During our visit to the Napa garden yesterday, I was struck by the diversity of strategies plants use to survive the winter. Our Perennial Greens Powder is made from tree collard leaves, gynura leaves and Malabar spinach leaves that are all harvested from the Napa garden. It also includes moringa leaves that are harvested from the Sonoran desert. In addition to providing perhaps the most nutrition of any commercially available vegetable powder, each of these valuable food and medicinal plants uses a different strategy to become a “perennial.”
For moringa we harvest the leaves of the full-grown Moringa oleifera tree. Native to the slope of the Himalayas, this tree is often pruned to stay at six to eight feet tall to facilitate new leaf growth and for ease of harvest. Its other names are “tree of life,” “drumstick tree” and even “horseradish tree,” apparently because of its horseradish-flavored roots. The highly nutritious leaves (and seeds) contain most of the essential nutrients and amino acids needed to support human nutrition. Its “perennial” strategy is obvious and common in the plant word; it’s a tree complete with the usual roots, trunk and branches and is therefore well suited to live for decades, if not longer.
Moringa leaves are considered nature’s multivitamin, providing seven times the Vitamin C of oranges, four times the calcium of milk, four times the beta-carotene of carrots, three times the potassium of bananas and two times the protein of yogurt per 100 grams. (Please note: Although moringa leaves have amazing health benefits, animal studies have shown that they can negatively affect conception and pregnancy. For these reasons, we recommend that women trying to get pregnant or who are pregnant avoid consuming moringa leaves.)
Tree collards, which are in the brassicas family (cabbage, broccoli, etc.), are native to Africa and use a similar strategy in their quest for long life. That is, the tree collard forms almost-woody trunks that support branches that maintain leaf growth year round in areas that stay above zero degrees Celsius. It is as if the tree collard wants to become a full-grown, full-blown tree, but it is unable to muster the “woodiness” to create a proper trunk. The branching trunk hardens a bit but always remains somewhere between a true tree trunk and what we might call a stalk. As a result of this “failure” to become a proper tree, the tree collard’s longevity is compromised. It’s longer-lived than an annual plant (it can live to be 20 years old), but it usually dies in eight to 10 years. In those years, we harvest the purple- green leaves, which are loaded with usable calcium and anthocyanins, which are used by the plant for its own defense.
The third member of our perennial-greens family – Gynura procumbens, otherwise known as “Okinawan spinach” — uses a different strategy to become a perennial plant. Unable to grow a woody trunk, the entire above-ground portion of the plant dies back once the temperature drops below about 28 degrees. It looks as if the plant is dead, but, if you give it patience and trust (as well as perhaps a breathable cover and a layer of compost for warmth), it will return to life.
Unable to form a woody trunk, the plant chooses to store its life energy in the roots and wait out the winter. We eagerly expect and wait for the warmth of spring to see the new shoots emerging from the slumber of winter. The gynura leaves are not only very nutritious, but they also have strong anti-diabetic properties.
The final member of our Perennnial Greens Powder blend is Malabar spinach (top photo). Malabar is the most tender member of this group, and at the end of the fall of 2015, after the first frost, the plants were a tangled mass of dead vines. My conclusion at that point was that Malabar was unable to perennialize in areas of frost. We put compost over the bed, and the following spring planned to plant new starts. To my surprise, with the first warmth of spring, the entire bed was filled with tiny Malabar seedings. While perhaps not the true definition of a perennial plant, the strategy Malabar uses to become “immortal” is to put its life energy into seeds and self-seed itself. This past summer we were treated to a luxurious growth of what can only be described as a hedge-row of Malabar. The Malabar leaves in our blend are loaded with health-giving fiber, mucilage and chlorophyll.
Plants are living beings, each with their own strategies to survive and flourish. By observing the four members of our Perennial Greens Powder, we can find more to explore and understand even in the winter garden, and can come to a renewed appreciation of the creativity and ingenuity of the plant world.
Tom Cowan, M.D.