The Plant Gastrodiversity Game

Photo: Mangosteens (Garcinia mangostana, Clusiaceae) CC0 via

The diversity of life on Earth is astonishing – which for an ecologist, is both exciting (new species everywhere I turn!) and frustrating (how can I possibly know all these species?). The temptation to have some fun with this is irresistible, and a while back my wife and I set up a nerdstravaganza game that let us learn a little more about plant diversity. In brief: we (and some friends) gave ourselves two weeks to eat members of as many plant families as possible. If you think that sounds fun, well, you’re right (and also, you’re just about as big a science nerd as me).

So in case you’d like to try your hand at it, here are the rules. (I’ll also share my own results, but only via a link; if you’re going to play the game, it’s more fun not to see anyone’s family list beforehand.) You can of course come up with your own modifications to the rules; if you do, I’d love to hear about it in the Replies.

 The goal: Eat the most diverse set of plant families in a 2-week period, and learn something in the process!

 The prize: A simple pot, with a $2/contestant entry fee going to the person with the longest list of plant families eaten. Alternatively, the pot can be split to recognize different definitions of “most diverse” – for example, number of families vs. phylogenetic diversity of families (total branch length on the plant phylogeny*)

 The rules:

 1) Foods can be anything in Kingdom Plantae (according to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS). Note that this includes the red and green algae.

 2) Only deliberate consumption of a food counts. For instance, many plant families might occur as pollen contaminants in honey, but they don’t count.

 3) You must consume a minimum volume of 1/4 tsp (1.2 mL) in one serving of a single dish (no summing over dishes or meals to count families of spices). Use your best judgement for minor ingredients in prepackaged foods.

 4) Pharmaceuticals, vitamins, or other diet supplements do not count.

 5) Foods made by crushing, extraction, or other mechanical processing of plant parts are acceptable (e.g., canola oil for Brassicaceae, soy sauce for Fabaceae) – except see rule (6).

 6) Infusions such as coffee, teas, and alcohols do not count**. However, tea leaves, coffee beans, and similar foods ingested in solid form do count, as do juices and nectars, subject of course to quantity rule (3).

 7) Plants illegal in your jurisdiction do not count. (Besides, if you are clever, you can find legal, edible products for Cannabaceae, Papaveraceae, and so on).

 8) Family names will be those accepted by ITIS.

 Please note, some plants are dangerous to eat or touch! We don’t want people to get sick or hurt from eating, handling, or otherwise using unsafe plants. It is the contestant’s responsibility to ensure the safety of their food; take special care with wild foods.

 All this starts easily enough, of course: a simple slice of pizza is likely to deliver Poaceae (flour), Solanaceae (tomato paste), Oleaceae (olives), Amyrillidaceae (onion), and with liberal use of the shaker, Lamiaceae (oregano). But can you find a mangosteen in your local market (Clusiaceae)? Can you manage the obscure and depauperate Afro-Asian tree family Irvingiaceae? (I did, and got Gnetaceae in the same dish just to show off.)

So: grab your smartphone, head for the supermarket, discover some new plant diversity – and brag about it in the Replies. Can you get a family I missed? It may be the nerdiest fun you have this winter***.

Here (spoiler alert!) is my own result: 65 plant families in 2 weeks. Turns out the dead of winter isn’t the best time to do this, but with a few expensive jars of unappetizingly pickled things I could have added a few more families. Next time!

© Stephen Heard ( December 28, 2015

*^The monotypic, basal, and utterly bizarre gymnosperm Welwitschia is apparently edible, and would be worth tons of phylogenetic diversity points, although it is not legal to harvest in its native Namibia. The algae, of course, are even better.

**^Although here’s Jeff Ollerton celebrating the addition of a new plant family to his life list via a liqueur, so it would certainly be reasonable to play the game counting infusions. We excluded them because we thought it would make diversity too easy: you can make a tea, or a homemade schnapps, out of the leaves of just about anything.

***^Or summer, if you’re in that part of the world, which may give you a bit of an edge!

10 thoughts on “The Plant Gastrodiversity Game

  1. jeffollerton

    Sixty five families in 2 weeks is astounding and I very much doubt I’ll be able to beat that – my life list is currently only 85! I added a new one over the Christmas holidays by trying the over-ripe fruits of Davidia involucrata; opinions differ as to the family but I’m counting it as Nyssaceae.

    I got the idea of listing plant families I’d eaten from a history of the British Ecological Society in which there was a conference banquet in the early 20th century at which they included over 100 plant families I believe (though I may be misremembering).


    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Well, you probably have me on life list, at 85; I suspect I only have another ten or so families beyond the 2-week challenge. The 100-family banquet sounds fantastic; perhaps some society should resurrect the idea. (The Explorer’s Club famously does exotic foods, but mostly animal. Since in dietary and chemical terms any animal is pretty much like any other one, this isn’t as much of an accomplishment, I think.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. jeffollerton

        Double-checked and the Nyssaceae actually made it 86. I confess that I do include herbs, spices and infusions in my list, plus plants that I discover are edible and try out, but not necessarily in a dish. Wish I’d known about Welwitschia – I visited a population in Namibia some years ago….


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  4. devinbloom

    I just came across this post and it is awesome! I just wrote up an outline for doing this in my ichthyology course. To include vegetarians and expand the potential diversity, I’ll let people include any meal that anyone eats, as long as they are there to witness it (photo documentation required!). This means the bold could ask a stranger what they are eating!

    Liked by 1 person

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