- Published on Friday, 04 May 2012 00:00
By A Web design Company
BATAC, Ilocos Norte – They are eaten in times of famine and hunger, which usually precede harvests, and are part of the daily diets of the rural poor.
Here in Ilocos Norte, wild edible plants continue to sustain the food requirements of many upland villagers and tribal groups.
And yet, despite its potential to improve nutrition and create rural income, indigenous food plants are threatened by extinction, according to a study conducted by researchers at the Mariano Marcos State University (MMSU) in Batac, Ilocos Norte.
In a survey and scientific characterization of indigenous food plants in Ilocos Norte, the researchers collected 46 specimens of indigenous vines or lianas, shrubs and undershrubs, herbs, trees, grasses and palms. Most were gathered from the wild; some came from small cultivated plots.
Plants were collected from their natural settings, in farmlands, in backyards and home gardens and the village markets. The plants are currently eaten as vegetable dishes, salad, sauteed, cooked with fish paste or as stand-alone viands.
The study was conducted in 24 barangays of Vintar, Adams, Carasi, Nueva Era, Pagudpud, Bangui and Dumalneg, many of them in remote mountainous municipalities that still cling to traditional farming practices without much chemical input or use of machinery.
The plants are valuable for daily subsistence – as sources of food and livelihood. Almost all villagers and tribal groups gather these plants in the wild; about 84 percent of them grow or domesticate the plants.
The landuse patterns have not changed much in a land with minimal development projects, according to the study funded by the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA).
With Prior Informed Consents from the communities, researchers interviewed villagers and looked at the ethnobotany of the plants, how they are used in a particular area as food, feed and so on; none were actually used for ritual.
The 46 indigenous food plants collected and characterized reflect the richness of these genetic resources.
“Preserving these plants is tantamount to preserving the cultural milieu of the various tribal groups in Ilocos Norte, principal researcher Menisa A. Antonio, a Science Research Assistant at MMSU.
“Who knows what other treasures await in other regions?,” she said, citing the balbalosa plant as example. It is a wild eggplant that appears to be a hybrid: its leaves, stems and flowers are similar to the eggplant while its fruits look and taste like tomato.
The study found the greatest diversity in terms of species richness in Adams town where 80 percent of the 46 plants included in the study could be found. Next are Bangui and Nueva Era with almost the same number of edible food plants, followed by Vintar, Pagudpud, Dumalneg and Carasi.
“Most of the plants do not require specific sites or soils and thrive in any level, from stony soils and rolling topography to cliffs,” Antonio said. “Hence, they can be domesticated and propagated in other areas of the province.”
This would broaden the food base for increased food sufficiency and improved health, she added.
The plants are nutritious. The tapsuy, a local watercress, is blanched for salad, mixed with tomato or vinegar and fish paste. The aquatic herb, with hollow stems and small leaves, is a source of vitamins C, B1, B6, K, E, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, zinc and potassium.
The fruits of the liana sugod-sugod (a relative of the ampalaya or bitter gourd) are rich in lycopene and beta-carotene. It is cooked as a viand while the tops are served as salads. Its lycopene content is almost 70 times that of tomato and it beta-carotene content is up to 10 times that of carrot or sweet potato.
There is great diversity. The wild bilagot is more astringent in aroma and taste than its domesticated sistser lanipao. Taro or gabig tubers are in varying colors of white, yellow, purple, white with purple streaks, yellow with purple streaks and light purple with blackish streaks.
The tuber of lampakan, an upland taro, is used as a viand; the leaves and stalks are boiled for feed. The same goes for tigue, the young unopened leaves served as a viand; the mature leaves and stalks are used as feedstuff.
Many ferns are edible, from the tops from the more familiar pako; to the pusa-pusa (tree fern) served as salad or with cooked with coconut milk; to the ubog (young heartwood) cooked with other vegetables or mixed with canned sardines.
“Familiarity with the plants dating back since the time of their forefathers, the long history of continued utilization, and the development of recipes, preparing and cooking methods – all indicate the plants are an integral part of the daily diet,” Antonio said.
Extra care is made in eating some plants, like the local karot (D. hispida) which, when not properly cooked, may cause nausea or vomiting due to the presence of a toxic alkaloid. A processing technique uses tubers that have been peeled and sliced thinly, then soaked in running or salt water for several days. They are then squeezed, followed by repeated soaking and squeezing until there is no milk left to squeeze.
In the case of the pannalayapen tree (also called banitog or apeng), those with big, broad leaves are safe and edible while those with small leaves can cause diarrhea. Young leaves or tops from this small tree are used for salad or added to pinakbet and vegetable dishes.
Of the 46 plants identified, 33 species are consumed mainly as vegetable dishes, either as salad, sauteed dish or viand cooked with fish paste. These include the indigenous rabanos, parangipang and barangbang.
Plants such as the palali, rosel and ariwat (orro) were used as secondary ingredients, as flavoring spices or as garnishings to vegetable, fish or meat. Root crops like the kamangeg, buga, karot and pannarien are prepared into delicacies, either boiled or cooked with coconut milk. The ripe fruits of the agimet (or barinit, a wild strawberry) and the tarosi are eaten.
Farmers in Adams and Dumalneg towns listed 18 kinds of traditional upland rice that differ in grain color (from off-white to different shades of purple or black), aroma,glutinous character and maturity.
Apart from home consumption, food plants collected from the wild or grown in home gardens are sold, augmenting meager incomes.
“Villagers confirmed that the indigenous food plants still abound, although in less numbers than found several years ago,” Antonio said.
According to the villagers, growing areas have been cleared and converted to other uses like mining, as in Carasi town; or turned into new paths or widened trails, converted into fishponds, pastures as well as relocation and residential sites.
People’s preferences have changed and new high-yielding crops like rice, bittergourd, tomato and eggplant have displaced traditonal foods in many plots.
“Unrestricted gathering is also to blame,” Antonio pointed out. “After collection, there are no efforts to replant indigenous food plants.”
Still, despite the introduction of new crops, villagers continue to plant the old varieties bacause these are highly adapted to local conditons. Separate areas wer set aside for planting different varieties.
New varieties of vegetables are usually grown in homegardens and lower elevation ricefields. Traditional upland rice and vegetable varieties are grown in slash-and-burn farms.
“In a way, the spatial isolation of the old from the new lessens genetic introgression, which is a main contributor of decreasing biodiversity,” Antonio said. “Preserving genetic integrity is important because the indigenous plants have evolved through time and have adapted and survived due to their genetic resiliency.”
Collectively, the villagers employ on-site conservation by storing or reserving seed stock for the next cropping season and planting yearly or continuously in farms and home gardens.
Not a single conservation method can preserve as much diversity as possible, Antonio said. Complementary conservation strategies are needed, especially because indigenous food plants in their wild or natural habitats are prone to risks, she added.
A collection maintained at MMSU is primarily intended as a complementary measure to the on-farm conservation practiced by villagers.
Nearly 40 species of indigenous food plants have been collected and propagated at the university, of which 25 species are maintained as living plants and 14 as seeds at the university’s Seed Unit.
Representative plants of 25 species are now planted in the botanical garden. The wild yam kamangeg is planted at the MMSU Payao forest reserve while taro species are planted in experimental farms at the Crops Research Laboratory complex.
Seeds are being regenerated, mass produced and processsed following the protocols on genebank operations.
The seeds also serve as materials for studies on characterization, evaluation and selection of promising lines, product development and processing, and improvement of farm practices to boost production.
“Present efforts are not sufficient to protect these plants from extinction,” Antonio said. “There is no known initiative that conserves or safeguards indigenous food plants and their habitats.”
In fact, she added, several interventions are needed. “A search should start for nutritive components and the development of new recipes and processed products,” she said. “Adaptability and domestication trials should be conducted on wild plants.
“These plants provide opportunities for discovering and developing new foods, drugs and industrial products,” Antonio said. “And they can be important source of genes whose traits are desirable in agriculture to develop new or improve existing varieties.”