Endangered Edibles: What One Man Chose to Save During a 28-month Nazi Invasion

Prior to the end of World War II in Europe, a man named Nikolai Vavilov and a group of scientists withstood a 28-month long holdout in the city of Leningrad, Russia. They were ordered to protect over 200,000 samples of rare plants, and to keep them from being confiscated by the Nazis. The Nazis at the time, longed for everything special, and important.

These plants in city of Leningrad, would certainly fit the category. They did succeed in protecting these samples that included old varieties of crops from around the world, such as maize and wheat.

Instead of eating their samples, nine of the scientists died of starvation after the 2-year long siege of Leningrad. Vavilov didn’t die of starvation, but of imprisonment by the country who he thought stood beside his work in 1943.

Vavilov’s Discoveries?

Vavilov (fifth from left to right) during his visit to Uruguay in 1937

Nikolai Vavilov is mostly known for his theories on the Origin of Cultivated Plants, and the Centers of Plant Diversity in the world. In 1927, he organized a conference in Berlin, Germany to share his results with the world. Below is a diagram of what he believed were the eight centers of cultivated plant origins. Since then, this map has been updated (see Purugganan and Fuller, 2008).

Disagreement in the U.S.S.R.:

One of the reasons why people speculate that Vavilov got himself thrown into prison by Joseph Stalin, was his disagreements with a man named Trofim Lysenko. Lysenko, unlike Vavilov vehemently rejected Mendelian genetics, which was made famous in 1865-66, and supported by Charles Darwin. Instead he tended to supporting Lamarckism, which has found support recently with the work of epi-genetics.



Southern Chile

Paraguay, Southern-Brazil


Middle East


Central Asia



China and Korea

Plant Biodiversity and Foraging

It’s my belief that foraging, gardening, and organic farms holds a key to the health and integrity of our future as a species.

But what specifically is the role of foraging, and the diversity of our planet’s flora?

Scientists know that many indigenous communities today, consume more plants than the average westerner, shopping in a modern grocery store.

After all, you’re broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, Brussels sprouts, collard greens, and kohlrabi that you buy, are really only 1 species!

One way to visualize this is through what has been called the “Foraging Spectrum”. Nikolai Vavilov’s work would fall all the way to right, into the “Agriculture” category.

I could add to this diagram, by saying that we should be growing and eating our crops in a wilder way. I think as a people, we have totally become disconnected from where our food comes from.

For me, foraging has been a way of simplifying my life. What i’m beginning to understand is that I have to go deeper. I have to tend to the plant communities wherever i’m living, and share their amazing qualities to the people.

I want my ancestors to be proud of all of our work, and I believe that bringing farming and foraging together again is one way of continuing the good work.

Thank you to all the plant protectors!

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