When Shruti Tharayil moved to Telangana in 2011, she was intrigued to see women farmers cultivating wild greens which she had always regarded as poisonous. This got her interested and she tried to gather more knowledge about these plants.
“I had gone there to document the journey of Adivasi women farmers for an organisation. I was surprised to see women cultivating these greens. To learn more about them, I began meeting members of different communities, reading books, and talking to elders,” says Shruti who lives in Kerala.
Bringing back the Forgotten Greens
Wild greens, as the name suggests, are nutritious leafy foods that grow in the wild. They have traditionally been part of diet across the country in some form or the other and have nutritional and medicinal properties.
Shruti, 33, realised that the knowledge about these greens was limited to academic papers, some communities and grandmothers, who were the powerhouse of traditional wisdom.
There was no source offering reliable knowledge in layman’s language to familiarise the current generation with these beneficial wild plants. So she came up with Forgotten Greens, her platform where these wild greens are recognised for their properties and not considered weed.
“These greens used to be a part of our diet but have been forgotten over the years. When we think food, we only think daal-chawal and sabzi-chapati. But there are other edible greens as well and this perspective needs to shift,” says Shruti.
People living closer to the environment such as tribals still cultivate these plants, she adds.
“With the green revolution, the overall agricultural scenario has changed. In traditional farming that included organic farming and mixed farming, these wild greens were considered companion plants.”
However, mainstream agriculture that vouches for modern greens like spinach or parsley considers wild greens as weeds and gets rid of them through weedicides, she adds.
Shruti has been raising awareness about the properties of these wild greens through Forgotten Greens. She started it as an information-sharing page on Facebook in 2018, engaging people by bringing them together to learn, share, and experiment with wild edibles. She is also co-founder of Unlearning Ashram, a learning space on social media.
How to use wild greens
Over the years, Shruti has documented and listed various wild edibles and greens with medicinal properties, such as Gangabai Kura that lowers body temperature, Indian Nettle, which is used for herbal waxing or treating skin acne. Commelina Benghalensis and Thumba Poo can be used for making fritters, chutney or even pasta to enrich the flavour.
“All these plants have different properties: some are rich in calcium, some in iron or omega-3 fatty acids. The fact that they grow naturally, without any use of pesticides further enhances their nutritional value. Some can be eaten in the form of a dish while others have medicinal properties and only a small quantity should be consumed,” she says.
However, there is a word of caution. One needs to be careful while consuming these plants.
Usually, tender leaves are harvested, and Shruti advises picking only as much as one needs to promote conscious foraging. She says beginners must talk to someone who has an idea about the wild greens before consuming them as they might look similar but can be different. “I always tell people to check with the ones who know about these plants. It could be someone from your community or even your house helps would know a lot,” she said.
She also trains people on how to make exotic dishes out of these wild greens.
Rasam is another South Indian dish to which wild greens can be added. One can also make kebabs, patties, cutlets or consume them with garlic, chilli, or freshly grated coconut. These dishes are liked by people of all ages.
A community growing with the greens
Some wild greens are regional while some are evenly spread throughout the country. The regional plants are mostly found during a particular season while the latter grow throughout the year.
“The response has been surprisingly positive. Whenever I put up a post, people share their stories and knowledge about the plants or their likes,” she says.
Apart from social media, Shruti, who grew up in Kerala, has been actively hosting workshops to revive interest in these wild greens. She started with ‘Wild Food Walks’ in Udaipur and Chennai before the pandemic struck. People would join her as they went foraging the wild greens where Shruti would show them the plants and explain their uses as well.
COVID, however, hasn’t dampened her spirits.
This is an 11-day workshop held via WhatsApp, where Shruti shares information and recipes about one plant every day and encourages people to locate the plants in their vicinity and share their experiences.
Under this initiative, she has educated around 150 people. Over time she reduced the size of the batch to 15 people to promote wholesome learning. The charges for these workshops vary between Rs2,200 and Rs2,800. Upon the completion of these workshops, the alumni join a telegram group where they continue their learning and share their experiences.
Through urban foraging, Shruti promotes knowledge about plants that are commonly found in urban communities. Her efforts have prodded people to rethink wild greens. “They don’t look at them as weed anymore but they appreciate these plants for their properties,” says Shruti.
She now plans to document different wild plants that are consumed by local communities in the Southern region, explore how they are consumed and understand the science behind them.
(Rishika Agarwal is a Patna-based writer specialising in art, culture and human interest stories)