The spring season for plant-obsessed gardeners is a time to prepare to grow something new and different – something you’ve never tried growing before. Sure, standards and favorites will make an appearance, but when you love plants for plant’s sake you’ve got to try them all, especially the rare and unusual ones – the ones no one else is growing. Even if it ultimately turns out to be a disaster or a dud, at least you tried and can say you did.
That seems to be the spirit behind Jade Pearls and Alien Eyeballs by Emma Cooper. Subtitled, “Unusual Edible Plants and the People Who Grow Them,” Cooper’s book is all about trying new plants, both in the garden and on your plate. While its focus is on the rare and unusual, it is not a comprehensive guide to such plants – a book like that would require several volumes – rather it is a treatise about trying something different along with a few recommendations to get you started.
Cooper starts out by explaining what she means by “unusual edible” – “exotic, old-fashioned, wild, or just plain weird.” Her definition includes plants that may be commonly grown agriculturally but may not make regular appearances in home gardens. She goes on to give a brief overview of plant exploration throughout history, highlighting the interest that humans have had for centuries – millennia even – in seeking out new plants to grow. She acknowledges that, in modern times, plant explorations have shifted from simply finding exotic species to bring home and exploit to cataloging species and advocating for their conservation in the wild. Of course, many of these explorations are still interested in finding species that are useful to humans or finding crop wild relatives that have something to offer genetically.
Cooper then includes more than 2o short interviews of people who are growers and promoters of lesser known edible plants. The people interviewed have much to offer in the way of plant suggestions and resource recommendations; however, this part of the book was a bit dull. Cooper includes several pages of resources at the end of the book, and many of the interviewees suggest the same plants and resources, so this section seemed redundant. That being said, there are some great responses to Cooper’s questions, including Owen Smith’s argument for “citizen-led research and breeding projects” and James Wong’s advise to seek out edible houseplants.
The remainder of the book is essentially a list of the plants that Cooper suggests trying. Again, it is not a comprehensive list of the unusual plants one could try, nor it is a full list of the plants that Cooper would recommend, but it is a good starting point. Cooper offers a description of each plant and an explanation for why it is included. The list is separated into seven categories: Heritage and Heirloom Plant Varieties, Forgotten Vegetables, The Lost Crops of the Incas, Oriental Vegetables, Perennial Pleasures, Unusual Herbs, and Weeds and Wildings.
This is the portion of the book that plant geeks are likely to find the most compelling. It is also where the reader learns where the title of the book comes from – “jade pearls” is another common name for Chinese artichoke (Stachys affinis), and “alien eyeballs” is Cooper’s name for toothache plant (Acmella oleracea). I have tried a few of the plants that Cooper includes, and I was intrigued by many others, but for whatever reason the two that stood out to me as the ones I should try this year were Hamburg parsley (Petroselinum crispum var. tuberosum) and oca (Oxalis tuberosa).
In the final chapter, Cooper offers – among other things – warnings about invasive species (“our responsibility is to ensure that the plants we encourage in our gardens stay in our gardens and are not allowed to escape into our local environment”), import restrictions (“be a good citizen and know what is allowed in your country [and I would add state/province], what isn’t, and why”), and wild harvesting (“act sustainably when foraging”). She then includes several pages of books and websites regarding unusual edibles and a long list of suppliers where seeds and plants can be acquired. Cooper is based in the U.K., so her list of suppliers is centered in that region, but a little bit of searching on the internet and asking around in various social media, etc. should help you develop a decent list for your region. International trades or purchases are an option, but as Cooper advises, follow the rules that are in place for moving plant material around.
Bottom line: find some interesting things to grow this year, experiment with things you’ve never tried – even things that aren’t said to grow well in your area – and if you’re having trouble deciding what to try or you just want to learn more about some interesting plants, check out Emma Cooper’s book.
Also, check out Emma Cooper’s blog and now defunct podcast (the last few episodes of which explore the content of this book).