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Published: 2008-07-20

The National Academy of Sciences in the United States has published a series of books with titles like “Under-exploited Plants with Promising Economic Value” or their “Lost Crops” series on African and Andean crops. These had a great impact on the thinking of ECHO. Even before publishing EDN Issue 1, we had begun work establishing a “user friendly” seed bank of many of these plants. Our goal from the start has been to enable members of our network to not only read about promising plants that have not been grown in the countries where they work, but to also get free trial packets of seed (see information above, about ECHO’s seed bank) so they can evaluate the plants’ potentials themselves. If farmers are interested, they can save their own seed. The plants below are some of the ones we consider “underutilized.” Some others are included elsewhere in this issue.

Perennial Underutilized Crops

The importance of perennials for extending the season. The small farm, particularly in the tropics, is one of the most dynamic, complex and potentially sustainable settings for supporting and prospering life. Yet it is often where the greatest suffering occurs. Often farmers in the tropics do not take full advantage of the unique opportunities offered by 12 months of fairly intense solar radiation and heat. Such a climate allows and favors systems, trees, and crops that can capture this year-round productive potential.

A strong dependence on perennial crops can greatly extend the growing season, reduce labor inputs, and provide sustained, long term food security and profitability. Examples include coppicing woodlots for on-site continuous wood production, fencing to enable diversified production free from ranging animals, perennial legumes, perennial edible greens, diversified fruit and nut production, and perennial forages planted at high density for increased animal production.

When farmers in the tropics move toward year-round production through perennial-based agriculture, farming is not limited to the rainy season. Furthermore, production of both calories and protein (on a per acre basis) in the tropics can far exceed farms in temperate zones. A great short article highlighting the enormous importance and role perennial crops play in tropical farming systems can be found at www.mekarn.org/sarpro/preston.htm.

Perennial greens for year-round nutrition.

Use of perennial greens has been and continues to be one of ECHO’s key approaches to providing options for the poor. We introduce our visitors to a great collection of perennial species that boast edible parts, especially leaves. As the saying goes, “plant once, harvest for years.” These species are prominently featured on our farm. They are particularly important for people who are elderly, handicapped or ill (e.g. people living with HIV/AIDS), since they are an excellent source of nutrition—especially vitamins and minerals— and can be grown with minimal care. In addition to the plants outlined below, other major species for perennial greens are edible hibiscus, basket vine, and garlic chives. We have had many reports from our network confirming the unique contribution of perennial greens to family health and food supply.

These garlic chives at ECHO have been growing in the same tire for over 14 years!
These garlic chives at ECHO have been growing in the same tire for over 14 years!

Moringa (Moringa oleifera and M. stenopetala), an excellent source of vitamins and minerals.

Moringa is still the most-requested seed in our seed bank. Of about 13 species of moringa, M. oleifera, native to India, is the most widely known. M. stenopetala is also quite well known and is noted for its drought resistance, being native to Ethiopia. Present in many parts of the tropics, it produces leaves, flowers, and pods, all of which are edible and nutritious. Most people in ECHO’s network are interested in the leaves, which possess an abundance of vitamins (especially A and, when raw, C), minerals (notably iron and calcium), protein and antioxidants. The leaves can be dried in the shade and crushed in a mortar to form leaf powder. A highlight from a report by Lowell Fuglie with Church World Service (“Moringa oleifera: Natural Nutrition for the Tropics”; featured in EDN 64) reads, “One rounded tablespoon (8 g) of leaf powder will satisfy about 14% of the protein, 40% of the calcium, 23% of the iron and nearly all the vitamin A needs for a child aged 1 to 3. Six rounded spoonfuls of leaf powder will satisfy nearly all of a woman’s daily iron and calcium needs during pregnancy and breastfeeding.” Fuglie notes that boiling the leaves and discarding the water results in loss of nutrients. Moringa can also be used to purify water. One crushed moringa seed kernel can treat 1 liter (1.056 quarts) of water. The seed powder, added to the water and stirred for 5 to 10 minutes, functions both as a coagulant (binding to impurities) and as an antimicrobial agent. Once the seed powder and impurities have settled to the bottom of a container, the clean water can be poured off. Moringa treatment—using either M. oleifera or M. stenopetala—removes up to or more than 90% of impurities, including bacteria, but moringa-treated water should be treated further to make it completely safe from all pathogens. A simple follow-up treatment, featured in EDN 53 and 90-2, is solar disinfection (SODIS), an inexpensive and straightforward technique for disinfecting water. It involves filling transparent plastic bottles with clear water and exposing them to sunlight for two to six hours. The ultraviolet rays from the sun destroy harmful microorganisms. Bob Hargrave commented, “This is how we treated our drinking water [in Kenya] for about 8 years.”




For moringa articles in general see AZ 11, EDN 69-7 and 96-7, and Moringa TNs. The French organization PROPAGE has established a moringa network and an incredible website, www.moringanews.org (in English and French).









Chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius ssp aconitifolius), an extremely nutritious and hardy source of green leaves.

Chaya is sometimes referred to as tree spinach. The leaves are very high in protein, calcium, iron, carotene, and vitamins A, B and C. The leaves also contain hydrocyanic glycosides, which could cause health problems if the leaves were eaten raw. Boiling or frying the leaves for at least five minutes removes the danger (books say to discard the cooking water, which contains a small amount of cyanide).


The large chaya leaves are boiled and eaten, especially in Mexico and parts of Central America. They are also used to wrap tamales. At ECHO, the plant becomes an attractive shrub the height of a tall person, but it may grow as a small tree in the tropics. The petioles of some varieties are covered with tiny, stinging hairs that disappear after cooking, but that can be irritating. If these are present, wear gloves or place your hand in a sock when picking the leaves. (The variety ECHO has distributed since the mid 1990s lacks the hairs.) A USDA study in Puerto Rico reported that one can get higher yields of greens with chaya than any vegetable they have studied. Chaya is unique in that it is exceptionally resistant to the hot humid weather of our Florida summer and to extreme dry weather! Though it blooms frequently, chaya seeds are very rare. It starts readily from cuttings, which is how ECHO distributes it. Because of the plant’s drought tolerance, cuttings survive well in the mail, even after weeks in transport. EDN 78-1 (now a TN); AZ 55; EDN 53-1.
















Katuk (Sauropus androgynous) for an edible hedge.

Katuk is a staple perennial vegetable in Borneo and Vietnam. It is often grown as an edible hedge; the leaves and young stem tips are eaten either cooked or raw and have a flavor reminiscent of fresh peas or peanuts. Katuk grows well in Florida, and has become one of the favorite salad greens of the staff at ECHO. Katuk does extremely well in hot humid conditions and can tolerate occasional flooding. Seed has low germination, so we propagate and distribute katuk by cuttings. (However, a network member who worked in Mindanao in the Philippines told us that in the hot, humid climate there, seeds sprout readily underneath plants.) Katuk is disease and pest resistant, tolerates most soils, and grows in sun or shade. For the best tender shoots and leaves, grow katuk in half shade and fertilize frequently. Keep it pruned to 3 to 6 feet, since it tends to grow straight up until it falls over. AZ 58; EDN 90-6. 


Cite as:

ECHO Staff 2008. Underutilized Food Plants. ECHO Development Notes no. 100