The value and potential of uncultivated plant species is ignored in today’s global world
Once upon a time human beings lived on whatever the land provided- naturally occurring greens were day to day fare. Many edible plants that grew where people lived were eaten raw or used liberally in meal preparations. Human beings lived with nourishment from shoots, fruits, berries, roots, mushrooms and medicinal herbs. Over time, knowledge and skill were developed to make the best of what the earth offered in profusion; the whole notion of ‘weed’ didn’t really exist.
Times have changed, and with it processed foods adorn household shelves, instead of herbs and vegetables. The number of people in cities who have actually eaten uncultivated or what can be called ‘volunteer’ or ‘wild’ greens is abysmally low.
When I first heard that ‘wild’ foods are both delicious and highly nutritious, I became very interested. I heard women from a nearby village talk about what they call “Noorondu Soppu” (loosely translated as a 101 varieties of greens)- I perked up 6 my ears and was keen to learn more.
And learn I did - my teachers were local villagers, for whom eating these wild greens were something that they took for granted. Sixty-year old Puttamma was my first guide: she took me around the common garden area of our housing complex in Bangalore, expertly plucking a range of plants that we wouldn’t give a second glance to. During my first tour of the field with her, she identified 18 edible plants, all with their local names! She makes a living selling the soppu or greens and lives with her daughter who works in a garment factory and her son who is a driver. Her children have neither the interest nor time to absorb from Puttamma her knowledge of identifying edible greens.
Wild greens and fruits are available everywhere where plants are allowed to grow and in rural areas, people are deeply aware about their numerous nutritional benefits. Many women like Puttamma will tell you that this soppu is good for diabetes or that soppu is good for getting of bone pain. Such knowledge was largely transmitted from adults to children as they went into fields and forests to collect the wild greens.
During the process of modern development and the green revolution, this traditional knowledge has been completely ignored. Monocultures have pushed the biodiversity of these greens to a corner, but they have been tough survivors, continuing to pop out of the earth in the most unexpected places. Can we see in these wild greens the bounty of mother earth rather than dismiss them as weeds?
Without understanding of the complementary benefits of crop foods and uncultivated food intake, agricultural planning continues to be dominated by a few major crops- such as wheat and rice which are grown for their size alone; diverse and important resources such as wild greens are ignored. Possibly giving importance to wild greens is not possible in modern chemical agriculture which favours monoculture– it is only possible through organic and bio-dynamic farming where biodiversity is respected.
Today an increasing number of nutritionists are recognizing the value of wild greens. Wild plants are endowed with the high concentrations of vitamins, minerals, fiber and they also possess more flavour than their water-bloated commercial counterparts.
Some nutritionists now believe that Nutrition in India is suffering because of excessive importance given to cereals in India’s food policy. As complements or substitutes for fruits and vegetables, wild greens provide a valuable, sustainable, low cost and local alternative for dealing with the problem of nutrition.
Changing lifestyles and taste, availability of foods in the market and development of transport systems are pushing a whole generation to not just consume but survive on ready-to-eat fast foods. The door to door sellers of vegetables and greens have almost disappeared. Just as Puttamma’s children- captivated by the compulsions of city life- have no interest in their mother’s knowledge, the knowledge of wild plant foods is in danger of getting lost- accelerated by the changes in habits, value systems and the natural environment.
In this era of science and technology, faith in traditional knowledge and folklore may not help reach the goodness of wild greens to people. We need to preserve and disseminate this knowledge by documenting systematically the diversity of uncultivated plant species, their occurrence and relationship with cultivated species, their nutritional value and most of all, popularise their use in daily life.
Hongone Soppu (Sessile joyweed greens)
One of the most commonly found, is the ‘Hongone soppu’ (commonly known as Sessile Joyweed or dwarf copperleaf), that’s also available in all seasons. It has a distinct aromatic flavor when cooked and has medicinal properties; the stems and leaves are used for eye ailments. The Hongone soppu is used before flowering, and is often stir-fried with a little pepper and salt to reduce weight. There are four varieties that are edible and currently scientists in Taiwan are exploring its hepato-protective (Liver Protection) properties.
Hulichikki soppu (Clover)
Anyone living near a village in India can learn about these wild greens and begin enriching their food with a delicious and nutritious addition. You can even grow them in pots in your terrace. Described here are three of these wild greens:
Also called Amlapatri in Sanskrit, this herb is good for the stomach and restores loss of appetite. Hulichikki adds a wonderful lemony flavor to any dish. It is extremely rich in medicinal properties; and is used in the treatment of influenza, fever, urinary tract infections, diarrhea, sprains and even poisonous snake bites. Hulichikki also contains anti-aging properties, can be used as an anti-septic, while its leaves are rich in vitamin C.
Kanne Soppu/Gubbaacchhi baale (Commelina communis)
These are often found between the cultivated fields and have a lot of cooling properties. They offer relief from headaches, heat boils, and constipation. In China it is used as a medicinal herb with anti-inflammatory and diuretic effects. Additionally, it is also used for treating sore throats and tonsillitis. Recent pharmacological investigations have revealed that the Asiatic dayflower contains at least five active compounds. One of these, p-hydroxycinnamic acid, shows antibacterial activity, while another, D-mannitol, has an antitussive effect. In China and India the plant is also used as a vegetable and fodder crop. Its thick leaves are used to make pakodas with besan (chick pea flour) batter.
Savita Uday is a teacher with a passionate interest in learning and documentation of folklore. She is also interested in tribal life, tribal medicine and in making foods and beverages which are tasty and healthy.