No ordinary pot of tea was brewing when the founding members of the Regent Estate Senior Women’s Organisation (RESEWO) decided to challenge health issues facing their community in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania through supporting the cultivation of indigenous leafy vegetables. Urban areas in Tanzania have particularly low levels of vegetable consumption, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) 2010-2012 reports the prevalence of under nourishment, when a person’s food intake is regularly less than their minimum energy requirement, to be 39% in Tanzania. This means that 18 million people out of Tanzania’s total population of 46.2 million people are undernourished.
It was Blackjack (Bidens pilosa,) infusing in the pot when RESEWO was founded. Blackjack grows so abundantly even where it is not deliberately planted that it is described as a weedy species. But this weed has benefits; it is used in local medicine and provides high levels of essential nutrients including Vitamins A and C, iron and protein. Its negative reputation as a famine food has been countered by RESEWO’s work promoting the benefits of a food that is cheap to buy and easy to cultivate.
Freda Chale, one of RESEWO’s founding members and their Executive Chairperson, says that Blackjack tea tastes like Chinese geen tea, and they drink it mixed with lemongrass, ginger and lemon. Blackjack has become the group’s symbol. It is not only a tasty tea but also can be processed into a flour that can be used as a nutritious food additive and has medicinal properties valued by members and customers.
Since the group was founded they have published two volumes of recipe books on Tanzanian traditional foods: ’Cooking with Traditional Green Leafy Vegetables’ and ‘Indigenous Plants in Tanzania’s Kitchen‘. RESEWO is also part of Slowfood’s ‘1000’ Gardens in Africa’, and has set up 10 primary school gardens, 5 community gardens, 5 institution gardens and over 60 home gardens.
RESEWO’s work to improve access to nutritional food faces a few challenges. Like many organisations RESEWO’s financial resources constrain operations. The group has younger women volunteers but capacity is restricted by the members’ age. The group is keen to train and mentor more young women to ensure that their work continues in the future. Future plans include expanding gardens and outreach work, recruiting more members and producing more books.
Domesticating plants to grown them as crops created the source of most of our food, and provided the foundation for permanent settlement. Today’s human landscape where more than half the world’s population is urban dwelling would not be possible without agriculture.
There is a kind of beauty in fields of green wheat that ripple like an ocean wave when the wind blows. But barren fields of monoculture broken only by a few perennial plants sturdy enough to tolerate herbicides and fertilisers have a limited visual appeal, and certainly do not sustain much biodiversity. In contrast unfertilised small fields can provide food for people while providing resources for wildlife, in particular via the floriferous annual weeds. (The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust has some interesting open access research on farmland biodiversity and cereal ecosystems, and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture has a post summarising recent research on the importance of edible crop weeds for rural families .)
In the past crop weeds have become significant resources for people; rye was a crop weed in fields of wheat that developed into a separate crop. Crop weeds can also be a reminder of crops’ origins. Some of Britain’s most endangered plants are Corncockle (Agrostemma githago), Corn marigold (Glebionis segetum), Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) – plants classified as neophytes because they arrived in Britain with their host crops that originated in the Central Middle Eastern and Mediterranean region. With British agriculture dominated by the application of fertilisers and herbicides these plants have lost the majority of their habitat.
Here in rural Turkey most of the fields are currently coloured by vibrant crop weeds. Many of the crop weeds are also edible plants – young poppy leaves (Papaver sp.) are a current feature of the mixed wild greens on the market and cosmopolitan Crown daisy (Glebionis coronaria*) grows vigorously on field margins. I have seen a few monotonously green fields, but for the moment early summer is predominantly marked by flowers amongst the fields of grain.
*previously named Chrysanthemum coronaria
Going to a site that was covered n orchids (Orchis italica) last year, to see it covered in dying orchids this year was shocking. These orchids are dug up so that the tubers can be harvested. Without tubers and left exposed the plants were doomed to die.
Yet in the absence of numerical data including knowing how many plants were dug up for tubers to be collected this year, how many were dug up in previous years, and also knowing the population size for each of those years saying that collecting tubers in this manner is not sustainable may be accurate but is also a subjective opinion and not a measured fact.
There are methods to evaluate the sustainability of harvest, some of which are outlined in Chapter 4 of Cunningham’s book ‘People, Wild Plant Use and Conservation). One consideration is the plant part collected. Collecting leaves may temporarily slow a plant’s growth but is less likely to cause the plant to die than harvesting the root. Another consideration is how long it takes for plants to mature and reproduce, and how many offspring a plant has.
In the case of Orchis italica harvesting the tuber makes it seem that harvesting would be unsustainable. However like many orchids the number of viable seeds produced by one plant flowering in one year can be thousands; so in theory relatively few plants can quite rapidly increase the population within a few years. There are also examples of plants, which although the roots or tubers are collected can be used sustainably. For example Devil’s Claw (Harpagophytum procumbens) is a plant that has been threatened by collection of its tubers, but replanting some tubers while reducing the annual yield can make the harvest sustainable as the population of plants is maintained.
While seeing a site that has been apparently destructively harvested does give cause for concern, it is important to try to quantify the plant population and the impact of harvesting on the population as a whole; not just the impact on the plants that would have flowered this year.
Alcohol is a useful tool for capturing plant properties because it is both a solvent and a preservative. Plant extracts in alcoholic solutions can be purely medicinal, such as tinctures used by herbalists, or nearly entirely recreational such as bison grass vodka. In between medicines and drinks drunk for pleasure are bitters. Bitters can be bought as a readymade solution or as a selection of specific plants to take home to soak in alcohol. Richard Leizaola put together a collection of bitters in the exhibition ‘London’s Global Bitters Cabinet’ that illustrated the global reach of bitters and how they bridge medicinal and recreational uses.
Two advantages of extracting phytochemicals using alcohol are there is no need to expose the plant to heat, which can degrade some properties, and the resulting liquid has a long shelf life because alcohol inhibits the growth of microbes. Using alcohol to extract plant properties is an easy process that can be done at home with nothing more sophisticated than filling a jam jar with your plant, and covering it with spirit.
Being in south west Turkey for late spring and the accompanying profusion of orange blossom the sweet aroma that envelops the town suggests an abundant, aromatic, edible plant ripe for experimentation. In comparison to other locally produced honey (pine honey) orange blossom honey is pale and lightly fragrant but the orange blossom is barely discernable. Orange blossom tea is aromatic and leaves a notable aftertaste of orange blossom, but as sole ingredient for tea it is insipid and much improved by the addition of Turkish green tea.
Gin has proved to be the best way to capture both the flavour and complex floral bouquet of orange blossom. In contrast to tea – in which the flowers have been exposed to heat – the lighter elements of orange blossom are absorbed into the gin. On leaving it to infuse for a few days the slightly bitter but fruity notes of the oils in the fertilised ovaries are also extracted. It would of course be possible to infuse orange blossom in rum or vodka, but orange blossom enhances gin by adding a complex floral note that is robust enough to withstand the other botanicals contained in gin. (Iris gin turned a pleasant pale shade of purple but added no flavour that could be discerned in competition with juniper – the plant that characterises gin). I wouldn’t consider orange blossom gin a medicinal concoction. However if any makes it back to the UK with me it would certainly be very pleasant reminder of warm Mediterranean evenings.
Market surveys are a quick way to get to know local cuisine; markets sell culturally salient products. With spring rains bringing rain to the Aegean coast wild greens on the market indicate the rich flora coming to life on the hillsides as well as food preferences here in Muğla province.
Passing through the market at Ula bunches of collected plants for sale included Lavandula stoechas, Salvia fructicosa, Urtica urens, and Asparagus acutifolius. Several women were also selling bags of mixed wild greens. Each vendor had a slightly different blend of plants. Anchusa undulata was in one selection, with tough hairy leaves we put it in the cooking pot. On the other hand Silene vulgaris with smooth juicy leaves went well in salad. Both vendors recommended frying an onion in butter, then adding the wild greens (chopped) with tomato and leaving it to simmer.
We asked the names of the plants and quick cross-referencing with academic papers reveals how local the names are. A survey of edible wild plants in the Bodrum area (Ertug 2004) recorded ‘baldıran’ as the local name for Smyrnium olusatrum. One of the plants in our mixture was called baldıran and while it is also a member of the Apiaceae family it is certainly not Smyrnium olusatrum.
With a bag of wild greens weighing approximately 1/2kg and costing only 1.5TL (less than $1) they were cheap. By comparison a hand sized bunched of one species of wild collected plants, for example Asparagus acutifolius, was about the same price but for significantly less plant matter. A mixture of plants is far quicker and easier to collect than a specific species.
Plants that were flowering could be identified to species level. Using family characteristics the other plants could be identified to genus or family. To create a data set for scientific reference herbarium specimens of flowering plants would be needed as a record of identification. It would also be useful to go out with the women to see where they collect their wild greens. On this occasion rummaging among the plants for sale on the market was not a formal survey but an interesting diversion, which supplied a variety of greens for dinner.
Tassle hyacinth (Leopoldia comosa*) is one of the plants often referred to as grape hyacinths. Rummaging around Turkey last spring looking at orchids and what had been digging them up my contact pointed out the Tassle hyacinths and said that they were also eaten by people, not just by the porcupines.
There are nice blog posts on preparing and consuming grape hyacinths in other Mediterranean areas here and here (Yes part of Turkey is Mediterranean).
* syn Muscari comosum
Foraging isn’t just a rural practice, even in cities useful plants can be collected. Apart from native and invasive species that have adapted to a city lifestyle, urban foragers have access to a group of plants rural foragers rarely encounter: municipal plantings.
Last summer in Chicago I noticed the sidewalk was stained purple. Looking up I saw I was underneath a mulberry tree (Morus nigra), which was abundantly fruiting. On a quiet residential street I was not worried about pollution from traffic and enjoyed the fruits that are rarely seen in shops. I was only there for a few days in June but the city’s tree lined avenues also yielded white mulberries (Morus alba) and cherries (Prunus sp). If I had been staying longer getting a batch of Linden (Tilia cordata) wine going would have been easy.
Not all edible wild plants can safely be consumed. While rural foragers may need to pay attention to crop spraying, urban foraging presents its own considerations. Plants growing by a busy roadside are best avoided. Some sites that might seem remote from traffic should also be avoided. Old cemeteries where people were buried in lead caskets are best left untouched for health reasons, and more importantly out of respect for the feelings of bereaved visitors. Scruffy patches of waste ground can look attractive as they often host great diversity of plant life, but previous land use needs to be checked because some industrial processes contaminate the soil and plants growing on it are not safe to consume.
Urban foraging does not have to be a solitary activity. Portland, Oregon, has an active foraging community that shares places to collect via its online database urban edibles Seattle is developing the largest public food forest by transforming seven acres of lawn by planting trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants at Beacon Hill. Seattle’s food forest is significant not only because of the scale of development but also the indication of official recognition of the value of community resources that people can consume.
A report supporting the right of urban dwellers to collect food, medicines and materials through using natural resources in cities has just been published ‘Urban Forest Justice and the Rights to Wild Foods, Medicines and Materials in the City’. Academic documentation of urban foraging is one way in which the right to forage can be supported. It seems that urban foraging has moved on since Steve Brill’s arrest for picking a dandelion in Central Park.
Hibiscus sabdariffa calyx infusing
Edible leaves, stems, seeds and roots are the least of Roselle’s edible parts, the calyces are most widely consumed. Although the calyces that encase the flower petals before the flower opens are red, the flowers are usually pale yellow. Once flowers are fertilised the calyx becomes fleshy and grows from 1-2cm to 5.5cm long when the seeds are mature. While Roselle’s flowers are short-lived and may only be open for a day the calyces can be dried and stored.
Roselle has its origins in Africa and is thought to have been domesticated in Sudan, but it has been adopted into cuisines across the world from Central America across the Caribbean, through the Middle East and Central Asia and into Indonesia. Its wide range of cultivation is reflected in its names: Africa mallow, East Indian sorrel, Florida cranberry, Guinea sorrel, Indian sorrel, Jamaica dogwood, Java jute, Queensland jelly plant, and Sudanese tea. These names indicate its cultivation in different places, and refer to its properties and uses, as tea, in jelly and its sour taste. Although it is a member of Malvaceae, the mallow family, the sharpness of its taste has led to names that use the word ‘sorrel’, Rumex species from the Polygonaceae family, another wide spread sour tasting plant. In part the sour taste of the calyces is due to their high Vitamin C content, and Roselle has been used as an antiscorbutic. It also contains pectin, which makes it suited to jelly making.
Used fresh or dried steeped overnight in cold water, or covered in boiling water for hot tea, the calyces make a bright red drink that has been attributed with medicinal properties. Folk remedies use it for numerous conditions including hypertension, and a literature review of laboratory studies found antihypertensive effects to be the best-documented action of this plant.
Within the past year alone Roselle has been the subject of hundreds of laboratory studies on everything from its anti-microbial action to the characteristics of wine made from the calyces. With multiple uses it is no surprise that it grown across the world: a truly cosmopolitan plant.
Pelargonium sidoides is just one of the pelargoniums used in traditional medicine in South Africa, but the only one that was fully appropriated by colonists and is now available as a prescribed medication for bronchitis. Charles Stevens was sent to South Africa to recover from pulmonary tuberculosis in 1897. A local healer treated him with a mixture of plants including P. sidoides, and Stevens returned to the UK and set up a company selling his ‘Secret Remedy’. It wasn’t until 1974 that conventional western medicine identified the components of the remedy. Laboratory trails proved efficacy of the remedy as a treatment for bronchitis and it was authorised for use by the German drug regulatory agency in 2005 under the name of Umckaloabo: its local name in South Africa. The Convention on Biological Diversity, which asserts a country’s sovereignty over its genetic resources, is now restricting this kind of biopiracy.
Pelargoniums are not only valued for their medicinal properties. Scented pelargoniums are characterised by their scent, concentrated in their leaves, which ranges from classic rose and lemon varieties to the more exotic tones of balsam and coconut. Some species can be used in cooking but only when the plant is correctly identified, as some varieties are harmful if ingested. Scented pelargoniums have another aspect to their sensory repertoire; touch. Leaves can be crisp and easily snapped or soft with a coating of downy hair. Several species secrete scented compounds in such large quantities that their stalks and leaves become sticky.
Most scented pelargoniums originate from South Africa, and were brought to Europe by plant collectors. During the Victorian and Edwardian eras they were popular plants and varieties were increased through hybridizing species and vegetatively propagating plants with unique variations such as variegation. Pelargoniums are not frost tolerant and, in temperate countries, need to be over wintered in a frost-free greenhouse or be brought indoors where many will continue to flower. Despite restrictions on fuel use during the war years – fuel could be used for agriculture but not horticulture – collections of scented pelargoniums were sustained in England, and some nurseries have varieties kept alive through those times.
http://www.plantzafrica.com/frames/plantsfram.htm is a great database with detailed information on many South African plants including Pelargonium species.
As a selection for gardeners here is an outline of ten different varieties