EP21: From 19th century famine potherb to 21st century hipster food

The edibility of plants has been discussed in old herbals and economic handbooks since the origins of written language.

Inventories of wild edible plants were often created in the hope of alleviating famine and finding new sources of food.

Nineteenth and early 20th-century ethnography documented the use of wild foods in order to preserve traditions, but the memory of famine always lingered in these sources.

In this, Kew’s 19th Annual Ethnobotanist Lecture, Lukasz Luczaj discusses at length some of the more interesting wild food used in central Europe in the past – e.g. sweet manna grass (Glyceria fluitans), hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium), marsh woundwort (Stachys palustris) and water caltrop (Trapa natans).

Another source of knowledge of potentially edible species is archaeobotany. Recently, some experimentation has been made by fans of foraging and haute-cuisine chefs playing with recipes.

Nowadays, we describe the use of wild foods in ethnobotanical works in order to preserve traditional knowledge, improve rural livelihoods and to find species matching the local terroir, as it appears that most potentially edible plants in Europe are known.

But are they really? Can we still find more species which could be included in the human diet?

I would like to discuss the scope, however, limited, for inventing or re-inventing new uses of wild edibles. These are:

  • alien species
  • species regarded as toxic with little-known detoxification procedures
    less common species from generally edible families e.g. Brassicaceae
  • species from taxonomic groups with little-known edibility
  • “climbing” the spectrum of food and medicine – learning more about safe levels of food uses of these plants.

Show Notes

About Lukasz Luczaj

Lukasz Luczaj is associate professor and head of the Department of Botany in the Faculty of Biotechnology of the University of Rzeszow, Poland.

His main interest is the traditional use of wild foods in Eurasia. He has carried out field research in Poland, Romania, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia (Caucasus) and China.

In China, he works both with Chinese and Tibetan communities of the Qinling Mountains and eastern part of the Tibetan Plateau. He is also interested in archival sources concerning plant uses – he worked extensively with archives concerning Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine and Belarus.

He also co-edited a book entitled Pioneers in European Ethnobiology (with Ingvar Svanberg, Uppsala University Press).

In 2011, Lukasz founded an open-access Polish-language journal Etnobiologia Polska. He is the editor of Ethnobotany section in Acta Societatis Botanicorum Poloniae (the oldest Polish botanical journal) and associate editor in Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine.

Apart from the work in Academia, he runs an educational centre and wild garden in the Carpathians where he organises cooking workshops with wild plants, fungi and insects.

Lukasz authored a few popular books on edible plants, insects and foraging way of life, as well as appearing on a few cooking television programmes (all in Polish). He also runs a YouTube channel devoted to wild foods.


  1. Hello Robert .

    Thank you for the very good article , also listening to the podcast was interesting .
    As kids swimming around the Danube water caltrops use to be a nice treat .
    Eating them quite young they can be eaten raw , quite sweet if I remember right .
    The mature ones boiled are quite similar to beans or potatoes , maybe because of the starch .
    One thing to be careful when you run around unfortunately , the dry ones really hurt if you step on them , I know 🙂 .

    Best wishes .


  2. Hey Robin
    thanks for reminding me what a great guy Lukasz is. I enjoy your articals anyway but your interview with Lukasz was a reminder. Lukasz was such an inspiration in my early forays into professional foraging. Working with him on one of his early courses in the Carpathian mountains one summer was an experience that I will never forget and one i’m sad I didn’t repeat. His knowledge is only out-shadowed by his hospitality and human kindness.

  3. This is very interesting. Thanks a lot for sharing. I am struggling to catch the name of the Swiss Italian author he mentions at 24:20. Would you be able to help? Thanks, Vincent

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