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Leaves As Food

The leafy part of plants have been eaten from ages. This article explores the leaves commonly eaten around the world.

Leaves are the most visible part of plants and trees. They are the site of photosynthesis and carbohydrate synthesis. Like fruit and other edible plant parts, leaves of many plants are eaten as food widely across the world. Green leaves are low in calorie and, rich in fibers and important phytochemicals. Historically, leaves of many fodder crops such as wheat, barley and alfalfa have been consumed by humans during famines. Vegetarians particularly prize the leafy vegetables as they contain high protein per calorie, suitable for the daily protein requirements. Thousands of varieties of plants with edible leaves are known to mankind. Leaves can be eaten raw, stirred, steamed or fried.


Edible Leaves

Most edible leaves come from short-lived soft plants such as spinach and lettuce. Along with the leaves, tendrils and young shoots are also eaten. Green smoothies, popular in North America, are made by blending green leafy vegetables along with ice and fruits. Juice of bitter melon/gourd leaves is often recommended for diabetes, piles and alcoholism.

Fried pumpkin leaves mixed with rice batter is a delicacy in eastern India. Leaves of taro/colocasia plant are also eaten in a similar manner. Leaves of radish, carrot and cauliflower are often mixed with other vegetables and cooked in India. In Nepal, leaves of mustard, radish and cauliflower are fermented to prepare Gundruk, a pickled dish. Fresh grape leaves, stuffed with meat or vegetables are boiled and eaten in Middle Eastern and Greek cuisine. Turnip leaves are often eaten in Indian sub-continent as green vegetable. Fresh leaves of borage/starflower are often used in garnishing. Leaves of Swiss chard are cooked or sautéed and eaten as a part of Mediterranean cuisine. Adasonia or the baobab tree, found mostly in Madagascar, produces edible leaves which are eaten fresh or in dry form.

Cabbage, kale and collards are all examples of edible leafy vegetables. Young mustard leaves are often used in making Sarson da Sag, which is considered as a soul food in Punjabi cuisine. Purslane or pusley is another herbaceous plant known for its green edible leaves. The leaves taste slightly sour and can be eaten raw or cooked. Their mucilaginous property makes them ideal for soups and stews. In the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, leaves of Gongura are very popular. Many culinary uses of Gongura exist, but it is chiefly savored in the pickled form. Fenugreek leaves are cooked and eaten in many parts of India. Many species of Amaranth are widely cultivated for their edible green leaves. In Asia, amaranth leaves are usually stir-fried and eaten. In many parts of Africa, cassava leaves are eaten as stew. The edible part of Onion is in fact, modified leaves arranged tightly to form the edible bulb. Kelp or seaweeds though not technically plant leaves, are eaten in many coastal countries in different forms. Kelp is particularly noteworthy for the high amount of essential mineral content.



Leaves of many plants are not eaten as main food but added to enhance taste or flavor. In culinary terms, they are called herbs. Basil leaves are a commonly used herb in cooking. Fresh basil leaves are usually added at the end of the preparation as cooking usually destroys the flavor. Many Italian and East Asian cuisines use basil as a flavoring agent. The hollow tubular green leaves of scallions or green onions are commonly used in salads, soups, sandwiches and noodles. A chive is another type of onion which is grown mostly for its edible leaves. The chive leaves are used as seasoning. Thyme is another culinary herb, prized for its strong flavor which is due to the chemical, thymol. It is a widely used herb in most of the European and Middle Eastern cuisine. The use of parsley and coriander leaves for garnishing and dressing is well documented. The needle-like leaves of rosemary are a part of the traditional Mediterranean cuisine. They are known for their intense aromatic flavor. Lime leaves are used as herb in Indian and East Asian cultures. The use of mint leaves is widespread and well-known. Mint leaves are known for their fresh aroma and used to flavor different types of dishes and beverages. The leaves of curry tree (murraya koenigii) are extensively used as a seasoning in South Indian and Srilankan cooking. Bay leaves, both in fresh and dried form are used to flavor foods. The leaves have a pungent and bitter aroma due to presence of oils such as myrcene and eugenol. Dried Oregano leaves, also known as the pizza herb are an important part of Italian cuisine. Oregano leaves are also used for cooking in many Middle Eastern cultures. Fresh and dried forms of Dill leaves are frequently used as herbs in Eastern Europe. Dill leaves also accompany boiled lentils in many Indian dishes. Sage leaves are usually used as turkey stuffing in United States on the Thanksgiving Day. Europeans use sage leaves as a flavoring agent for meat dishes.


Nutritional Benefits

Leafy vegetables grow at a rapid rate, allowing multiple harvests in a season. They are extremely nutritious on a fresh weight metric. These plants are also considered as the most productive plants in terms of nutritional value per unit area.

Leafy vegetables are excellent sources of vitamins and essential minerals. They are also rich in phytonutrients like beta-carotene, zeaxanthin and lutein. Lutein, in particular, boosts immune system and reduces the chances of age related macular degeneration. Dark green leaves are known to contain anti-oxidants and in some cases they possess anti-carcinogenic properties. Leaves often contain very less carbohydrate and hence negligible calories. Consuming leafy vegetables also provides lots of fibers which are essential for digestion and smooth bowel movement.

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Comments (4)

Extremely informative... I had no idea people really consume that much green leaves...

Thanks for the interesting information.

There are lots of weed in your yard you can eat and add to salads or boil like you would greens! Good article!

Excellent info. Thanks for sharing.