‘In Praise of Plants’ is an archive I have been working on for several years to record varied rituals and celebrations involving food plants – from the giant leek championships of northern England to the ancient, deeply spiritual ceremonies held across Asia to celebrate the harvesting of rice; from Spain’s notorious Tomatina to Mexico’s ‘Night of the Radishes’ - as a means of exploring both what these plants mean to the people who grow or use them and what factors are affecting the cultivation or availability of these plants today.

Using each celebration as a starting point, 'In Praise of Plants' aims to record local people’s stories, the wider cultural and economic background of the plant’s use as well as the situation facing wild relatives and their conservation priorities today.

Some examples of food plant festivals around the world.

November: Chestnut

Féte du Marron, Evisa, Corsica

Fete du Marron


La Guelaguetza, Oaxaca, Mexico

MAIZE…Source of life or weapon of destruction?

On two consecutive Mondays at the end of this month, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, thousands of people will take part in a celebration that honours the plant that has nourished Mexicans for many thousand of years.

The Festival of Guelaguetza is today a colourful pageant of dancing, singing and music in which participants from the seven different regions of Oaxaca gather in the capital (of the same name) and in nearby villages, to perform in traditional dress, present & exchange regional foods and crafts and at the end of the dancing throw offerings from each region (from straw hats to pineapples) into the waiting crowd. (1,2)

The best known indigenous gathering of its kind in Mexico, the festival has become (since its reorganization in the 1920s into a state-wide event) a major tourist attraction, but it still has deep cultural significance to Oaxaca’s large and hugely diverse indigenous population.(3)

The plant that lies at the heart of the festival is maize (corn), but the event is about more than just this plant. The word ‘guelaguetza’ comes from the Zapotec Indian language (Zapotec and Mixtec peoples make up the majority of Oaxaca’s indigenous population) and means a gift or offering.(2) But it also includes the concept of exchange and reciprocity - the interconnectedness between people which reinforces social ties, and the bond between people and the earth - that has shaped and is still central to indigenous cultures all over the Americas.

By the time the Spanish arrived there, maize had already become a hugely important crop across the continent, from Canada to Chile. (4) However, archaeobotanical studies indicate that the plant was domesticated in Mexico, in Oaxaca’s Tehuacan valley, and that it has been grown in the south-western lowlands for almost 9,000 years. (5) This area is then, enormously important as the crop’s centre of origin and genetic diversity containing the early forms of the crop as well as its wild relatives. Download article as

August: The Tomato

Here are two pieces: the first, about the Tomatina written following a visit I made to the festival in 2009, now up-dated.

The second is about tomato production in southern Spain and the appalling conditions endured by an estimated 100,000 migrants who are currently existing as virtual slaves, to enable us to eat cheap tomatoes

La Tomatina, Buñol, Spain

The tomato invokes a particular sort of passion: it’s one of those foods - actually a fruit - that people seem to either love or hate.

Visitors to the small Spanish town of Buñol however, who have been travelling to this otherwise unremarkable spot, some 40km west of Valencia, on the last Wednesday in August for the last 60 years, can’t get enough of them. The reason? The Tomatina – the world’s largest tomato fight, a giant street battle in which thousands of kilos of ripe tomatoes become ammunition for a vast crowd of happy revellers, packed cheek by jowl into one narrow street of this most accommodating town, for just one morning each year.

In recent years - up to 2012 - some 40 - 50,000 people, mostly young and most definitely in search of fun, have come from all over the world to take part in this now notorious but good-natured free-for-all. The Tomatina is the culmination of what has developed into a week-long celebration, featuring parades, music, competitions and fireworks, coinciding with the festival of the town’s patron saints. In the preceding twenty four hours, as more and more people swarm into the town and, in particular, the bars, for much high-spirited revelry, the atmosphere of anticipation and excitement becomes tangible. Download article as

September: The Leek

The Giant Leek Championships of North Eastern England

A Passion For Leeks

‘I don’t think leek growing can recover from this. It is a really sad affair …’ (1)

‘It’s a disaster … the carpet has been pulled from under us …’ (2)

‘It’s an absolute bombshell. People used to come from all over the country and the whole leek world is shattered.’ (3)

Three comments made following the announcement in 2008 that the World Open Leek Championship, which had been held in Ashington, Northumberland, for the previous 28 years, was to be permanently scrapped.

The responses above give some idea of the deep cultural importance of leek-growing and showing and of the passion, dedication and deep feelings inspired by this not-so-humble vegetable in the leek-exhibiting heartland (chiefly Northumberland & Durham) of England’s North-East.

The good news is that competition leek-growing in 2014, is still very much alive.Download article as PDF

November : The Pecan

The Louisiana Pecan Festival - Colfax, Louisiana, USA

The crowning of the Festival Queen is the highlight of the Louisiana Pecan Festival, which takes place over a long weekend at the beginning of November, in Colfax, a small town located in northern half of Louisiana, in the southern USA.

Begun in 1969, the Festival, which takes places after the annual pecan harvest, now attracts some 70,000 people from far and wide each year and comprises many different events and competitions, plus displays, trade-stands and musical entertainment.

A ’blessing of the crops’ on the first day begins proceedings, which will also include a grand parade, fireworks, pie-eating contests for adults and children and cooking events designed to show the diversity of pecans themselves as well as their varied culinary uses. The “Best Pecan Pie” is one of the most coveted awards. Download article as

January: The Apple

Wassailing An Ancient English ritual

It is midwinter in England. On one of the darkest nights in January, an ancient ritual of thanksgiving and renewal is still performed.

A small group of us carrying pots and pans, whistles and wind-chimes process behind an accordion player, along a narrow, winding lane into an apple orchard, tucked away in a tiny Somerset village. Once here, bonfires are lit, casting light and warmth into the icy darkness.

We gather around one of the oldest and most venerable trees, the guardian of the orchard, traditionally known as the Apple Tree Man, to toast its health, wishing it ‘waes hael’ - ‘good health’ in Old English, for the coming year. We sing the ‘wassail’ song, and cider made from juice pressed from apples borne by this and other apple trees in the orchard is tipped around its roots. Download article as