The World’s Most Dogged Forager
Botanical explorer Joseph Simcox travels the globe in search of rare, heirloom seeds and brings them back to chefs and growers stateside
Published: July 28, 2015 | By Zoe Schaeffer
I have a unique job: For much of the year, I travel on expedition, journeying to remote areas of the world to track down the rarest, strangest, most beautiful plants imaginable. I’ve collected more than 1,200 varieties of beans alone!
I’ve hiked everywhere from the forested mountains of Madagascar to the sandy swaths of the Namib desert. When I find a variety that is new to me, I taste it, make notes, and photograph it to add to my ever-growing database of the earth’s true food potential. I send the seeds to gardeners all over the world who grow the plants and save their seeds. By cultivating, eating, and studying rare fruits and vegetables, we can help reverse the planet’s loss of biodiversity and radically improve the quality of our diets.
My work can be dangerous. I had a close call once in Sa Pa, Vietnam. A medicine woman had mysterious roots at market. One, I was told, was used in porridge. I wasn’t convinced, so I demurred from trying it. Later, my research revealed that the root, au tau, or Aconitum fischeri, is deadly when ingested. It’s used to poison arrow tips for hunting! But I discovered that prepared traditionally—soaked in rice water, boiled for 4 hours, dried, smashed, and, finally, cooked slowly over a low fire with pigs’ feet and rice—it is not just edible but so delicious. This “poison porridge,” as the locals call it, is often accompanied by chicken, pepper, onion, and lemon balm. I look to the native elders above all—if they put it in their mouths, I follow suit. I’ve tasted a lot of good things this way.
One of the best things I’ve ever eaten grows in the Amazon, clustered on plants just 2 to 3 feet tall but with large, velveteen leaves. Called coconillo, it is a bright-red fruit that tastes like a cross between a tomato and a black cherry. It’s wonderfully juicy and sweet-tart, with a slightly thick edible skin. Like many of the foods I’ve found, it could easily be grown here in the United States, either outside in Florida or Hawaii, or as a houseplant in a big pot with ample drainage, watering, and humidity.
I’m thrilled that gardeners across the country have shown an interest in cultivating the varieties I find. My work opens up the opportunity for the right people—passionate horticulturists, backyard gardeners, and university researchers—to play a part in the future of humankind. I’ll do this until I’m in a wheelchair.
You can purchase Simcox’s rare seeds at growrareseeds.com, including Pusa Rudhira, a giant high-yield Indian carrot that flourishes in arid conditions; Chiclayo Calabaza, a zucchini-like South American gourd that can be grown in almost all zones; Purceddu di Alcamo, an antique Sicilian storage melon that grows best in areas with hot, dry summers; and Terung Asam, a slightly sour Malaysian eggplant with a long growing season and proclivity for sun and humidity.
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