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FRONT BURNER | FORKLORE

Show Us the Honey

April 22, 1998

Fruits, vegetables, grains--nearly all our plant foods come from flowering plants. Meat and dairy products themselves are second-hand forms of flowering plants such as grains. And that's not even mentioning honey.

On the other hand, nonflowering plants such as ferns and conifers have just never shown us much. We eat pine nuts and fern fiddleheads, we flavor a few foods (and gin) with juniper berries, and that's about it.

Other than that, some people eat the seeds of certain nonflowering plants, such as ginkgo trees, in areas where grains don't thrive. In other places, people have sustained life in winter by eating pine sapwood or boiling pine needles to make a desperate sort of soup.

And the seeds of primitive palm-like trees called cycads are processed to extract starch. In Indonesia, it's a traditional famine food, but it is also exported for use as a dessert thickener (we can buy it in this country under the name "sago"). But "process" is the operative word here. Without repeated washing, the seeds are toxic.

As, for that matter, are some ferns. Not the ostrich fern commonly eaten in North America, but a couple of fern species eaten in East Asia; they've been shown to be carcinogenic. Another fern species, the tiny mosquito fern, does make an indirect contribution to human diet. Its leaves harbor blue-green algae which make nitrogen more available to other plants, thereby increasing the productivity of the rice paddies where it grows.

So if a flower stirs warmer feelings in your heart than a pine cone or the strobilus of a horsetail fern, maybe it's because it's brightly colored. Or maybe it's that flowering plants do us all sorts of good, while nonflowering plants mostly just stand around looking stupid.

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