By Andrew Boyd
Jute mallow is a nutritious leafy vegetable with a long history and a variety of names. First cultivated in Egypt, it is sometimes known as Egyptian spinach, as well as Jews mallow for its role as a food staple in ancient Jewish culture. When cooked, the leaves exude a slimy jelly which many liken to the texture of okra, prompting the name ‘Bush okra’.
The vegetable has almost as many varieties as it does names—more than 15 in total. The most widely cultivated species is C. olitorius, but all of the varieties are all edible and widely cultivated. The jute mallow is harvestable three to four weeks after planting, can be re-harvested three or four times a season, and doesn’t require artificial fertilizer. Farmers can harvest six to ten tons per hectare and jute mallow can be planted in rotation with other crops, resulting in healthier plants that are more resistant to damage by pests. This, in turn, can result in a decreased need for pesticides.
The leaves are very nutritious, rich in iron, protein, calcium, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, folate, and dietary fiber. But jute mallow is more than just a meal. Its fiber is strong and waterproof, making it perfect for making burlap sacks, furnishings and even clothing.
Unfortunately, despite these benefits, jute mallow has largely gone ignored by researchers, leading to a lack of quality seed, as well as indigenous knowledge about cultivation practices.
But researchers at Kenya University Botanic Garden are trying to reestablish jute mallow and similar vegetables as staples in the African diet. The researchers have started germplasm propagation and seed multiplication project in Western Kenya. And they are working with local farmers to document and spread information about indigenous cultivation practices related to the plants to improve both diets and livelihoods.
Andrew Boyd is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet Project
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