Notes – Famine Foods

Notes on the Famine Foods Website

by Robert L. Freedman
Tucson, Arizona U.S.A.


My interest in the study of famine food-plants began in 1966 when I was an undergraduate student in the anthropology department of the University of Arizona. In my last semester, I wrote a term paper on Native American food preparation techniques (Freedman 1976), for Professor Bernard Fontana’s class, “History of the Indians of North America.” This research became the catalyst for an interest in the socio-anthropological aspects of human food habits, which lasted for the next fifteen years.

After exhaustively searching the ethnographic literature in the University of Arizona’s anthropology and main libraries, I had 103 typewritten pages of food preparation information representing several dozen indigenous U.S. and Canadian nations. Although I stopped at 103 pages, I could have continued to gather material from the literature at a seemingly endless rate. I was so excited by this study of human food habits, that I decided to compile a bibliography on the subject. This project soon expanded from Native North America to every culture in the world. I began to collect citations from the ethnographic literature before I graduated from the University of Arizona, and carried the project with me, when I began graduate study, at the University of Hawaii from 1966 to 1969. Ten years and many libraries later, I had accumulated about 12,000 bibliographic citations. In 1978, I applied for and was  awarded an Extramural Grant by the United States National Library of Medicine to complete the bibliography. It was published in the early 1980s, in two volumes, by Greenwood Press (Freedman  (1981, 1983).  I give this brief history as a background for my interest in famine foods, which developed alongside the larger focus of creating a bibliographic resource for anthropologists documenting the significance of food use in human culture.

As my search for references to human food habits continued, every so often I found a paper describing famine food plants – those plant species hardy or hidden enough to survive drought or other causes of crop destruction – upon which starving indigenous groups relied to assuage often death-dealing famines. Eventually, I realized no one had coordinated this small but fascinating literature on these famine plants. As I collected more citations, I decided to compile an inventory of all the published famine species. Particularly interesting was the fact that some of these famine plants had unusually high nutritional values. I thought that over a thousand species of plants consumed during times of food scarcity attested to a useful resource for the development of potential new crops. Further, it seemed, at least in theory, more cost-effective to consider improving some of these indigenous crops, rather than continuing to transplant traditional Western crops to areas where they are not environmentally compatible and organoleptically acceptable. In this data base, I will examine, in general terms, the nature of traditional knowledge of such plants and the potential these plants may have for areas of the world at high risk of food insecurity.

There is no documentation indicating when famine plants were first used. It is likely however to have occurred subsequent to the Neolithic Revolution. Knowledge of undomesticated plants still would have been quite broad then and reliance upon them presumably have continued parallel to the early development of staple crops. But, as horticulture evolved, older knowledge of many edible wild plant species was slowly lost. In societies which remained non- or semi-agricultural, on the other hand, traditional knowledge and use of wild plants was probably retained to a greater extent, thereby providing a wider potential range of species from which to choose in times of famine and food scarcity. 


In the years since I began collecting data on famine food plants, I have found little information for what may be called “Classical Antiquity,” in either the Western world, India, China, Japan or the Middle East. The earliest reference being the Roman physician Claudius Galen’s work, “On the  Wholesome and Unwholesome Properties of Foodsttffs.” which “…begins with an extended account of the ill effects of consuming unhealthy foods, based on his own observations of country-folk in time of famine” (Garnsey 1988. p. 26).

Surely, however, the most well-known, and comprehensive study of famine food plants is the “Chu  Huang Pen Ts’ao”, or  ‘Salvation-in-the-midst-of-desolation- herbal,” compiled by Chu Hsiao, the fifth son of Thai Tsu (the Huang-Wu emperor) and first published in A.D. 1406 (李敏 ; 协编王佳黎. 第1版 Beijing : Zhong yi gu ji chu ban she, 2007. 北京 : 中医古籍出版社, 2007. 501 p. ISBN:  7801744403 / 9787801744401 (see also Needham 1984 p. 331). 

Born about A.D. 1360, and made Prince of Chou in A.D. 1378, Chu Hsiao set up what Christopher (1985) has called aptly, “famine gardens, at Kaifeng, in Hunan Province. The Prince “experimented with the planting and utilization of more than four hundred kinds of plants, collected from fields, ditches and wildernesses. He himself followed their growth and development from the beginning to the end of their seasons. Engaging special artists (hua kung), to make pictures of each of the plants and trees, he himself set down details of all the edible parts, whether flowers. fruits, roots, stems, bark or leaves, and digested [sic] the whole into a book…” (Needham  (loc. cit. p. 332).

The Famine Herbal gave rise to what Needhan (ibid. p. 330) has termed the “esculentist movement” and prompted such further compilations as Wang Phan’s Yeh Tshai Phu, published in A.D. 1524; Pao Shan’s Yeh Tshai Po Lu, finished in A.D. 1622; and Yao Kho-Ching’ Chiu Huang Yeh Phu, published in A.D. 1642 (ibid. p. 353). Each of these books contained some plants not included in Chu Hsiao’s monograph and to the identification of which, according to Needham, “…modern botanists have [not] given much attention” (ibid. p. 349). The Chu Huang Pen Tsao’ itself contains 56 plants unidentified as of 1946, when Read (with Liu Ju-Ch’iang) published their translation titled, Famine Foods Listed in the Chiu Huang Pen T’sao. Particular attention to this translation is drawn, as it contains annotated modern data on the chemical composition and nutritive value of some of the plants recorded in the original compilation.

Between the research of those noteworthy Chinese botanists and the Twentieth Century, only two works stand out: Prather (1596) and Parmentier (1781). Although Parmentier devotes much attention to the Andean potato, he lists several dozen wild plants, the roots or seeds of which he recommends as sources for bread flour or as flour extenders.

King (1869) a surgeon attached to the Marwar Political Agency, published notes on famine foods used in the Jodhpur area of India. Almost a decade later, another physician, Shortt (1878), recorded famine plants used in the Madras region of southern India. Twenty years later, Hely-Hutchinson’s (1898) paper on Zululand famine foods appeared followed by Gammie’s (1900) article on famine food plants eaten in the Bombay Presidency of India.

One result of advances in the new science of organic chemistry during the 19th Century was the birth of the science of nutrition. In the 1890’s and early 1900’s, studies began to be published on the chemical composition of specific foods and their nutritive values. It is interesting (and instructive) to note that two of these early papers were devoted to Indian famine food plants. One by Hooper (1904) and a second by two British physicians, Paton and Dunlop (1904). Both of these papers, now well over 100 years old, remain ahead of their time, as we shall observe further on.

Throughout most of the Twentieth Century, information on plants used as famine or ’emergency’ foods has been reported largely by ethnographers, geographers, and botanists, with occasional contributions by chemists, historians, governments administrators, and in travelers’ accounts. During the devastating effects of drought, in the African Sahel, awareness of famine foods and their uses has extended to disaster relief personnel, political scientists, physicians, and nutritionists: cf. Berry-Koch (1985), Bhandari (1974 ), Brokensha & Riley (1978), DeCastro (1947, 1949,1952), Eidlitz (1969), Grivetti (1981), Irvine (1947, 1949), and Rahmato (1991).


Since beginning to inventory famine food plants, I have found approximately 1200 species representing 120 or so Linnean families. Early on, my intention in building this data base was to provide a resource for the possible genetic selection of plants which – because of known, or implied characteristics, e.g., previous chemical analysis, botanical family (i.e. leguminous spp.), and such factors as drought resistance – may hold promise for growth trials and possible experimental introduction in areas at environmental risk in terms of drought, or where there is limited nutritional variety among traditional food plant resources.

The limiting variable in this phase of evaluation is, of course, the lack of attention to the nutritive value of famine food plants – a situation which has been emphasized by several specialists i.e., Altschul (1968), Grivetti (1981) and Longhurst (1987), with regard to wild food plants in general. Besides the early papers noted, by Hooper (ibid), and Paton & Dunlop (ibid.), Read’s (ibid.) annotations represent the first modern effort to provide nutritional profiles of famine food plants and remained so until the monumental work by Abdelmuti (1991) for Sudan famine food plants. This outstanding example of famine food chemical analysis could serve as a model for further work of its kind. Another excellent example of chemical analysis of famine foods is found in Airaksinen et al. (1986), which reports on toxicity in some Finnish plants. Toxicity is a factor in a number of famine foods from other parts of the world as well. Interested researchers are also referred to Hoppe (1958) and Wehmer (1929-1935) which contain chemical composition data for numerous plants included in the famine food data base. The compiler’s files contain additional published resources for compositional data on famine food plants, which remain unedited.

Although the famine food plant data base is quite extensive, I have chosen a few examples of species with noteworthy nutritional values. These are:

Bromelia laciniosa Mart. ex. Schult. f. Reportedly has the highest calcium content of any plant spp. = 15x milk. 

Canavalia ensiformis DC. High value for the amino acid threonine.

Capsella bursa-pastoris Moench. High values for the amino acids arginine, aspartic acid and cysteine; also for Vitamin C, lime [sic] and iron.

Cynara cardunculus L. High values for the amino acids phenylalanine, and valine.

Spondias tuberosa Arruda in Koster. High ascorbic acid content in the sap.

Xanthium strumarium L. High values for the amino acids glutamic acid, and phenylalanine but also reportedly highly toxic.


I have found no reports of any coordinated effort to evaluate famine food-plants for possible botanical selection and growth trials. More attention has been given to little-known food crops, the uses of which have been less restricted in terms of environmental crisis. However, two noteworthy projects deserve mention, as they have included plants known to be used during times of famine and food scarcity:

The Eden Foundation is a not-for-profit organization with executive offices in Falkenburg,   main research focus is the selection of drought-resistant food plants for seed production and distribution to interested farmers in drought-prone areas of the Sahara. Working out of a field-station at Tanout, in southern Niger, the Foundation’s volunteer staff rigorously test promising plants according to a series of dry-farming criteria. More information can be found at the following Web sites:; and: project/

Lost Crops of Africa (National Research Council 1996)–) is a detailed survey that evaluates indigenous food and fodder crops used in parts of the African continent, based on recommendations submitted by knowledgeable authorities in such fields as agronomy, botany, and ethnography. Each included species is supported by extensive scientific documentation.

With the increasingly rapid loss of plant genetic material to the combined assaults of environmental degradation and urbanization, there is seeming little time to waste in investigating potentially useful plants which remain in their natural habitats. Among these, known famine plant species may provide alternatives to costly Green Revolution approaches to providing staple crops for areas of the world in greatest need of food production self-sufficiency.

In closing, I want to bring the reader’s attention to Professor Paul Minnis’  (2021) incomparable study of famine foods. His  book  provides  a unique  ethnobotanical, socio-historical and geographical perspective on these plant species that has never before been recognized.



]Berry-Koch, Angela. 1985. “Famine food and the process of adaptation to extreme food shortages.” An essay prepared for the Nutrition Department of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. London, England: London School of Tropical Hygiene. 9pp.

Bhandari, M.M. 1974. “Famine foods in the Rajasthan Desert.” Economic Botany. 28:73-81.

Brokensha, David & Riley, Bernard W. 1978. “Mbeere wild foods.” Paper prepared for the Symposium ‘WOMAN THE GATHERER.’ 77th Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association. Los Angeles, California. 15 November.

Christopher, Thomas. 1985. “The famine garden of Prince Chu Su.” Garden [New York Botanical Garden] 9:18-21 (May/June).

De Castro, Josue, Pechnik, E., Parahim, O., Matoso, I.V., & Chaves, J.M.
1947. “Os ‘alimentos barbaros’ dos sertoes do Nordeste. (“Wild foods of the northeastern Brazilian outback.”) Arquivos Brasileiras de Nutricao 3(2):5-29. Abstracted in: Nutrition Abstracts and Reviews 18:50. also in: Trabalhos e Pesquisas do Instituto de Nutricao. Universidade do Brasil 7:75-93 (1948). Cited in: Nutrition Abstracts and Reviews 18:1191 (no abstract given).

De Castro, Josue. 1949. Geographie de la faim. (La faim au Br esil). Les Editions Ouvrieres Economie et Humanisme.

De Castro, Josue. 1952. The geography of hunger. Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown.

Eidlitz, Kerstin. 1969. Food and Emergency Food in the Circumpolar Area. Studia Ethnographica Upsaliensa. XXXII. Upsala, Sweden: Almqvist & Wiksells Boktryckert AB

Freedman, Robert L. 1976. Native  North American Food Preparation Techniques. Boletín Bibliográfico de Antropología Americana (1973-1979) 38(47):101-159. 

Freedman, Robert L. 1981. Human Food Uses. A Cross-cultural, Comprehensive Annotated Bibliography. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Freedman, Robert L. 1983. Human Food Uses. A Cross-cultural, Comprehensive Annotated Bibliography. Supplement. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Gammie, George Alexander. 1902. “A note on plants used for food during famines and seasons of scarcity in the Bombay Presidency.” India. Botanical Survey. Records  2(2):171-196.

Garnsey, Peter.1988. Famine and food supply in the Greco-Roman
world. Cambridge University Press.

Grivetti, Louis Evan. 1981. “Perspectives on dietary utilization of wild plants, nutritional status, and agricultural development.” Paper presented at International Geographical Union Commission on Rural Development. Symposium on Rural Development: Theory and Practice. Session: Nutrition and Rural Development. April 23-25.

Hely-Hutchinson, Walter F. 1898. “Famine plants in Zululand.” Great Britain. Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information  (135):52-54.

Hooper, David. 1904. “Analyses of Indian pot-herbs of the natural orders Amarantaceae, Chenopodiaceae, and Polygonanceae.” Agricultural Ledger (Calcutta) (6):423-434.

Hoppe, Hans. 1958. Drogenkunde. Handbuch der Pflanzenlichen und Tierischen Rohstoffe. Hamburg, Germany: Cram, De Gruyter & Co.

Irvine, F.R. 1952. “Supplementary and emergency food plants of West Africa.” Economic Botany 6(1):23-40.

Irvine, F.R. 1957. “Wild and emergency foods of Australian and Tasmanian aborigines.” Oceania 23(2):113-142.

Longhurst, Richard. 1987. “Famine foods, and nutrition: issues and opportunities for policy and research. Food and Nutrition Bulletin
(Cambridge, MA: The United Nations University) 28:73-81.

Minnis, Paul E. 2021. Famine Foods.  Plants We Eat to Survive. Tucson, Arizona: University of  Arizona Press.

National Research Council. 1996. Lost Crops of Arica. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Needham, Jospeh; Lu, Gwei-djen & Huang, Hsing-tsung. 1984. Science and civillization in China. Volume 6. Biology and Biological Technology. Part 1: Botany. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Parmentier, Antoine Auguste. 1781. Recherches sur les v̩g̩taux nourrisans qui, dans les temps de disette, peuvent remplacer les alimens ordinaires. Avec de nouvelles observations sur la culture des pommes de terre. Paris, France: Imprimerie royale. xvi+599pp.

Paton, Diarmid Noel & Dunlop, James Crawfurd. 1904. Famine foods: the nutritive value of some uncultivated foods used by Bhils during recent famines. Edinburgh, Scotland: from the Laboratory of the Royal College of Physicians & Surgeons of Edinburgh. 27pp.

Paton, Diarmid Noel & Dunlop, James Crawfurd. 1904. “The nutritive values of some uncultivated foods used by the Bhils during recent famines.” Agricultural Ledger (6): 37-73.

Prather, Hugh. 1596. Sundrie new and artificiall remedies against famine. London (?): Printed by P.S. dwelling on Breadstreet hill, at the Signe of the Starre.

Rahmato, Dessalegn.1991. Famine and survival strategies: a case study from NE Ethiopia. Upsala, Sweden: Nordiska Afrika-Institutet.

Read, Bernard Emms (editor). 1946. Famine foods listed in the Chiu huang pen ts’ao [of Ting Wang Chou]: giving their identity, nutritional values and notes on their preparation. Shanghai, China: Henry Lester Insitute of Medical Research. 93pp.

Shortt, James. 1887-1888. “List of wild plants and vegetables used as food by people in famine times.” Indian Forester  3:232-238.

Wehmer, Carl. 1929-1935. Die Pflanzenstoffe. Botanisch-Systematisch-Bearbeitet. Phanerogamen. 3 vols. Jena: Verlag von Gustav Fischer.