Edible weed!

You might think that the most common weed along the Mumbai-Nashik highway would not be part of a botanical controversy. But it is. You would not be wrong if you call it edible hibiscus and I can equally correctly call it junglee bhindi (जंगली भिंडी, meaning wild okra), but some botanists bristle when it is called Abelmoschus manihot. The reason is visible at the tip of the long column of the style. You can see the five round stigma, which is typical of Hibiscus. The controversy is whether there should be a genus Abelmoschus at all, or whether it should be absorbed back into genus Hibiscus, where it was before 1924. A very recent paper compares the genome of three wild species of Abelmoschus in detail with its commercially important cousin A. esculentus (okra to you and me), and concludes that they are related closely enough that they should be collected into a genus. Does this end a controversy that was not settled by two earlier papers on genetics (this and this)? I have no idea. All the papers, however, agree that the species could have radiated from an ancestor somewhere in South Asia. No wonder this perennial sprouts so readily in cities and along roadside drainage ditches at altitudes up to 700 meters or so. Knowing this, I will treat it as a wildflower and not an invasive weed.

I’ve often seen plants which are taller than me, flowering between monsoon and winter. But before today I was not aware of the fact that its edible leaves are highly nutritious, with a substantial protein content, and with several vitamins and minerals. I really should investigate this plant a little more. Can I use its leaves as a salad, or should I cook it? I would avoid harvesting it from the wild, because the waste lots where it grows in Mumbai are places with abandoned warehouses and factories. These are exactly the kinds of places which can be chemically contaminated. But since it grows from a cutting, I don’t mind planting one in a pot on my balcony along with other greens.

By I. J. Khanewala

I travel on work. When that gets too tiring then I relax by travelling for holidays. The holidays are pretty hectic, so I need to unwind by getting back home. But that means work.

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