When Odisha goes green

Of the 106 species of leafy veg­eta­bles con­sumed in south­ern Odisha, 78 are wild species—each with a dis­tinct taste and medic­i­nal prop­erty SNIGDHA DAS

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Win­ter is the time when Odia plat­ters are awash with wild leafy veg­eta­bles

AS WIN­TER sets in, the fra­grance of leafy greens fills the kitchens across Odisha. This is the time when na­ture is boun­teous, and a va­ri­ety of potherbs can be found grow­ing in kitchen gar­dens, road­sides, graz­ing fields, un­der­growths in forests, along wa­ter bod­ies… al­most ev­ery­where. The leaves are no longer spoiled by mois­ture or in­fested with germs and worms. And saaga bha­jaa (cooked green leaves) be­comes a reg­u­lar fea­ture on the menu of Odias.

Peo­ple in Odisha typ­i­cally rel­ish a wide va­ri­ety of potherbs, both do­mes­ti­cated and wild. While they have a cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance—saaga bha­jaa is an in­te­gral part of the plat­ter of­fered to deities dur­ing fes­ti­vals—they play an im­por­tant role in the food and nutri­tional se­cu­rity of those liv­ing in ru­ral and tribal ar­eas.

Abun­dant cures

“Leafy veg­eta­bles are con­sid­ered pri­mary food class be­cause they are pho­to­syn­thetic tis­sues with high lev­els of vi­ta­min K and food value in com­par­i­son to other fruits and vege- ta­bles,” says an eth­nob­otan­i­cal study con­ducted in the south­ern dis­tricts of the state by the Ber­ham­pur Univer­sity.

Be­sides, these greens are in­ex­pen­sive. Of the 106 species of leafy veg­eta­bles con­sumed in south­ern Odisha, 78 are wild species— peo­ple sim­ply col­lect these greens when they are graz­ing an­i­mals, gath­er­ing fuel and fod­der or fetch­ing wa­ter. Fif­teen of the species are wild as well as do­mes­ti­cated and 13 are un­der cul­ti­va­tion, notes the study pub­lished in the In­ter­na­tional Jour­nal of Agri­cul­tural and Food Sci­ence.

These greens not only make a quick meal af­ter a hard day’s work—saaga bha­jaa is pre­pared by sim­ply stir-fry­ing the greens and is best en­joyed with rice, es­pe­cially pakhala bhaata (rice soaked in wa­ter overnight)—they bring va­ri­ety to the menu. While some greens are crunchy, oth­ers are smooth in tex­ture. Then there are greens that are sour and some that taste bit­ter. Most peo­ple in ru­ral and tribal ar­eas are aware of their ther­a­peu­tic val­ues.

Take, for in­stance, the red hog­weed or Bo­er­havia dif­fusa, which grows dur­ing the mon­soon and post-mon­soon pe­riod. It is said to cure asthma and cough, says the Ber­ham­pur eth­nob­otan­i­cal study. The Cen­tral Coun­cil of Re­search for Homeopa­thy un­der­scores this folk knowl­edge, and says that the juice ex­tracted from its roots can help cure uri­nary dis­or­ders, leuk­o­r­rhea, rheuma­tism and en­cephali­tis.

Ses­sile joy­weed or Al­ter­nan­thera ses­silis is an­other weed that is known to help in­crease the flow of bile in the in­tes­tine and stim­u­late lac­ta­tion. The In­ter­na­tional Union for Con­ser­va­tion of Na­ture (iucn) says it can be used to treat di­ar­rhoea, dysen­tery, fever and in­flam­ma­tion of the in­testines. Then there is Com­melina beng­halen­sis (Bengal dayflower or kaniseera), a tiny plant with beau­ti­ful pur­ple flower that can eas­ily be spot­ted across paddy fields. Eth­nob­otan­i­cal stud­ies show that the weed, kaniseera, helps al­le­vi­ate con­sti­pa­tion and rheumatic pain. The Kani tribal com­mu­nity of the West­ern Ghats uses its leaves, la­tex and the pow­der of roots to treat lep­rosy, says an eth­nob­otan­i­cal sur­vey pub­lished in the Global Jour­nal of Phar­ma­col­ogy in 2015.

The plant is also ef­fec­tive against sev­eral bac­te­ria, in­clud­ing those that cause ty­phoid and dysen­tery, be­cause it con­tains high lev­els of an­tiox­i­dants, lutein and be­tac­arotene, says a study pub­lished in Der Phar­ma­cia Sinica in 2011.

Those look­ing for a change in taste can go for the three-fo­li­o­late creeper which has del­i­cate yel­low flow­ers. Called Ox­alis cor­nic­u­lata or creep­ing wood sor­rel, this plant is sour in taste (see ‘Am­bil­iti saaga’). It has all the es­sen­tial nu­tri­ents re­quired for good health. Be­ing high in vi­ta­min C and potas­sium, it helps re­lieve scurvy and skin dis­or­ders. A re­view pub­lished in the In­ter­na­tional Jour­nal of Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal Sci­ences and Re­search in 2015 says the plant is rich in car­bo­hy­drates, crude pro­tein and crude lipid, and can be used as an al­ter­na­tive veg­etable dur­ing an emer­gency.

Wa­ter clover or Mar­silea min­uta is a sim­i­lar look­ing four-fo­li­o­late plant, but thrives in an en­tirely dif­fer­ent ecosys­tem. This fern grows abun­dantly in shal­low pools, along rivers, canals and ditches and in paddy fields. One can oc­ca­sion­ally find the fronds, called sun­su­nia in Odia, be­ing sold in vil­lage mar­kets. It is said to be rich in pro­tein and min­er­als.

Un­for­tu­nately, high-yield­ing greens such as spinach, let­tuce, fenu­greek and ama­ranth are fast re­plac­ing these in­valu­able wild greens. This not only lim­its our food bas­ket of leafy veg­eta­bles, but we could lose the tra­di­tional medic­i­nal knowl­edge as­so­ci­ated with each of the greens for­ever.

These wild leafy veg­eta­bles can strengthen our nutri­tional and food se­cu­rity, and pro­vide im­por­tant cues for de­vel­op­ing poli­cies on sus­tain­able util­i­sa­tion of nat­u­ral

re­sources for hu­man sus­te­nance, say botanists from Chand­bali Col­lege in Bhadrak and S N Col­lege in Ken­dra­para, who have doc­u­mented the eth­nob­otan­i­cal knowl­edge as­so­ci­ated with leafy veg­eta­bles con­sumed in Bhadrak dis­trict.

Their study, pub­lished in Sci­en­tia Agri­cul­turae in Septem­ber 2015, re­veals that these wild greens are also be­ing threat­ened by sev­eral an­thro­pogenic and nat­u­ral causes such as land-use changes, habi­tat de­struc­tion, un­sci­en­tific har­vest­ing, over­graz­ing and in­va­sive species.

Com­mer­cial cul­ti­va­tion of these wild greens will not only help im­prove the eco­nomic and nutri­tional con­di­tion of peo­ple, but also help in con­serv­ing bio­di­ver­sity.„

Un­for­tu­nately, high­yield­ing greens such as spinach, let­tuce and fenu­greek are fast re­plac­ing in­valu­able wild greens

The Am­bil­iti saaga has a sour taste and can help re­lieve scurvy and skin dis­or­ders

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