MAURY ISLAND, Wash. — A walk through Jo Robinson’s garden is like a lesson in applied nutrition.
The area she calls her “wild garden” has an apple tree, the Sikkim apple (Malus sikkimensis), which bears tiny fruit with 100 times the phytonutrients of many modern apples. In Nepal, where it is commonly grown, one day’s harvest can provide as much apple nutrition as most people get in a lifetime. Phytonutrients are natural chemicals found in plants.
Alongside the apple are wild cherries and grapes that also pack a punch. Heirloom varieties and native plants that sustained the original inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest are all powerhouses.
“This is what they would eat here 200 years ago,” she said.
But when hunter-gatherers started cultivating the fruits and vegetables, they chose varieties that were more palatable and easier to harvest, Robinson said. In so doing, they often lost some of the foods’ value.
An example she cited is teosinte, a native Mexican corn that is an ancestor of modern corn. Its kernels are about 30 percent protein and 2 percent sugar. Sweet corn is 4 percent protein and 10 percent sugar. “Supersweet” varieties are as high as 40 percent sugar.
“The moment we became farmers, we went from 400 generations of no starch to mostly starch and sweet,” she said. “We were stripping away some of the very nutrients we now know to be essential for optimum health.”
Robinson’s latest book, “Eating on the Wild Side,” lists dozens of wild varieties “that have healing powers,” she said.
“But we don’t need to forage for wild plants to regain lost nutrients. Instead we can choose varieties that can be found in grocery stores and farmers’ markets,” she said. “Some come close to having that original nutritive value.”
Her “purple garden” grows purple, red, blue and yellow flesh potatoes, which she said taste better and are higher in antioxidants.
A patch of greens holds many varieties, each one chosen specifically for its dietary value. Crucifers — broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale — grow in a splash of color.
“People don’t know how good crucifers are for them. Four servings a week equals a 60 percent reduction in the risk of prostate cancer,” she said.
Freedom apples and French apples, both high in nutrition and resistant to scab, she said, can be grafted onto existing scab-susceptible rootstock.
Aside from her test garden, Robinson is not a farmer nor has she had formal training in agriculture: “I’m an autodidact,” meaning she is self-taught, she said.
Through peer-reviewed studies and research, she has taught herself the history of nutrition and how it can be reclaimed. “Eating on the Wild Side,” her 14th book, which is on the New York Times best-seller list, is the result of 10 years of research into 6,000 studies.
Robinson’s work is not focused solely on crops. “Pasture Perfect,” an earlier book, details her research into the benefit of grass-fed livestock. Not only are the animals healthier, she said, but the meat is closer to the wild game our ancestors ate: less saturated fat and calories, more vitamins and healthful fats.
Much of her work has happened at her desk, which overlooks her garden, the Puget Sound and Mount Rainier in the distance.
When she’s home, she gives tours to garden clubs and growers. But her publishing success often draws her away from her island.
“I’ve given dozens of talks and interviews from New York to L.A.,” she said. “I’ve been on the radio and in magazines. One time I gave 21 radio interviews in two days.”
Robinson is now 66, and since her first self-published book in 1970, she said, she has become a better writer and researcher. Her books have sold 2 million copies, and some have been translated into 14 languages.
She is “driven,” she said, by a passion for human health, nutrition and environment. She studied general science at Reed College in Portland, dropped out and started researching her first book, which came out in time for the first Earth Day.
Since then her ambition has come to a focus: “I intend to change nutrition in the world.”
Job: Author, researcher
Hometown: Maury Island, Wash.
Family: Husband, Rick; one son, two grandchildren
Quote: “I intend to change nutrition in the world.”