Women Use Wild Plants for Food and Medicine

Environment and climate change


Around the world, women know how to gather, prepare, and use many different kinds of wild plants. Women have developed this important knowledge because they provide food and medicine for their families.

Women learn at an early age how to find and use wild plants. Their teachers are usually their mothers and grandmothers. Nowadays, it is important that girls attend school. It is also important that all children learn from their elders. When women’s knowledge of wild plants is not taught to their children, we lose cheap medicines and nutritious foods.

Why are wild plants important? Did you know that useful wild plants are found all over the world? In fact, some people call wild plants “weeds” but many have important uses. Do you know any examples of useful “weeds?” When some women farmers in Swaziland in Africa were asked to identify useful wild plants, they named 220 species!

Not all wild plants are safe food or medicine. This is why women’s knowledge of how to select and use wild plants is important. When grandmothers and mothers teach their children about wild plants, they explain which plants can be eaten by people and which plants can make people sick.

Women who use wild plants for food and medicine identify the different parts of the plant which can be used. Think about all the different parts of wild plants that can be used. For example the flower, fruit, seed, stem, sap, bark, leaves, and the roots!

Ask a woman in your village and she will tell you where and how to collect wild plants. She may tell you not to remove the plant completely if you only require a few leaves or flowers. She may tell you to replant some of the seed if you must pick the whole plant. Remember, if you use wild plants carefully they will continue to grow and reproduce. This will provide a continuing supply of food and medicine.

Some examples In different areas of the world women may even use the same wild plant. For example, in dry regions of Senegal in West Africa as well as in Kenya in East Africa, women pick the fruit of the desert date (Balanites aegyptiaca). In Kenya and Senegal, this fruit grows even during the driest years. It is very sweet and contains vitamin A, B2 and C. Women also encourage their families to eat the fruit because it prevents Guinea worm infections. Guinea worm is a water borne parasite found in parts of Africa and Asia. The fruit of the desert date contains a poison which kills the worms but does not hurt people. Women even feed the fruits to their goats and cattle so that they do not get worms.

Of course, there are times of the year when wild plants are especially important. During the “hungry season” before the harvest when there is not much food available, women in Tanzania collect the leaves of nitrogen fixing shrubs like Prosopis spp.and cook them as vegetables.

During droughts, the roots of wild plants are also useful because they remain in the soil even after their leaves have been eaten by animals. As well, wild gourds and melons provide food and water for people during droughts.

Protecting wild plants: a project idea A project to encourage the use of wild plants in Kenya has been started by the National Museum and some local organizations. This project is called the Indigenous Food Plant Programme. The organizers of the project talk to farmers across Kenya to find out what food and medicine come from wild plants. The local names of the plants, their growing conditions and their uses are all listed. The information can be used in schools to teach children about wild plants. As well, the information is shared with other communities who may not know the uses of certain plants.

Gathering information about useful wild plants sounds like a good idea for a school or community project. With the help of children in your community, you can ask women in your area to explain the sources and uses of wild plants they know. This information will help children learn more about the importance of wild plants for food and medicine.

Information sources

This script was prepared by Helen Hambly Odame, an agroforestry researcher. Her address is:
c/o Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, 4700 Keele Street, North York, Ontario, M3J 1P3.

Forestry and Nutrition: a reference manual (1989), published and available free of charge from the Regional Forestry Officer, FAO, Maliwan Mansion, Phra Atit Road, Bangkok, Thailand.

For more information about the Indigenous Food Plant Programme, please contact:
Worldview International Foundation (WIF), P.O. Box 48108, Nairobi, Kenya.