Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Don’t ignore the ‘orphans’!

The FAO has launched a ‘traditional crop of the month’ site to generate more appreciation of the nutritional – and often medical – benefits of food plants.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.

With increasing concerns over future food security and the importance of, and need for, health-promoting, nutritious and varied diets, there is considerable interest in promoting the value of, and exploitation potential therefrom, so-called orphan crops. As a way of generating more appreciation of the nutritional – and often medical – benefits of such food plants, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) has launched a ‘Traditional crop of the month’ site.  This initiative was inspired in large part due to the success of promoting quinoa* as a little-known traditional crop by the 2013 International Year of Quinoa. For each featured plant there is general information about its distribution and cultivation, an appreciation of any special qualities it has (e.g. nutritional or medicinal) and its importance for small-scale farmers. For those keen to try the plant, the article provides recipes, and – as for any good evidence-based piece – references to follow up the item. As I pen this piece, the traditional plant of the month is… common buckwheat, amongst whose special qualities are that it is gluten-free (and is therefore suitable for coeliacs), and contains rutin (a compound that may have several beneficial medical effects in humans). Previously featured crops include African garden eggplant – Solanum aethiopicum (Ethiopian eggplant, scarlet eggplant) and S. macrocarpon (Gboma eggplant) – and moringa (Moringa olifera**). But in view of the ethnopharmacological importance of several of these crops – in addition to their nutritional value – and the fact that they are less well-known than more familiar cereal staples such as maize, rice and wheat, accurate identification of the plants is essential. And this issue has been highlighted particularly in the case of ‘moringa’ by Rory McBurney et al., who demonstrated that missing, outdated or misspelt botanical names made it difficult to find published nutritional values for the horseradish (or drumstick) tree, Moringa oleifera. So we are back to the importance of plant ID again (see previous post, ‘A blooming disgrace…?’). Clearly there’s no escaping it: knowing what plant species you are dealing with is absolutely crucial to the study of plants!


* If you’ve never been sure how to pronounce this word, the ‘Pronunciation Manual’ website probably won’t help.


** No, it’s not escaped Mr P. Cuttings’ notice that the FAO has apparently misspelt moringa’s specific epithet in the binomial they’ve displayed…

Nigel Chaffey

I am a botanist and former Senior Lecturer in Botany at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany I contributed the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ - and to Botany One - for almost 10 years. I am now a freelance plant science communicator and Visiting Research Fellow at Bath Spa University. I continue to share my Cuttingsesque items - and appraisals of books with a plant focus - with a plant-curious audience. In that guise my main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way) others about plants and plant-people interactions, and thereby improve humankind's botanical literacy. Happy to be contacted to discuss potential writing - or talking - projects and opportunities.
[ORCID: 0000-0002-4231-9082]

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