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15 Indigenous Crops to Boost Your Immune System and Celebrate Biodiversity

Food
15 Indigenous Crops to Boost Your Immune System and Celebrate Biodiversity
Since prehistoric times, purslane has been grown by humans around the world, from Australia to the Middle East to Asia. Nik West / Getty Images

By Jared Kaufman

This Friday, May 22, marks the International Day for Biological Diversity. Every year, the United Nations uses this day as an opportunity both to celebrate the Earth's stunning biodiversity and to recognize our task to protect it.


Unfortunately, due to biodiversity loss from industrialization and unsustainable land use, the planet's health is threatened. Nearly a quarter of wild food species—plant and animal—are decreasing in abundance, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Biodiversity is not only important for the planet—but it's important for human health, too. Eating a range of fresh fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help immune systems by providing the full range of nutrients, from vitamins C and D to zinc and iron. And COVID-19 is revealing the urgency of improving immunity—and the power of food to protect us.

"There's a range of vitamins, of flavanols, of minerals that have been looked at, that we know improve the immune system function. … Several specific nutrients seem to have activity against COVID-19-specific proteins," Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, a cardiologist and the dean of the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, told me on Food Talk Live this week. "What's really interesting, beyond the general immune-boosting effects and the COVID-specific protein effects, many of these same nutrients or other nutrients blunt or soften this excessive inflammatory response that's really what's causing deaths in COVID."

These 15 indigenous crops, among countless others, are prized in traditional agriculture systems for their resiliency, diversity, versatility, and most of all, nutritious value.

1. Amaranth (Amaranthus)

The more than 75 species of amaranth grow across nearly every continent, from the humid lowlands of Africa to mountainous countries in South America. Amaranth, which grows quickly in hot weather, is cultivated both as a leafy green and a cereal-like grain. It's an excellent source of protein, vitamins, and essential minerals, including calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc.

2. Arracacha (Arracacia xanthorrhiza)

An important South American root crop, Arracacha is best described as somewhere between a carrot and celery root. It was originally cultivated in the Andes, but because of its versatility and low-input costs, is now an important crop in many lower regions of Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela. Arracacha is typically prepared similarly to potatoes, but contains four times the calcium as potatoes and significant carotenoid pigments, the precursor to vitamin A.

3. Bay of Fundy Dulse (Palmaria palmata)

Dulse is a red seaweed that's been used for culinary and medicinal purposes across Ireland, Iceland, and Canada's Atlantic coast. Dulse that grows in the Bay of Fundy, between the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, was once a popular snack food and an important ingredient in traditional chowders and stews for many First Nations communities. Dulse has a high protein content, and contains iodine, iron, and many other trace vitamins and minerals.

4. Chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius)

Chaya, an evergreen plant native to the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico, has been a staple of indigenous diets for centuries in Mexico and Central America. Chaya grows very easily and is resistant to insects, heavy rains, and droughts. The leaves must be cooked to be safe to eat, but chaya is rich in protein, vitamins A and C, calcium, iron, phosphorus, and many minerals and enzymes.

5. Chayote (Sechium edule)

The chayote, a green, pear-shaped member of the squash family, has been an important part of diets across mesoamerica since pre-Columbian times. The plant is extremely versatile and can be grown in warm climates from sea level to more than 2000 meters above sea level. Most parts of the plant may be eaten, including the fruit, stems, and leaves, and it's a good source of vitamin C and folate.

6. Desert Lime (Citrus glauca)

Desert lime grows naturally in the semi-arid regions in eastern Australia in a range of soil types. It is tolerant of heat, frost, drought, and salinity, and it can withstand extreme temperature conditions from -12 degrees C to 45 degrees C (10.4 degrees F to 113 degrees F). Desert lime has high levels of vitamin C, folate, calcium, and antioxidants.

7. Fonio (Digitaria)

The two species of fonio — white and black — grown across West Africa are versatile and gluten-free varieties of millet. Fonio is fast-growing and suitable for dry conditions, although very labor-intensive to harvest. The grain has been cited as a path toward greater food security in Africa and is high in iron, calcium, and several essential amino acids.

8. Kakadu Plum (Terminalia ferdinandiana)

The Kakadu Plum—also called the Gubinge, Billygoat Plum, or Murunga—grows across northern Australia and has the highest recorded natural vitamin C content of any plant in the world. Suited to its natural hot and coastal environment, the kakadu plum can grow in a variety of dry and saline habitats, from dry creek beds to cliff tops and ridges.

9. Kumara/Sweet Potato (Ipomoea batatas)

Sweet potatoes, also known as kumara in many Polynesian languages and in New Zealand's indigenous Māori language, are a staple crop across Africa, Asia, and many cultures within and surrounding the Pacific Ocean. The starchy vegetable is a great source of protein, vitamins A and C, iron, calcium, and dietary fiber.

10. Målselvnepe Turnip (Brassica rapa subsp. rapa)

This old Norwegian landrace of turnip has been improved over the years through selective cultivation. It has an excellent, yet strong and distinct, taste compared to other turnip varieties. It can be eaten raw, roasted, baked, and boiled, and is frequently used to enhance the flavor of soups, salads, stir-fries, and side dishes. The Målselvnepe turnip is an excellent source of vitamin C and potassium.

11. Mung Bean (Vigna radiata)

The mung bean is important in Asian diets and valuable for its easily digestible protein. High levels of iron in the vegetable help improve the diets of the most vulnerable women and children, and mung bean production offers an opportunity for increased income for small-scale farmers. The vegetable can also fix nitrogen in the soil, making it valuable for crop rotations.

12. Northern Wild Rice (Zizania palustris)

Northern wild rice (manoomin in Anishinaabe languages), one of four global wild rice species, grows across the Great Lakes region in the U.S. and in aquatic areas of Canada's Boreal Forest. Wild rice has been central to Indigenous foodways in the region, particularly in Minnesota, for millennia. Although it is now domesticated and cultivated largely for commercial sale, much of it is still harvested using traditional methods. Wild rice is rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and fiber, and contains more protein than most other whole grains.

13. Pawpaw (Asimina triloba)

The pawpaw fruit is the largest edible fruit indigenous to North America, and has a tropical flavor reminiscent of a mix between mangoes and bananas. It was grown and eaten by Native Americans and early European settlers, although it has proven difficult to commercialize due to its very short shelf life after harvesting. However, the fruit is high in vitamin C, magnesium, and iron, and also contains some vitamin A.

14. Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

Since prehistoric times, purslane has been grown by humans around the world, from Australia to the Middle East to Asia. It's still common in Mediterranean countries and in aboriginal Australian foodways. Purslane is capable of CAM photosynthesis in extreme conditions, which allows the plant to grow while saving water, making it a very successful plant across many climates. Purslane also contains more essential omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy green, and the plant is also extraordinarily high in vitamin E.

15. Tepary Beans (Phaseolus acutifolius)

Tepary beans have been a staple crop for thousands of years and remain important for Indigenous farmers across North America, including in Tohono O'odham communities in the American southwest. They grow quickly in arid desert conditions and are resistant to alkaline soils, making them one of the most drought- and heat-tolerant crops in the world. Although related to standard beans, tepary beans actually contain more protein, calcium, fiber, iron, and zinc, and have a low glycemic index.

Reposted with permission from Food Tank.

A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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