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Food Plants of the World: An Illustrated Guide

Food Plants of the World: An Illustrated Guide by Ben-Erik van Wyk. Pretoria, South Africa: Briza Publications and Portland, OR: Timber Press; 2005. 480 pages; 1000 color photos. ISBN-13: 978-0-88192-743-6 and ISBN-10: 0-88192-743-0. $39.95.

You have to hand it to Briza; for a small South African publishing company, it makes a lot of noise. Briza’s success is due largely to mastermind and prolific writer Ben-Erik van Wyk, who does actually write all these books himself—I have seen him doing it—and who has repeatedly proven that he has good sense for what readers want. All of the “Plants” books authored by van Wyk and published by Briza have been successful. Lately, they have been co-produced and co-marketed by Timber Press (USA) and Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft (Germany), and for the latter, the books have also been translated into German.

These books may not be textbooks in the traditional sense. They provide quick, accurate, and concise “at a glance” descriptions of the world’s (utilized) plant species. The latest—Food Plants of the World—consists of one-page monographs on 350 species. Each monograph contains a general description of the plant species, as well as information on its origin, local names, history, cultivation, uses, and nutrient content. Each monograph is profusely illustrated with photographs depicting the plant species, parts used, and/or products derived from it. The monograph section is preceded by an introduction, which provides insights into the origins and classifications of food plants and nutrients. The monographs are followed by a section regarding issues of nutrients, nutrition, and health; a list with short descriptions of plants that didn’t make it into the monograph section (i.e., a tabular listing of essential information on food plants which did not merit a monograph); a glossary; a reference list; and an index. All such content provides the reader with fast access to a great deal of well-structured information on a previously underrepresented topic. Here are 3 interesting examples: (1) The flowers of cape pondweed (Aponogeton distachyos L.f., Aponogetonaceae) give the characteristic taste to “waterblommetjie bredie,” a traditional dish of the South African Cape region; (2) Although its exceptionally nutritious grains are highly valued by Western healthfood fans, grain amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus L., Amaranthaceae) is now consumed only in the form of a sweet in its country of origin (Mexico); and (3) The fruit of Blighia sapida (König, Sapindaceae), also known as akee in “akee and saltfish,” while innocently tasting like scrambled eggs, is highly poisonous unless harvested precisely when ripe and cooked in saltwater before being fried. Readers may be happy to learn that this will definitely not be the last book in van Wyk’s “Plants” series.

—Thomas Brendler PlantaPhile Berlin, Germany