Perennial wheat on trial

Researchers in Texas have planted a trial of so-called perennial wheat, which lasts about five years. Normal wheat flowers and dies in less than a year. The wheat, they say, is being evaluated particularly in the context of dual purpose grain and grazing use. Many farmers in the US west sow wheat and allow cattle to graze the young growth. After a while the cattle are removed and the wheat allowed to mature and flower. The perennial wheats, which have emerged from crosses of wheat with wild wheat grass (Agropyron spp) made in search of insect resistance and drought tolerance, would reduce the costs of seed and annual sowing.

Fine and dandy, but sad to see no mention whatsoever of the pioneering work by Wes Jackson and the Land Institute on the whole subject of perennial polyculture. Sad, but not entirely surprising; the Land Institute’s web site is by no means the easiest to find one’s way around. I visited a few years ago, and have kept up with their slow but steady progress towards “growing our own granola” but the truth is that despite Jackson’s wonderful oratory, not enough people know what they are doing there to promote edible biodiversity for the prairies. Try here for their latest publication on perennial polyculture.

That other groundnut

This article in African News Dimension sings the praises of Bambara groundnut (Vigna subterranea), saying it could be grown and consumed a lot more in Malawi. Interestingly, one of the reasons why it is underutilized may be customs such as the one which says that only grandparents and widows are allowed to grow it.

Gorilla medicine?

Coincidentally, here’s a very detailed article which perhaps sheds some light on how some medicinal plants may come to be used by people. Aframomum melegueta is a herb in the ginger family which grows along the coast of West Africa. The seeds are sometimes called “Grains of Paradise,” and were traded as a spice in the 15th century, giving its area of origin the name of Grain Coast. The plant is used in traditional medicine, and biochemists at Rutger’s Biotechnology Centre have now isolated a powerful anti-inflammatory from the grains. But here’s the fun part: apparently, Western lowland gorillas really like Aframomum. Did local people learn to use the plant by watching the gorillas?

Selling African leafy vegetables

Not for the first time, a study suggests that indigenous and scientific knowledge can add value to each other. This one comes from South Africa’s Human Science Research Council (scroll down to p.14 of the pdf). It found that any interventions to assist small scale farmers in the study area — two districts in Limpopo — would have to be low-cost and based on locally available resources and technologies. One of these resources turns out to be local leafy vegetables. The survey found that almost all respondents consumed African leafy vegetables, and dried and stored their leaves for use during the dry winter. It suggested that the communities could generate significant income by marketing this produce more widely.

New medicinal plants

Speaking of medicinal plants, a remarkable study in Peru traces the traditional use of plants for all kinds of curative purposes from colonial times to the present. There’s an article on the work on SciDev.Net here but it is in Spanish. Although many plants used in colonial times have disappeared from the area of the study, traditional healers have replaced them with other species and have thus maintained their pharmacopeia. This is very much a living, evolving tradition.