As a kid, like many of us, I played baseball. I was a decent hitter and an adequate center fielder, but I was easily distracted. I would grind my foot into the sod until it gave way and only a bare spot of dirt remained. I found myself kicking daisies, and searching for four leaf clovers. Occasionally, I would pop one of them in my mouth, because well, kids are weird- and I was maybe the weirdest of them all.
I stopped playing baseball when I grew up, but honestly, I never stopped digging in the dirt. Much to the chagrin of my saintly wife, I also never stopped eating random plants. Some are good- sheep sorrel (or Rumex Acetosello as my former boss and friend Brad would correct me) is one of my favorites. Some, like dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) are a little bitter for my taste.
I worked for Brad at the Littlefield Garden in Orono (if you are ever visiting UMaine, you should absolutely go there- it is one of the finest gardens in Maine). One of my coworkers introduced me to a book that would quickly become one of my favorites: Sturtevant’s Edible Plants of the World, written and edited by U.P. Hendrick and based on the writing and work of Edward Lewis Sturtevant. Part of our job was weeding, and we would weed for hours. We knew the names of most plants and we would check Sturtevant’s to see if we could eat them. It is amazing- the majority of the plants that we were digging out of the garden beds were completely edible. We even boiled the tender shoots of milkweed and would eat them (they taste like asparagus) at lunch.
This book has proven to be a revelation to me. I am a notoriously bad gardener. I harvest far more weeds from my garden than I do vegetables (luckily I have my wife to keep our gardens on track). Using Sturtevant’s Edible Plants of the World, I have been able to expand the bounty of my garden without additional labor, just by expanding my knowledge of what we can eat.
If I am being perfectly honest, I know even without Sturtevant’s Edible Plants of the World, I would still eat random things out of my garden without knowing what they are. It is nice however to be able to use my Weeds of the Northeast book to identify and then consult Sturtevant to find out whether or not they will kill me first.
Sturtevant’s Edible Plants of the World is just a selection of a tome of work that spans thousands of pages of Edward Lewis Sturtevant (whose grandfather had a farm in Winthrop, Maine). He was a Bowdoin graduate and served in the Civil War in the 74th of Maine. He died in 1898 from tuberculosis at the age of 56. It is a true testament to his scholarship and acumen in the field of agronomy that his books are still sought after nearly 120 years after his death. You can still find many of the books he wrote on abebooks.com.
Sturtevant’s is a nice addition to any homesteader’s library. More than anything it might free you to try some of the hidden gems in your garden- remember don’t weed it, just eat it. Now does anyone have a recipe for crab grass?