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Food for thought – some incredible edibles from Kew's DC archive

Helen Hartley
23 July 2013
A peculiar pineapple, a recipe for pumpkin and some alternative appetisers – see what incredible edibles we've uncovered in Kew's DC Archive!

As I'm sure you've noticed, Kew is celebrating Incredible Edibles this summer.  With edibles on our minds, I thought it would be a great opportunity to blog about some of the extraordinary esculents we've encountered while digitising the [DC] collection.

Peculiar Pineapple!

I couldn't resist starting with the most peculiar pineapple I've ever seen...

Photograph of the 'hen and chickens' pineapple, sent to Kew in a letter from Leonard Wray Jr., from Malaysia 1892 [archive ref: DC 165/275]

The photograph of this fantastic fruit was sent to Kew in 1892 by Leonard Wray Jr., the first curator of the Perak Museum – Malaysia's oldest museum. Mr Wray sent many fruit specimens back to Kew, including specimens of 'the hen and chickens pines' shown above, which, as you can see from the photograph, he quite rightly described as "a most splendid variety for show purposes".


Mr Paul And His Yams

Another photograph, this time of various varieties of Jaffna Yams, came to light in a letter from a Mr Isaac Paul of Ceylon [Sri Lanka] in 1893. Mr Paul forwarded a case containing 15 varieties of yams and enclosed a photograph of them with himself and his family.

Isaac Paul (back row on the right) with his father-in-law and family and the 15 varieties of Jaffna Yams he sent to Kew [archive ref: DC 163/194]

In his letter, Paul provides descriptions of the yams and the literal translations of their local names e.g. "Royal yam", "Blood yam", "Fruit yam", "Ship yam" "Temple-cake yam". Paul was keen for the yams to be identified scientifically at Kew.  Unfortunately, a note on the letter, written by a member of Kew's staff, explains: "we have no means of fitting the yams received to these descriptions".

Devine And Intoxicating Plant Products

It is clear from the correspondence received by the Directors of Kew in the 19th and early 20th Century, that they were keen to receive information about any plant or plant product new to science - particularly anything that might be exploited for economic gain. Many edible plants and plant products were, therefore, described in the letters, some more appealing than others!

Sir Mountstuart Elphinestone Grant Duff, writing from Madras [Chennai] while he was Governor there in 1885, speaks very highly of Buchanania, which he believed would be a boon to any country in which it would grow: "Its kernels, when roasted, are delightful, but, when devilled, are divine!" [archive ref: 157/387].

In our recently digitised North America correspondence, we found a letter from William Fraser Tolmie [archive ref: DC 195/245] who sent back a number of plant specimens collected from the Pacific Northwest. These included young leaf stalks of what he believed to be Heracleum, used as an esculent by the "Indians" from the Columbia [river] as far North as Stikine; and a Convolvulus from Vancouver used by the "natives" as an article of food and by "the Canadians" as a substitute for coffee.

Walton Haydon, writing from Moose Factory, Canada in 1883, collected a number of plants used as drugs by the First Nations [archive ref: DC 195/247]. One drink in particular, brewed from berries, sugar and scraped mountain ash root, he describes as: 'very intoxicating indeed, but to me very nasty".

 The Best Way to Cook Pumpkin!

Within the DC archive we have even uncovered a simple recipe for pumpkin.

Extract of a letter from Emmanuel Bonavia describing how best to cook pumpkin [archive ref: DC 154/134]

In a letter from Etawah, India, 1886, Emmanuel Bonavia described the best way to cook pumpkin: "remove skin & seeds – cut it in cubes an inch each way & stew it very very gently in its own juice, with butter, chopped onion pepper & salt – if too dry add a little stock or gravy or even water." According to Bonavia: "C.[Cucurbita] moschata is delicious cooked in this way – otherwise pumpkin is very tasteless". Must give this a try in October!

Reptilian Refections

Kew's Incredibles festival is, of course,  all about edible plants, but I couldn't resist ending with a couple of quotes from the famous plant hunter David Douglas, who, on a trip to the Galapagos in 1825, resorted to sampling some reptilian refections:

"there is a large species of tortoise from 200 to 250lb weight - excellent eating - something like veal. In addition to them we found a large sort of yellow lizard from 2 ½ to 3 ½ feet long which makes very fine soup!!" [JSTOR Global Plants

  • See Kat's blog for links and details on using JSTOR Global Plants
  • Find out more about the Directors' Correspondence Digitisation project
  • For the latest news from the DC project follow us on twitter @KewDC
  • Contact the DC team at      

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