Garden cress (Lepidium sativum)

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Botanical name: Lepidium sativum L.
Family: Brassicaceae = Cruciferae
Common names. English: cress, common cress, garden cress, land cress, pepper cress; Spanish: mastuerzo, mastuerzo hortense, lepidio, berro de jardín (Spain), berro de sierra, berro hortense (Argentina), escobilla (Costa Rica); Catalan: morritort, morrisà, Portuguese and Galician: masturco, mastruco, agrião-mouro, herba do esforzo; Portuguese: mastruco do Sul, agrião (Brazil); Basque: buminka, beatzecrexu

Origin of the name

Cultivation of this species, which is native to Southwest Asia (perhaps Persia) and which spread many centuries ago to western Europe, is very old, as is shown by the philological trace of its names in different Indo-European languages. These include the Persian word turehtezuk, the Greek kardamon, the Latin nasturtium and Arabic tuffa' and hurf. In some languages there is a degree of confusion with watercress. It seems that the meaning of the word nasturtium (nasum torcere, because its smell causes the nose to turn up) must have been applied initially to garden cress, as both Pliny and Isidoro de Sevilla explain. The confusion remains with the terms used by the Hispano-Arabs. The word hurf is applied without distinction to watercress and garden cress (several species certainly of up to three different genera: Nasturtium, Lepidium and Cardaria). Thus the medieval agronomists of Andalusia went as far as differentiating between several hurf, such as hurf abyad, hurf babili, hurf madani....

Properties, uses and cultivation

Xenophon (400 BC) mentions that the Persians used to eat this plant even before bread was known. It was also familiar to the Egyptians and was very much appreciated by the Greeks and Romans, who were very fond of banquets rich in spices and spicy salads. Columela (first century) makes direct reference to the cultivation of garden cress. In Los doce libros de Agricultura, he writes: " ...immediately after the calends of January, garden cress is sown out... when you have transplanted it before the calends of March, you will be able to harvest it like chives, but less often... it must not be cut after the calends of November because it dies from frosts, but can resist for two years if it is hoed and manured carefully... there are also many sites where it lives for up to ten years" (Book XI). The latter statements seem to indicate that he is also speaking of the perennial species L. Iatifolium, as L. sativum is an annual.

Almost all of the Andalusian agronomists of the Middle Ages (Ibn Hayyay, Ibn Wafid, Ibn al-Baytar, Ibn Luyun, Ibn al-Awwam) and many of the doctors, such as Maimonides, mention garden cress. Ibn al-Awwam also includes references from Abu al-Jair, Abu Abdalah as well as from Nabataean agriculture and, among other comments, he says: "Garden cress is sown between February and April (in January in Seville). It has small seeds which are mixed with earth for sowing to prevent the wind carrying them away.... It is harvested in May and is grown between ridges, in combination/conjunction with flax cultivation."

Many of the authors of the old oriental and Mediterranean cultures emphasized the medicinal properties of cress, especially as an antiscorbutic, depurative and stimulant. Columela notes its vermifugal powers. Ibn al-Awwam refers to certain apparently antihistaminic properties, since it was used against insect bites and also as an insect repellent, in the form of a fumigant. It was perhaps Ibn al-Baytar, an Andalusian botanist (eighth century), who collected most information on its properties, summarizing the opinions of other authors such as El Farcy, who says that it incites coitus and stimulates the appetite; Ibn Massa, according to whom it dissipates colic and gets rid of tapeworms and other intestinal worms; or Ibn Massouih, who mentions that it eliminates viscous humours. Ibn al-Baytar also says that it is administered against leprosy, is useful for renal "cooling" and that, if hair is washed with garden cress water, it is "purified" and any loss is arrested.

In Iran and Morocco, the seeds are used as an aphrodisiac. In former Abyssinia, an edible oil was obtained from the seeds. In Eritrea, it was used as a dyestuff plant. Some Arab scholars have attributed garden cress's reputation among Muslims to the fact that it was directly recommended by the Prophet.

Garden cress's main use was always as an aromatic and slightly pungent plant. Not only in antiquity but also in the Middle Ages it enjoyed considerable prestige on royal tables. The young leaves were used for salads. The ancient Spartans ate them with bread. This use still continues and they are also eaten with bread and butter or with bread to which lemon, vinegar or sugar is added. However, it is mainly used nowadays in the seedling stage, the succulent hypocotyls being added to salads and as a garnish and decoration for dishes.

The roots, seeds and leaves have been used as a spicy condiment. Columela explains how oxygala, a type of curd cheese with herbs, was prepared: "Some people, after collecting cultivated or even wild garden cress, dry it in the shade and then, after removing the stem, add its leaves to brine, squeezing them and placing them in milk without any other seasoning, and adding the amount of salt they consider sufficient.... Others mix fresh leaves of cultivated cress with sweetened milk in a pot...".

L. Iatifolium L. stands out for its horticultural interest; although it grows spontaneously on the edges of rivers and lakes, it is also occasionally grown in the same way as L. sativum. Its young leaves can be used for salads; the ancient Greeks and Romans used to grow it for this purpose. Its leaves and seeds were also used as a spicy condiment. Several sauces are prepared with its leaves, including in particular the bitter sauce of the paschal lamb of the Jews. The seeds of this species were known in England as the poor people's pepper. The roots have been used on occasion as a substitute for radish.

In the fifteenth century, we know through Alonso de Herrera that garden cress was one of the vegetables most widely eaten in Castile. During the sixteenth century, obstinate attempts were made to introduce it into America. Right up to the beginning of the nineteenth century, its cultivation in Spain continued to be important, since Boutelou and Boutelou (1801) deal specifically with this crop in their Tratado de la huerta, commenting on the existence of several cultivars. At present, the cultivation of cress is very occasional in countries such as Spain and France. Water cress, in competition with garden cress, has eclipsed the cultivation of the latter. However, this is not the case in other central European countries or the United Kingdom, where its use is normal and the system of cultivation has changed substantially.

Botanical description

Cress is an annual, erect herbaceous plant, growing up to 50 cm. The basal leaves have long petioles and are lyrate-pinnatipartite; the caulinar leaves are laciniate-pinnate while the upper leaves are entire. The inflorescences are in dense racemes. The flowers have white or slightly pink petals, measuring 2 mm. The siliquae measure 5 to 6 x 4 mm, are elliptical, elate from the upper half, and glabrous. Cress flowers in the wild state between March and June.

It is an allogamous plant with self-compatible and self-incompatible forms and with various degrees of tolerance to prolonged autogamy. There are diploid forms, 2n = 2x = 16, and tetraploid forms, 2n = 4x =32. A degree of variability is noted in the character of the basal leaves which are cleft or split to a greater or lesser degree, a character which is controlled by a single incompletely dominant gene.

Ecology and phytogeography

Cress is a plant that is well suited to all soils and climates, although it does not tolerate frosts. In temperate conditions, it has a very rapid growth rate. It grows subspontaneously in areas transformed by humans, close to crops or human settlements. It appears in this way on the Iberian peninsula, mainly in the eastern regions.

Wild cress extends from the Sudan to the Himalayas. Most authors consider it to be a native of western Asia, whence it passed very quickly to Europe and the rest of Asia as a secondary crop, probably associated with cultivars of flax. Vavilov considers its main centre to be Ethiopia, where he found the widest variability; the Near East, central Asia and the Mediterranean are considered secondary centres. It is now naturalized in numerous parts of Europe, including the British Isles.

Genetic diversity

The genus Lepidium is made up of about 150 species, distributed throughout almost all temperate and subtropical regions of the world. On the Iberian peninsula and the Balearic Islands, at least 20 species or subspecies exist among the autochthonous and allochthonous taxa, some genetically close to L. sativum. Seven of them are exclusively endemic to the peninsula or, at the very most, are common with North Africa. Other close species are L. campestre (L.) R. Br. and L. ruderale L. which also have edible leaves. The leaves of L. campestre are used to prepare excellent sauces for fish.

Common cress (L. sativum L.), with regard to the anatomy of the leaf, stem and root, has been divided into three botanical varieties: vulgare, crispum and latifolium. The latter is the most mesomorphic, crispum the most xeromorphic and vulgare intermediate.

At present, most of the studies on the variability and development of new cultivars are being carried out in liaison with the VIR of St Petersburg, where there is a good collection of material. Of the 350 forms of garden cress studied in the Ukraine, Uzkolistnyti 3 was the best, being highly productive and of good quality. It is being used as the basis of improvement programmes, as it appreciably surpasses the best Soviet varieties in production and quality. Other cultivars well suited to European Russia are Tuikers Grootbladige (broad-leaved) and the lines Mestnyi k 137, k 106 and k 115. Of the types most cultivated in Europe, Early European, Eastern, Dagestan and Entire Leaved stand out, being distinguished by the length and shape of the leaf, earliness and susceptibility to cold. In Western Europe, one broad leaved type is especially appreciated (Broad Leaved French) as are curly types (Curly Leaved), the latter being used extensively to garnish dishes. In Africa, there are red, white and black varieties.

This crop is also arousing interest in Japan, and collecting expeditions to Nepal have been organized. Some specimens collected during an expedition to Iraq in 1986 are now stored in Abu Ghraib and in Gratersleben, Germany. There are also small collections of L. sativum in the PGRC in Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), at the ARARI of Izmir in Turkey and in Bari, Italy. At the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid there are accessions of 20 species of Lepidium, while the BGV of the Córdoba Botanical Garden keeps germplasm of the southern Iberian species of the genus.

Cultivation practices

Cress is an easily grown plant with few requirements. It can be broadcast after the winter frosts or throughout the year in temperate climates. However, Boutelou and Boutelou (1801) were already recommending sowing in shallow furrows, which enables surplus plants to be thinned out and facilitates hoeing. Sowing has to be repeated every 15 to 20 days so that there is no shortage of young shoots and new leaves for salads - the leaves of earlier sowings begin to get tough and are no longer usable. The seed sprouts four or six days after sowing, depending on the season, and the leaves are ready for consumption after two or three weeks.

The usual form of cultivation continues to be as described, with 15 to 20 cm between rows and the use of irrigation in the summer, since they are lightly rooted seedlings which can dry up in a few days. Its growth is very rapid and harvesting can begin in the same month as sowing, with yields reaching 6 tonnes per hectare.

Prospects for improvement

Most of the genetic improvement work on garden cress is being carried out in the CIS, with little or no work being done at present in the countries of western Europe. Mainly early cultivars with a prolonged production period and better cold tolerance are being developed.

Cress can be grown and used like white mustard. It germinates more slowly at low temperatures, the emergence period being three or four days longer. Shortening this period is an interesting improvement objective.

However, cress's recovery and its greater presence on markets mainly depends on a modification of cultivation and marketing techniques. In countries such as the United Kingdom, where this vegetable is normally to be found at the markets, cultivation takes place in greenhouses throughout the year. The whole succulent hypocotyls of the very young seedlings are eaten. The seed is placed on the soil surface on soft, level beds. It is finely sprinkled with water and then covered with sackcloth which has been steam-sterilized and moistened. The latter is frequently wetted to maintain moisture and is removed when the seedlings reach 4 to 5 cm in height (after approximately seven days in spring and autumn and ten days in winter). The yellowish leaves turn green after two to three days.

The cress is harvested when the first pair of cotyledon leaves have developed and it is marketed in small bags or trays, sometimes together with seedlings of white mustard.

Garden cress and white pepper are sometimes sown in the plastic trays or bags in which they will be sold, generally in peat with a nutrient solution.

Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)

Botanical name: Portulaca oleracea L.
Family: Portulacaceae
Common names. English: purslane, purslave, pursley, pusley; Spanish and Catalan: verdolaga, verdalaga, buglosa, hierba grasa, porcelana, tarfela, peplide (Spain), colchón de niño (El Salvador), flor de las once (Colombia), flor de un día, lega (Argentina); Portuguese and Galician: beldroega, bredo-femea, baldroaga; Basque: ketozki, ketorki, getozca; French: pourpier, portulache

Origin of the name

The diversity of names and meanings already gives an idea of the age and geographical dispersion of purslane's cultivation or use. On the basis of historical, archaeological and linguistic documentation, De Candolle thought that this species was cultivated more than 4 000 years ago. Its common names come from different roots: lonica or louina (Sanskrit), koursa (Hindustani), kholza and perpehen (Persian), adrajne agria (Greek), portulaca (Latin, which means "little door", because of the way its capsule opens). The Arabs in the Middle Ages called it baqla hamqa, which means "mad" or "crazy vegetable" because of the fact that its branches spread over the ground without any control. The Hispano-Arabs of Al-Andalus (from the tenth to fifteenth century) used the name riyla, which means "foot", most certainly because of its dactyliform leaves, and also furfir, farfan, farfag, farfagin, derived from the Persian perpehen. They also called it missita, which means "mixed", because it is sometimes found growing in gardens and sometimes growing wild. In Spanish, names such as verdilacas, yerba aurato and yerba orate are known (which again mean "crazy herb").

Proprieties, uses and cultivation

As a medicinal plant, it is considered to have antiscorbutic, diuretic and cooling properties. Being rich in mineral salts and with a high water content (95 percent) and mucilage content, it has emollient and soothing properties for irritations of the bladder and urinary tract. It is also used to regulate the bowels. Dioscorides already recognized its medicinal powers: these were anti-inflammatory (eyes) and analgesic (headache), emollient and soothing, antifebrifuge (in juice) and anthelmintic. He also says that "it reduces the desire to fornicate". In the latter sense, other authors also mention its anaphrodisiac powers (1837 Codex of the Spanish Pharmacopoeia), including this plant among the "four cold seeds", together with chicory, endive and lettuce. The anaphrodisiac effect is perhaps due to the presence of norepinephrin, a precursor of adrenalin, which causes a reduction in the blood flow through constriction of the main arteries. It is also mentioned by Maimonides. In the Middle Ages, the pharmacists of Cairo used to sell purslane seed for various uses, recommending it in particular as a vermifuge. Laguna and Leclerc also recognized its different medicinal properties, especially the anti-inflammatory ones, in mixtures prepared with plantain, violets and gourds. Its magical powers have also been mentioned, as a charm against evil spirits and for dispelling nightmares if placed in the bed.

However, in addition to its medicinal powers, it is also a vegetable, a weed and a food for pigs.

Columela writes in his poem on the garden: "Already the juicy purslane covers the dry beds"; and in Los doce libros de agricultura: "Leafy purslane appeases the plot's thirst" (Book X); and in Book XI he gives a recipe for preserving it in vinegar and salt. Paladio refers to it exclusively because of its mucilaginous, medicinal and veterinary properties. Similar references are found in Kastos, taking up the Byzantine tradition. Isidoro de Sevilla mentions it without giving any information on its cultivation. In short, such a summary reference to the Hispano-Roman and Hispano-Visigoth tradition regarding purslane is surprising.

It is the writers of oriental and Arabic treatises who concerned themselves most with this vegetable. Ibn Wahsiyya describes its cultivation in the Near East, presenting it as a summer crop. Most of the Hispano-Arab agronomists deal with this plant. Arib (tenth century) mentions it in his Calendario agrícola. Al Zahrawi and Ibn Hayyay (eleventh century) also mention it. Ibn Bassal (eleventh century) deals extensively with its cultivation, already recognizing a certain intraspecific variability (he distinguishes early and late varieties), setting out its temperature and water requirements (summer cultivation and irrigation or vegetable garden), drawing up a sowing calendar which extends from March to August and demonstrating the practice of two basic cultivation periods, depending on whether the aim is to produce seed or to produce for human consumption. Sowing quantities and manuring and irrigation requirements also appear and are dealt with in great detail by the author. Ibn Wafid (Hispano-Arab agronomist of the eleventh and twelfth centuries) mentions it under the names baqla hamqa' and missita. Ibn al-Awwam, in his Kitab al-Filaha, recalls that it is mentioned by almost all the Arab authors and refers to different varieties. He uses the adjectives "mild", "vain" and "blessed".

After the sixteenth century, cultivation of purslane was gradually lost in Spain. Alonso de Herrera (sixteenth century), for example, makes no reference to it while Boutelou and Boutelou (1801) say that "purslane, which is not at all appreciated in Spain, is one of the crops which, in England and other countries further north, need to be cultivated in frames and hotbeds in order to bring forward their vegetation artificially"; and further on: "on this land, it is not usual to cultivate purslane other than using those that have grown at random among other plants cultivated with more care". In spite of Spanish disregard for this plant, it is still valued in many Latin American countries where it was introduced.

Purslane has been eaten as a vegetable, particularly fresh. In England in the seventeenth century, the cooks of Charles II used to add its leaves to all salads, perhaps to satisfy the king's taste or else for its digestive properties. In this recipe, the chopped young leaves were mixed with double the amount of leaves of lettuce, chervil, borage flowers and marigold petals, the mixture being dressed with oil and lemon juice. The recipe resembles that mentioned by Tirso de Molina: "I will have green coriander, garden cress, purslane, borage and mint added to it."

Not only the leaves, but also the stems and rootless plantlets can be eaten raw and fresh. Columela mentions their being eaten pickled with salt and vinegar. Purslane has a pleasant acidic flavour and is very juicy. In Spain, it is usually eaten at a more advanced stage of growth, after cooking. It is also delicious boiled and in omelettes. Sautéed in butter or fried, it is used in soups, broths, salads and sauces. Together with sorrel, it forms part of the French soup bonne femme. Recipes are also known for purslane and pea soups.

To complete the range of its applications, one could mention its use as an insecticide, in which case its juice is poured on to anthills, and also its ornamental use in Roman and medieval gardens.

At present in Spain, it is basically a volunteer species (weed) among summer irrigated crops, and its consumption is gradually declining; this is also the case with individuals collected from wild populations.

Botanical description

Purslane is an annual, herbaceous plant, with branched, decumbent on fairly ascending stems of up to 50 cm, and which are reddish, fleshy and glabrous. The leaves measure 0.5 to 3.3 x 0.2 to 1.5 cm, are obovate, entire and fairly papillose. The flowers are yellow and solitary or in axillary groups of two or three. The fruit is in a capsule (pyxidium) of up to 7 mm. The seeds measure 0.6 to 1 mm; they are reniform, black, and maintain their germinating capacity for eight to ten years. Of orthodox behaviour in germination, their viability is maintained much more if they are stored dry at a low temperature.

Ecology and phytogeography

Purslane was one of the most widespread horticultural plants in the Old World since distant times. It was taken to America where it was naturalized, as in Europe, in gardens, among rubble and at waysides. It originates from the region extending from the western Himalayas to southern Russia and Greece. In eastern Asia it does not seem to be spontaneous. In Greece it is spontaneous and cultivated. Vavilov (1951) categorizes it in the Mediterranean countries of the Near East and central Asia as a weed and vegetable.

Nowadays it is distributed over the hot temperate zones of a great part of the world. Together with other species of the genus it occurs as a weed in the majority of tropical and subtropical countries.

It is cultivated in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and other European countries. It is a popular winter vegetable in northern India. In Spain, it very frequently occurs as a volunteer, but it is very rare as a crop.

Genetic diversity

Little work has been done on the management of purslane's extraspecific variability. Apparently, without any aim at improvement, protoplast fusion of the genera Portulaca and Nicotiana has been attempted, and heterokaryons and the first division have been observed, but it is not clear whether multiple divisions occurred.

Nevertheless, there is an enormous intrageneric variability. The genus Portulaca is cosmopolitan and many species are grown as a vegetable. Thus, P. afra Jacq., P. pilosa L. and P. tuberosa Roxb. in southern Africa and P. quadrifida L. in tropical Africa; P. retusa Engelm. in North America and P. pilosa L. in South America; P. napiformis Muell. in Australia; and P. Iutea Forst in Polynesia. P. quadrifida L. is cultivated in many tropical regions.

Within P. oleracea and in its wild populations, Danin and Baker distinguish five subspecies (oleracea, papillato-stellulata, stellata, granulatostellulata and nitida), on the basis of the seed size and structure of the testa. Recognition of these subspecies is somewhat questionable, especially if we take into account their sympatric character. Generally speaking, the existence of a single P. oleracea complex with several varieties is accepted; it includes: var. oleracea, which is widespread as a weed; and var. sativa (Haw.) Celak, which is cultivated as a vegetable and has a bigger and erect habit.

In a chemotaxonomic study comparing proteins and free amino acids, Prabhakar and Ramayya (1988) found that, within the complex P. oleracea, the var. ophemera is distinct from the var. oleracea and saliva.

In the var. saliva, it is usual to distinguish two types which can be differentiated by their colouring: green purslane and golden purslane. However, it seems that colour depends basically on exposure to the sun and is more an environmental than a genetic characteristic. Some markets, such as the French market, appreciate red in particular.

In the commercial catalogues of seed firms, cultivars of this horticultural plant are not usually offered.

Girenko (1980) has described the intraspecific diversity and composition of cultivars in various climatic zones of the CIS, along with another set of data of agricultural interest.'

Extensive work also has to be done on the recovery and conservation of purslane germplasm. In 1985, as part of a joint project with the IBPGR, a mission of the Agricultural Research Corporation collected indigenous germplasm of P. oleracea in the northeastern region of the Sudan. At ARARI in Izmir, Turkey, some accessions of P. oleracea are conserved.

Cultivation practices

This is a vegetable which develops rapidly in hot environments. Cultivation is very simple, entailing the necessary hoeing and irrigation on light, rich soils which encourage emergence.

It can be grown in greenhouses and may be broadcast or sown by burying the seeds with light pressure. A first and second irrigation are essential and must be carried out either by sprinkler or by hand. In order to ensure moisture during emergence, the plots are sometimes covered with wet sackcloth. The seeds germinate quickly and have to be raised up to accelerate emergence and development. The plantlets are harvested when four or five leaves have formed which, with suitable temperatures, is achieved in about 20 days. It is possible to cover a long production period by staggered sowing.

In temperate areas in central Europe around April, when the frosts are over, cultivation also takes place in the open air with direct broadcasting (10g per m2). Moisture must be ensured during emergence. Later, when the seedlings have reached the mid-point in their growth, they tolerate water shortages well. In this type of cultivation, the plant is normally allowed to develop and the stalks are harvested throughout the summer. If the plant is not pulled up, it sprouts again.

The crop's biggest enemies are low temperatures and weeds, which require as many hoeings as necessary. Pests and diseases do not appear to constitute important limitations.

Prospects for improvement

Cultivation does not present any technical difficulty preventing restoration of this vegetable's use. In experimental tests carried out by the authors on the southeastern coast of Spain, uniform production of seedlings of between 6 and 8 cm was obtainable after a month or so during the winter and spring in an unheated polyethylene greenhouse.

This type of cultivation is the one which may be most readily acceptable on western markets, provided clean rootless seedlings are offered, appropriately packaged in trays covered with plastic film. Under these conditions, they keep well at low temperatures for a couple of weeks.

This type of product is practically unknown to the consumer and yet it is the most suitable for salads. If plants or shoots of plants developed under high temperature conditions are used, they may have excessive mucilage and an unpleasant texture. The plantlets have a milder flavour and texture which make them more appetizing.

Where plant material is concerned, practically everything remains to be done, since very little improvement work has been carried out recently.

Borage (Borago officinalis)

Botanical name: Borago officinalis L.
Family: Boraginaceae
Common names. English: borage, cool tankard; Spanish: borraja, borraja común, borraga, borracha, bore, corrago, alcohelo, flores cordiales; Catalan: borratja, borraina, pa-i-pexet; Basque: borrai, borroin, murrum, assunasa, porraiña; Portuguese and Galician: borrage, borragem, erva borragem, borraxa

Properties, uses and cultivation

Borage is attributed with sudorific (flowers), diuretic (leaves and petioles) and emollient properties (cataplasms of leaves). It contains substantial mucilage, tannin, potassium and magnesium salts and traces of essence. The seeds contain up to 23 percent linoleic acid.

Pharmacologists in past times used to include borage within the "four pectoral flowers", and it was also strongly recommended in cases of rheumatism, in which case the fresh leaves were applied as a poultice, since they lose their properties when dry. The flowers and seeds had a reputation as euphoriants and were added to wine for this purpose. Some authors think that borage is the plant which the Greeks called eufrosinon and which, according to Pliny, "made men joyous and happy". One Greek proverb used to say: "I, borage, always give courage." In sixteenth century Spain, it was still attributed with this property.

Figure 38 Horticultural crops: A) borage (Borago officinallis); B) alexanders (Smyrnium olusatrum); B1) leaves; B2) inflorescences in the umbel; B) fruit; B4) root; C) scorzonera (Scorzonera hispanica); C1) capitulum; C2) basal rosette of leaves; C3) root

Thus, Alonso de Herrera (1981 [1513]) states that borages "are healthier than any other vegetable and, in truth, it can be said that in many cases they are not appreciated because these powers, which are many, are unknown". He also mentions some of these: "When raw, they engender a very singular blood, and more so when cooked with a good mutton or capons, and for this reason they are very good for old people... and if their seed is drunk in wine, it cheers the heart greatly...". The question arises as to whether the vegetable's virtues might not be due to the other ingredient which accompanied it.

In actual fact, its effects cannot be very obvious, since "in many cases they are not appreciated". The mildness of its action perhaps explains the well-known Spanish expression "it is borage water" to indicate that something has come to nothing. For example, Boutelou and Boutelou (1801) explained: "In ancient times it was very often used in medicine, but nowadays it is practically forgotten since it does not produce the effects for which it was applied in those days."

As a food vegetable, the origin of its cultivation has not been pinpointed. Although it is unclear whether the Greeks and Romans made medicinal use of this plant, it is more certain that they did not cultivate it, since none of the writers of treatises such as Columela or Paladio referred to it, although some authors attribute a Latin etymology to borago (derived from borra = rigid hair, because of the characteristic hairiness of the whole plant). Other authors support an Arabic etymology, from abu = father and rash = sweat, because of the sudorific property of its flowers. Some historians even thought that the plant came from Africa during the Middle Ages. However, there is no doubt that the plant is native to Spain and that, around the twelfth century, the Andalusian Muslims were not growing it. Indeed, in his Kitab al-Filaha, Ibn al-Awwam makes a single reference to it, treating it as a wild plant which could be used in times of famine. Other Andalusian agronomists and doctors such as Ibn Hayyay (tenth century), Ibn Wafid (eleventh to twelfth centuries) and Maimonides (tenth century) seem to mention it, but there is a degree of confusion regarding its name, lisan al-lawr (ox tongue), which may refer to both Borago officinalis and Anchusa officinalis or A. italica.

Consequently, borage must not have been cultivated until after the twelfth century. It is known to have been grown in Castile in the fifteenth century and, in 1539, Alonso de Herrera gave an extensive description of its cultivation and properties. It was one of the first vegetables taken to America by the Spanish; as early as 1494 it was being grown in the gardens of La Isabela, the first city founded on American soil. In the seventeenth century, Cobo (1953 [1662]) also stated that borage had adapted to Latin America. In the eighteenth century, it was frequently grown but had already lost importance.

Borage is grown for its leaves and stalks which are eaten as a vegetable. The young leaves can be eaten raw in salad dressed with olive oil, giving an aroma and flavour similar to cucumber. They should be chopped, since they are not very appealing whole because of their hairiness. They are used cooked in soups, as a garnish for meats and also in olla, a kind of stew. The leaves cooked in batter and served with hot or grated cheese are delicious. Similarly, borage dumplings can be made, while its finely chopped leaves can be cooked with almond milk to make an exquisite soup or used to make an excellent borage omelette.

However, nowadays leaf petioles are the part of the plant most used and lend themselves to most of the uses stated.

The flowers are used to garnish dishes and prepare an exquisite dessert. Genders (1988) suggests a recipe for borage tart. In some regions, a dessert is also prepared by frying the leaves, to which sugar or honey is added, in the same way as the paparajotes of Murcia, but using borage instead of lemon leaves. In Majorca, according to Font Quer (1990) the leaves are used to make fritters by preparing a mixture with beaten eggs and wheat flour and then frying the leaves thus coated in hot oil and sprinkling them with sugar and cinnamon.

Borage is also a honey-producing plant, the flowers and roots produce dye, while the active synthesis of linoleic acid - of pharmacological and cosmetic interest - occurs in the ovary, which explains the high content of linoleic acid in the seeds.

Botanical description

Borage is a sturdy, annual herbaceous plant. Almost all the plant is covered with stiff hairs. It has a taproot and erect, sturdy stems which reach 20 to 100 cm and are sometimes branched. It has ovate or lanceolate, petiolate basal leaves in a rosette which grow up to 25 cm. The upper caulinar leaves surrounding the stem are sessile. The flowers are a bright celestial blue on branched tops. Flowering occurs from spring to autumn. Thee fruit contains four oblongo-ovoid nucules measuring 4 x 2.5 mm.

Borage is an allogamous plant, which has hermaphrodite flowers with exserted stamens. It has a self-incompatibility system controlled by numerous genes. Pollination is predominantly entomophilous (bees).

The plant is propagated from seed. Seed collection is laborious, since the seeds drop easily. Sixty-five seeds weigh 1 g; 1 litre of seeds weighs around 430 g. In commercial storage conditions, germination capacity remains high for eight to ten years. Its behaviour is orthodox in storage.

The seed germinates very quickly, without any dormancy problems. The chromosome pattern is 2n=2x= 16.

Ecology and phytogeography

In its spontaneous or subspontaneous form, borage grows on uncultivated land, embankments, fallow land, wasteland, garden edges, waysides and among ruins.

It is native to the Mediterranean region but has been naturalized in the hot zones of western, central and eastern Europe, sometimes with unstable escapes northwards. It is also found in Southwest Asia, Macronesia and North America.

Cultivation of borage as a vegetable is limited to certain regions of the Netherlands, France, Spain and Latin America, being unknown in the rest of the world.

In Spain, it is grown mainly in the Ebro valley, in the provinces of Zaragoza, Logroño and Navarra. The total cultivated area in 1987 was 303 ha and production 7 818 tonnes.

In recent years, some expansion of cultivation towards Andalusia has been noted, particularly in Almería. Sheltered cultivation is beginning to be carried out, with excellent results.

Genetic diversity

The genus Borago has only two Mediterranean species. In humid areas of Corsica and Sardinia, B. pygmaea (DC.) Chater & W. Greuter, a perennial with decumbent stems, is found.

Borago officinalis L. is a very variable species. There are varieties characterized by the flower colour. Although they are generally bright blue, there are also types with white and pink flowers. However, these are very heterogeneous populations with a great diversity in habit, vigour and development of the plant, shape, colour and size of the limb and leaf petiole, flowering, etc.

The cultivar Flor Blanca, which is marketed in Spain, has leaves with petioles of 40 to 50 cm in length and 1.5 cm in width. The plant grows to a height of around 50 to 60 cm.

In the gene bank of the SIA at the Diputación General de Aragón (Zaragoza), there is a small collection of accessions of this vegetable.

Cultivation practices

Borage is a very hardy plant which is suited to all types of soil, although it grows best on clayeymuddy soils. It prefers land that is rich in organic matter. It tolerates low temperatures, down to -50°C, and starts to sprout again when the temperature rises.

In Spain, direct sowing is used. The ground should be prepared with a basal dressing using about 50 tonnes of manure per hectare, if it has not been incorporated into the previous crop, and 90 to 120 units per hectare of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. The soil must be well broken up with deep ploughing and a couple of harrowings. In Aragon, staggered sowings are carried out in the open air from mid-August to January, in rows or individual drill holes with 25 to 30 cm between plants.

Cultivation presents no particular problems; the plants must be irrigated and, in the event of intensive cultivation, after thinning out topdressing must be supplemented by 150 units per hectare of easily assimilated nitrogen.

The vegetative cycle takes between 50 and 120 days and harvesting can begin in mid-October, ending in May since, when high temperatures come with spring, the plant goes into flower and loses its value. Harvesting is done by hand. Each plant has two or three rosettes with five to seven leaves each, with a weight of 500 to 1 000 g per plant.

Production levels of around 60 to 100 tonnes per hectare are obtained. According to data in the Spanish Government's Anuario de Estadística Agraria, average yields are 25 tonnes per hectare in the case of open-air irrigation and 36 tonnes per hectare in sheltered cultivation, Navarra being foremost with yields of 40 tonnes per hectare using both methods of cultivation.

Recently, sheltered cultivation under plastic has been gaining in importance. Under these conditions, much longer and fleshier leaf stalks are obtained and the stalk/plant yield rises to 60 percent, as against the 40 percent obtained with open-air cultivation. Production levels are also usually better.

The crop's main enemies are virus diseases (cucumber mosaic virus), soil fungi (Fusarium sp.), soil grubs, caterpillars and aphids.

The plant is usually marketed in 15 to 20 kg "bundles", amounting to 15 to 30 clumps, or in 10 to 12 kg boxes as complete plants, with part of the leaf removed. However, the consumer prefers borage to be completely stripped and packed in trays protected with plastic film.

Borage is subject to the technical regulations on the control and certification of horticultural plant seeds. The requirements for seeds of the basic, certified and standard category are 97 percent specific purity, 65 percent germination of pure seeds, with a maximum tolerance of 0.5 percent of seeds of other species. According to INSPV data, in 1989 2 567 kg of borage seed were marketed, 2 489 kg of which were homegrown. Only the white variety was grown.

Another method of cultivation carried out in the Netherlands uses plantlets. After direct sowing, these are allowed to grow to a height of 10 to 15 cm and the complete plantlets are harvested. After washing and root removal, these can be marketed in trays covered with plastic film.

Prospects for improvement

Most improvement work has been carried out using white flower types. Breeding by growers has created forms with more succulent, longer and wider leaf stalks, with little pigmentation and less hair than the wild forms.

One of the main problems of cultivation is its ease of bolting, including the formation of flowers, which lowers the value of production. This process is caused by high temperatures and light intensity and reduced humidity. Breeding for resistance to bolting is a priority improvement objective, and a very high response to breeding is observed.

Although this plant has traditionally been cultivated in the open air, excellent results are now being obtained under plastic, in which case growth improves. A quality product, with long, tender leaf stalks and less hair can be obtained for a good part of the year in a greenhouse. The plant tolerates low winter temperatures and high humidity well. In the area around Zaragoza, borage has been converted into the most profitable crop under plastic.

The expansion of sheltered cultivation may encourage the recovery of this marginalized vegetable. The first tests in this connection have been carried out in Almería. If they prove positive, they would contribute to the diversification of production and to improving the supply in this region, which has great agricultural importance and yet depends on a very small number of crops.

As far as the consumer is concerned, in the case of regions that do not have a tradition of using this plant, borage must be presented stripped and properly packed, so that the work of culinary preparation is reduced. The plant's coarse, hairy appearance may cause some degree of rejection, which is avoided with appropriate cleaning and presentation.

With sights set on possible external markets which are even more demanding than the Spanish market, the high nitrate content of leaves and leaf stalks will need to be reduced. This can be achieved without great difficulty, as breeding to obtain a low nitrate content has been effective in other cases. Breeding to obtain individuals with a low content of lasiocarpine, a pyrrolizidinic alkaloid, would also be advisable, although its content is not excessively high.

As regards the plant's pharmacological use, in vitro cultivation of embryos is being developed; this is a technique whereby the active synthesis of linoleic acid takes place. In vitro propagation techniques of borage have also been developed.


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