Gardening on the wild side

Jo Robinson’s south-end garden overlooks Puget Sound. There she grows the most nutritious fruits and vegetables as a demonstration garden for her book,
Jo Robinson’s south-end garden overlooks Puget Sound. There she grows the most nutritious fruits and vegetables as a demonstration garden for her book, 'Eating on the Wild Side.'
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

Down a quiet lane at the southernmost end of Maury Island, the most nutritious fruits and vegetables a Northwesterner can grow fill author Jo Robinson’s garden.

Robinson, who has lived on the island since 1999, garnered considerable attention last year when her book, “Eating on the Wild Side,” was published. It quickly became a New York Times bestseller, and she was featured on more than 70 radio programs, including three times on NPR. She also appeared on television, including CNN with Dr. Sanjay Gupta and CBS This Morning.

In those interviews, Robinson gave insights about the low nutritional content of many fruits and vegetables we eat today and how to make the best choices for the garden, at the grocery store or at a farmers market. She gleaned this information over 10 years of research and from reading thousands of studies in scientific journals. She considers this book — her 15th — the ultimate expression of her work.

This summer, islanders will be able to benefit from Robinson’s considerable  knowledge — and her green thumb — when she and her husband Rick Mellen, also a gardener, open their garden for Vashon Allied Arts’ annual Garden Tour. There guests they will find flowers and grasses complementing the fruits and vegetables filling the couple’s south-sloping yard. Come tour time, Robinson said, only berries and greens will be ripe and ready for eating, including Wild Treasure Blackberries, a trailing blackberry that is as nutritious and flavorful as wild berries but thornless; French sorrel, a sour but tasty perennial green from France, and red iceberg lettuce, a modern variety that’s much higher in antioxidants than its green relative.

“People will be able to come here and learn about the most nutritious fruits and vegetables that grow well in our area,” she said last week as she provided a guest with a tour of her springtime garden.

In “Eating on the Wild Side,” Robinson explores how food has changed since the dawn of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. Those changes — the work of 400 generations of farmers and countless plant breeders — were intended to make food more productive, easier to grow and harvest, and more enjoyable to eat, she says. Unfortunately, many of those changes also made our food today far less nutritious.

In the last 20 years, Robinson said, scientists have begun to understand that compared to wild varieties, modern plants contain far fewer phytonutrients — powerful chemical compounds, many of which are potent antioxidants that greatly influence health.

If food can be medicine, she said, “it is becoming more and more clear that phytonutrients are the medicine.”

Scientific evidence shows that every disease of civilization — ranging from diabetes to cancer to cardiovascular disease, is reduced by consuming fruits and vegetables high in these nutrients.

“You can reduce the risk or actually treat illness with high-phytonutrient fruits and vegetables,” she said.

Robinson, who created a detailed database of 800 fruits and vegetables, can cite countless examples of current foods that have lost much of their nutritional value, as well as varieties of the same or similar food to choose instead. One type of potato can reduce blood sugar, she said, while most potatoes will raise blood sugar as much as eating two slices of white bread. In animal studies, one variety of raspberries inhibited human breast cancer, and wild blueberries have been shown to reduce dementia. While people cannot tell what variety of blueberries they find in a store, Northwesterners can easily find a substitute.

“Our wild huckleberries are an example of a food that would reduce the risk of cognitive decline,” she said.

In “Eating on the Wild Side,” which is by turns distressing and inspiring but always clear and easy to read, Robinson examines a wide range of fruits and vegetables, from corn to tomatoes to the everyday apple. The book includes both at-a-glance information that compares varieties and charts that include information on flavor, phytonutrient content and often a bit of the variety’s history, so that shoppers can easily decide what they should purchase or plant.

“I wanted to make it very practical,” she said.

Throughout the book, she makes clear the importance — and the scientific basis — for her message. Regarding apples, a fruit with a long reputation for being important to health, she describes a 2009 study about cardiovascular health. Twenty-three overweight men with high cholesterol and triglycerides added a Golden Delicious apple — one of the most popular varieties — every day to their diets for two months. At the end of the study, the men in the apple-eating group had higher levels of triglycerides and harmful cholesterol than before the study, increasing their risk of heart attack and stroke. The surprised researchers determined that the fault lay with the apple variety itself, as Golden Delicious apples were too low in phytonutrients to lower the men’s cholesterol and so high in sugar that they raised their triglycerides.

Had the researchers selected a wild apple variety for their study, their results would likely have been different, as wild varieties are far richer in phytonutrients than the domestic varieties, according to Robinson.

In Robinson’s own garden, which serves as a demonstration garden for her book, she has an apple tree (Malus sikkimensis) that bears the most nutritious of more than 300 wild and domesticated apple varieties. It is native to Nepal, and its apples are smaller than cherries, yet they pack a nutritional punch. Five apples would fit in a teaspoon, Robinson said, and that small amount would equal all of the phytonutrients in one of its Golden Delicious relatives.

“The universal health advice to ‘eat more fruits and vegetables’ is woefully out of date,” she writes. “We need good advice on which fruits and vegetables to eat.”

Robinson supplies just that when she writes that modern varieties of corn contain up to 40 percent sugar — more than sugary breakfast cereal — and have far fewer phytonutrients than the colored varieties. In the grocery store, she says, opt for deep yellow corn over white corn for 58 times more beta carotene. Some tomato varieties contain 10 times the lycopene of other varieties, she says, and cooking tomatoes for 30 minutes more than doubles their lycopene content. Choose white-fleshed peaches and nectarines over yellow-fleshed varieties for the most phytonutrients, and if you are on the hunt for one of the most nutritious vegetables in the grocery store, take home a globe artichoke.

Robinson says her interest in the food we eat has roots in her childhood. Her family lived in Tacoma and had property with more than 100 miles of wild land behind it on the Hood Canal.

“I grew up walking out the door into wilderness,” she said. “I was very much at home there.”

A budding gardener even then, she started a plant club when she was 5 with a neighbor boy and raised the Easter chicks she and her sister received.

“There is an ancient farmer in me somewhere,” she said.

Now, with our food a great distance away from its wild and ancient states, she said it is impossible for people to know what foods to pick, and shopping with a list of the best foods is a must.

“I show you the way,” she said.

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