A discovery in the Peruvian Amazon of a plant decked in plump, lime-green pods rich in omega-3s could offer some respite to trees that live under the threat of deforestation. Found in a Peruvian farmer’s garden, the new plant, christened Plukenetia carolis-vegae, is offering researchers a creative option as a ‘conservation crop’, Nature News reports.
Health websites and blogs are already latching onto the potential benefits this new plant might bring—though professionals are careful to point out that the health benefits of the particular omega-3 fatty acid found in this plant and others, called ?-linolenic acid, are not yet well-understood. The two researchers who discovered it officially are an ethnobotanist (someone who studies the “plant lore and agricultural customs of a people”) named Rainer Bussmann, who works at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St Louis, and Carlos Vega, head of the Institute for Sustainable Local Development and Andean Amazon Cultural and Biological Conservation (INBIAPERU) in Trujillo, Peru. They say that regardless of the plant’s health benefits, the oil from the fat pods is marketable as an unusual salad dressing for foodies.
Their motivation for advertizing the advantages of this new plant is the possibilities it offers for protecting the Amazon forest. The Peruvian Amazon, where a chunk of the overall forest resides, has experienced a loss of well over one million hectares in the last two decades, and 16% of its species occur no where else. While the country might not experience logging and the resulting deforestation as starkly as do other parts of the forest, it is still subject to serious pressures that puts the future of the whole ecosystem at risk—and those pressures are on the uptick.
This new plant, with its potential as either a health supplement or a tasty food item, could replace more harmful agricultural crops that result in deforestation. The reason that’s so is that the plant requires the shade of taller trees. If it becomes a desirable crop, Plukenetia carolis-vegae could take up land that might otherwise be turned over to crops that require the full light of the sun. Its dependence on shade would therefore give a kind of commercial value to the forest cover, and could indirectly ‘save the trees’, to indulge in the familiar mantra.
The plant’s true discoverer was a Peruvian farmer named Rodriguez, who happened upon it in the forest’s thicket, and took to growing it in his own back yard. He and his family enjoyed the seeds, roasted, and began harvesting and selling the pods, according to Nature News. Currently, only 20 or so bushes exist, but the researchers are hoping to extend the plant’s scope. Bussmann estimates that with a motivational push, farmers could be cultivating the plant commercially in just a few years.
Said Ina Vandebroek, an ethnobotanist at the New York Botanical Garden, to Nature News, “Ethnobotanists should also have a social responsibility. Our task is not just to record knowledge and publish it in science papers, but to give something back to the people you are working with.” That might explain Bussmann and Vega’s efforts to market the crop.
For now though, Nature News suggests that Bussmann is intent on exploring alternative uses for the plant. One is to roast and grind up the seeds and use them not only as a dressing for salad, but as a legitimate form of hummus.