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In Search of the Elusive Caucasian Spinach

5/29/2009 5:16:10 PM

Tags: Environment, wilderness, permaculture, wildcrafting, edible plants

Hablitzia hunter Justin WestIn a gripping and suspenseful tale, an intrepid, dashing explorer in a brimmed hat journeys into the Russian, Armenian, and Georgian areas of the Caucasus, descending rugged canyons and risking life and limb to find the wild, wonderful, and rare … Caucasian spinach. Yes, it’s a yarn that could only come from the pages of Permaculture Activist magazine (article not available online), wherein our hero, Justin West, traces the Old World roots—literally—of some of humankind’s favorite foods.

West points out that “the Caucasus has for me become synonymous with wild edible plant origins,” harboring species of almond, chestnuts, walnuts, hazel, pomegranate, grape, hawthorns plum, apples, and pears. But how many of us would set off on a five-week trek to find a specimen of the vinelike Hablitzia tamnoides, which to hear him tell it is a holy grail for permaculturists? He does, and tells us all about his trip through village and vale. At times it sounds better than any Fodor’s-guided trek across Provence:

Through it all we were continually inspired by the sheer diversity of landscapes, and the equal diversity of fresh, organic fruit and nuts in the markets of the cities and in the villages. In people’s private gardens, the pears, apples, plums persimmons, apricots, peaches, and Cornelian cherries were seemingly woven together with streamers of grape vines, and under-planted with patches with corn, beans, and other vegetables. The streets were lined with rows of walnuts and chestnuts. It often felt as though we had stepped not into the past, but rather into a future realm, a post-oil era, where the lack of cheap consumer goods was all but forgotten amid daily rituals of food production and celebration.

Along the way, West drinks homemade vodka out of sheep horns with animist herders, has a run-in with a bunch of young boars, camps in a cave—and yes, finds his precious quarry with its “green tissue-paper thin caps, almost like moss operculum’s, falling away from the center of the flower and revealing shiny black seeds.”

He ends up steaming some Hablitzia leaves over a campfire and gathering a few precious seeds, a lucky break since the specimen he found had coincidentally just “set” its seed. Yet he never describes the actual taste of the plant, which others have characterized as being much like our more familiar spinach. It’s clear that for West, the wonder was as much in the journey as in the destination.

Source: Permaculture Activist

Image by Li An Phoa, courtesy of Justin West.



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