to every culture in the world. I began to collect citations from the ethnographic literature before I graduated from the University of Arizona, and carried the project with me, when I began graduate studies at the University of Hawaii from 1966 to 1969. Ten years and many libraries later, I had accumulated about 12,000 bibliographic citations. In 1978, I applied for and was awarded an Extramural Grant by the United States National Library of Medicine to complete the bibliography. It was published in the early 1980s, in two volumes, by Greenwood Press. I give this brief history as a background for my interest in famine foods, which developed alongside the larger focus of creating a bibliographic resource for anthropologists documenting the significance of food use in human culture.
As my search for references to human food habits continued, every so often I found a paper describing famine food plants - those plant species hardy or hidden enough to survive drought or other causes of crop destruction - upon which starving indigenous groups relied to assuage often death-dealing famines. Eventually, I realized no one had coordinated this small but fascinating literature on these famine plants. As I collected more citations, I decided to compile an inventory of all the published famine species. Particularly interesting was the fact that some of these famine plants had unusually high nutritional values. I thought that over a thousand species of plants consumed during times food scarcity attested to a useful resource for the development of potential new crops. Further, it seemed, at least in theory, more cost-effective to consider improving some of these indigenous crops, rather than continuing to transplant traditional Western crops to areas where they are not environmentally compatible and organoleptically acceptable. In this paper, I will examine, in general terms, the nature of traditional knowledge of such plants and the potential these plants may have for areas of the world at high ecological risk.
There is no documentation indicating when famine plants were first used. It is likely however to have occurred subsequent to the Neolithic Revolution. Knowledge of undomesticated plants still would have been quite broad then and reliance upon them presumably have continued parallel to the early development of regular crops. But, as horticulture evolved, older knowledge of many edible wild plant species was slowly lost. In societies which remained non- or semi-agricultural, on the other hand, traditional knowledge and use of wild plants was probably retained to a greater extent, thereby providing a wider potential range of species from which to choose in times of famine and food scarcity.
Aletris japonica, Lamb. China: leaves eaten with oil and salt. Vernacular name: Star Grass. Ref. READ.
Aletris spicata, Franch. China: leaves eaten with oil and salt. Ref. READ.
Allium monanthum, Maxim. Manchuria (eastern forests): whole plant eaten. Ref. BARANOV.
Aloe barbadensis, Mill, India (Rajasthan, western): cooked with bajra (millet) flour or made into a paste mixed with sugar. Leaf pulp used to increase flour bulk. Tender pith and fleshy leaves after washing several times used for making bread after mixing with corn [sic] flour. Vernacular names - Guarpatha, Ghritkumari, Ghikumar. Ref. GUPTA & KANODIA, SAXENA; SHANKARNARAYAN & SAXENA.
Aloe Barteri, Baker. Africa (west): blossoms used as a soup vegetable. Ref. IRVINE, UPHOF.
Aloe Cooperi, Baker. Zululand (Ubombo district): interior of stalk removed and cooked. Vernacular name - Zulu: Icena. Ref. HELY- HUTCHINSON.
Aloe indica, Royle. India: leaf-bud or 'cabbage' eaten. Ref. WATT.
Aloe littoralis, Baker. India: leaf bud, or 'cabbage' eaten. Ref. WATT.
Aloe vera, L.; Mill. (syn. Aloe officinalis, Forsk.) India: leaf-bud or 'cabbage' eaten. Ref. WATT.
Aloe vulgaris, Lam. India (Madras Presidency): leaf-bud, or 'cabbage,' and tender pith are eaten. (Kumaon region, Western Himalayas): pulp eaten; (Garhwal Himalayas): pulp pickled. Vernacular names - Tamil: Kuthalay. Telugu: Kalabanda. Kumaon region: Gaikwar. Ref. BHARGAVA, GUPTA, SHORTT.
Anemarrhena asphodeloides, Bunge. China: root eaten. Ref. READ.
Asparagus Pauli-Guilelmi, Solms.-Laub. Africa (west): the tubers of this wild variety are boiled, then eaten. It is noted that they grow to a large size near ant hills. Ref. IRVINE, UPHOF.
Asparagus racemosus, Willd. India ( Rajasthan, western): fasciculated roots eaten as vegetable; (Garhwal Himalayas): tender shoots including stem eaten. Soil types favored by plant: rocks, piedmont plains, gravelly. Vernacular names - Rajasthan (western): Satavar, Satabari. Ref. GUPTA; GUPTA & KANODIA, SAXENA; SHANKARNARAYAN & SAXENA.
Asparagus sarmentosis, L.; Heyne. India (Deccan): roots eaten. Ref. WATT.
Asphodelus albus, Boiss.; Mill.; Nees.; Willd. France: root recommended as a famine food. After cooking and reducing to a pulp, it is suggested it be blended into a confection with barley and buckwheat flour. Ref. PARMENTIER.
Asphodelus fistulosus, L. France: root recommended as a famine food. Prepared as for Asphodelus albus (q.v.). India: tubers eaten. Ref. PARMENTIER, WATT.
Asphodelus tenuifolius, Cav. India (Garhwal Himalayas): seeds eaten raw. Ref. GUPTA.
Calochortus Nuttallii, Torr. & Gray. North America: bulb boiled and roasted, then made into flour by some Native groups. Vernacular names: Mariposa Lilly, Sago -Lilly. Ref. CARR, UPHOF.