You might want to start eating more moringa, wolfberry, toon and chaya. But no one will blame you if you’ve never heard of them.
That’s because they are just a few of the lesser-known leafy green plants – of about 1,000 – that humans can eat.
Sadly, the majority of edible green leafy vegetables are woefully underutilized as a food resource. It’s no surprise that leaf crops add diversity, nutrition and adaptability to what humans grow and eat. They also improve the long-term stability of agriculture and provide nutritional insurance.
Green leafy vegetables are an inexpensive source of many essential vitamins, minerals and protective antioxidants, particularly iron and vitamin A, two of the most essential micronutrients for human health. A study in Taiwan in 2000 showed that Chinese cabbage produced 13 times more iron than grains grown in the same space over the same time. The same study also showed that Chinese cabbage was 11 times more cost-efficient than chicken as a source of iron. The aforementioned moringa, wolfberry, toon, and chaya are more productive than Chinese cabbage, and are even richer sources of iron and vitamin A.
No other category of food comes close to matching greens for providing so many essential nutrients with so few calories. For example, a 3.5-ounce serving of vine spinach, also known as basella, has just 23 calories but can contribute significantly to daily requirements for protein, iron, calcium, magnesium, potassium, folate, vitamins A, B, C, E and K, and antioxidants. This makes greens an ideal tool for combating a growing obesity epidemic.
Many of these crops are not only good for us, but can also be good for the environment, improving soil fertility while providing us with nourishing food. Cowpeas, bell beans and peas, for example, can fix nitrogen from the air, making it available for other crops. Turnips, fodder radishes and sugar beets have powerful taproots that open up compacted soil, allowing better drainage and root growth. Wheat and barley produce dense mats of roots and lush top growth that feeds earthworms and beneficial soil microorganisms. This improves the water holding capacity of the soil and makes minerals more available.
Here are some non-traditional leaf crops you might think about adding to your garden:
Austrian Winter Peas (Pisum sativum)
A portion of this vigorous, nitrogen-fixing cover crop can be harvested and dried to make a surprisingly delicious high protein powder, while the remaining winter peas continue to improve your soil.
Barley (Hordeum vulgare)
Barley is another cold hardy, soil-improving cover crop whose young leaves make a mild leaf powder loaded with vitamins and minerals.
Chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius)
Chaya is the ‘Tree Spinach’ of the Mayans, a beautiful warm weather perennial plant with super-nutritious leaves.
Grapes (Vitis vinifera)
Famous for raisins and wine, this hardy perennial can also produce a bounty of edible leaves rich in vitamin A.
Jute (Corchorus olitorius)
A leafy variation of the plant that produces burlap can quickly yield bumper crops of nutritious, mild-flavoured greens.
Quail Grass (Celosia argentea)
A fast growing annual, quail grass is an excellent cut-and come-again crop for the home garden; after you stop harvesting leaves it puts out waves of spiky red flowers.
Roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa)
Roselle is a handsome plant with tangy leaves and bright red flower buds used to flavour drinks.
Sweet Potatoes (Ipomoea batatas)
Even in cool climates, sweet potatoes can be grown for their leaves. They provide one of the best sources of lutein, an antioxidant that protects eyes and skin from damaging UV radiation.
Taioba (Xanthosoma sagittifolium)
Taioba is a beautiful plant in the elephant ear family that has huge, tasty and nutritious leaves.
Toon (Toona sinensis)
A hardy and beautiful tree from China, toon leaves are considered the most nutritious of all vegetables and have the highest level of antioxidants; plus toon wood is used to make furniture and guitars.
Vine Spinach (Basella alba)
A mild flavoured climber, vine spinach packs more nutrients per calorie than almost any other food.
Walking Stick Kale (Brassica oleracae longata)
All the famous nutrition of kale in a perennial plant that can grow up to 18 feet tall.
Wolfberry (Lycium barbarum and L. chinense)
This easy-to-grow, temperate zone plant produces goji berries and edible leaves that are the richest vegetable source of dietary iron.
David Kennedy is the founder and director of Leaf for Life, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the elimination of global malnutrition through the optimum use of leaf crops to support human health. He is the author of Eat Your Greens: The Surprising Power of Homegrown Leaf Crops, from which this article is excerpted.