Last week, I went to see perennial plant expert Stephen Barstow talk about his 2015 book, Around the World in 80 Plants. In it, Barstow illuminates the wide world of perennial edible plants, from tuber varieties in the Peruvian highlands to Sherpa vegetables in the Himalayas to traditional rooftop gardens in Norway, where he’s currently based. The book grew out of a lifetime of experimentation and plant love. It includes stories, traditions, cultivation practices, seed saving techniques, and recipes.

“The book begins in London and ends in London,” said Barstow. “As any story titled with ’80 days’ should.”

An endearing speaker, Barstow opened up his talk, which was held at the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific, with a brief introduction to permaculture, food forests, and foraging. He highlighted perks of these eco-agricultural practices such as less irrigation, fewer insects and diseases from more resilient plants, and the way perennial plants hold carbon dioxide in their root systems.

As a novice gardener, I was aware of some well-loved perennial vegetables like asparagus, artichokes, and rhubarb, but what I ended up taking home was a world completely unbeknownst to me—one that is right outside my front door. Barstow took the room of about 50 plant lovers on a tour that barely skimmed the surface of the probable “100,000 edible plants in the world.” That’s a third of all plant species on the planet.

Barstow moved to Norway to pursue a career in oceanography in the 1980s. A vegetarian, he quickly realized there wasn’t much access to fresh vegetables in the town. He began experimenting in his garden with what could and couldn’t grow at 64°N. Before he knew it, an edible garden had formed (with much trial and error) and Barstow had created a perennial paradise of sorts in the cold Scandinavian country.

For over 30 years he and his wife have been collecting, sowing, growing, cultivating, and eating perennial vegetables from all over the world. Inspired by Mediterranean countries, Barstow created a salad with 537 different varieties, which earned him the title “Extreme Salad Man” in 2003.

If you’re tired of eating the standard veggies from your local grocer, go pick up a copy of Around the World in 80 Plants (you can order it online). I promise you won’t get bored of looking for disguised “wild” plants or ornamentals that can be steamed, stir-fried, or eaten raw.

– Sarah Hughes

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