Salicornia, the resilient sea asparagus

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Salicornia, also known as sea asparagus, is a wild plant of marine and marshy areas and yet resilient enough to lend itself to feeding the planet in the difficult climatic conditions to come. Its cultivation has taken off in several countries, with the support of scientific research highlighting its interesting properties for nutrition and health.

Salicornia, resilient plant

Widespread throughout the world, Salicornia belongs to the Amaranthaceae family, like beet, spinach, quinoa, and many others. However, it is distinguished by its high tolerance to soil salinity. A valuable virtue, given rising sea levels and the resulting extent of saline soils.

Salt resistance rightfully places sea asparagus among crops capable of withstanding current climate change. (1) Along with millet and some types of edible cacti, which tolerate high temperatures and aridity well. (2) To legumes, ‘soil-improving’ crops. And to algae, which, in addition to not consuming soil, can improve the state of the seas.

Salicornia in nutrition

Sea asparagus is eaten after quick blanching, as a salad, dressed with oil (preferably, extra virgin olive oil) and lemon. It is edible only when the stems are green and tender. In spring and summer in our latitudes. Starting in autumn, in fact, the plant tends to dry out, reaching salt (and silica) concentrations that make it unsuitable for food use.

In Ireland and the United Kingdom, consumption of Salicornia has become widespread in recent years. Also following its promotion by Irish celebrity chef Tom Walsh. In restaurants in Dublin and other Irish cities, sea asparagus is always on the menu, alongside fish dishes.

Culinary use is much more deeply rooted elsewhere. In France as well as in Korea, where the plant’s shoots are used in the preparation of a traditional drink-makgeolli, a rice wine-and vinegar. In the colder coastal regions of northern Europe, sea asparagus is considered a valuable source of vitamin C to be taken in spring, at the end of the winter shortage of vegetables.

The nutritional profile

The nutritional profile of Salicornia is interesting and controversial. It provides fiber, polyphenols and flavonoids. It has very high levels of ascorbic and dehydroascorbic acid (over 100 mg/100 g), i.e., vitamin C. And it is a good source of carotenoids (5mg/100g), which act as antioxidants with strong anticancer properties.

In contrast, the plant is characterized by the presence of anti-nutrients. It has a high salt content-whose excess intake is critical to health-and oxalate (oxalic acid), which reduces calcium bioavailability (causing kidney stones, halting bone growth, altering blood clotting, etc.), and saponins (glycosides that damage tissues of the small intestine, liver, kidneys, altering intestinal permeability and the immune system).

Additional risks lurk in wild plants. Their usefulness as biofilters is due to their ability to assimilate pollutants, removing them from the water. Consequently, as several studies have shown, harvesting and consuming wild Salicornia may pose a risk of taking up neurotoxic heavy metals released into the environment from industrial discharges, wastewater, etc.

Other non-food uses

In past centuries, Salicornia was used to make sodium carbonate glass. In the 16th century the plants were burned and their ashes mixed with sand to make a rather coarse glassy material. Added to animal fats, the ashes were also used to make soap. Outdated techniques.

Current uses, other than strictly food, are varied. Salicornia is used in food additives and nutraceuticals, as well as a feedstock. But also as a secondary ingredient in pharmaceuticals, biofilter in process salt water in aquaculture, precursor to biofuels.

The research is constantly evolving. On the medical front, Salicornia has shown immunomodulatory, hypolipidemic, antiproliferative (of cancer cells), osteoprotective, and hypoglycemic effects in various studies.

Salicornia markets

Prominent among the major global producers of Salicornia is Israel. Crops are grown outdoors or in greenhouses. The harvest-performed manually on only the fresh and tender parts of the plant-is distributed to local and international markets. Israeli leader Ein Mor Crops Ltd alone exports about 150 tons a year to Europe. Other players in the global market are the United Arab Emirates and Mexico.

In Europe, Salicornia is a protected species. Collection of wild specimens is prohibited or strictly regulated. In France it is allowed only to experienced harvesters (holders of special qualification), who supply 90 percent of national production (about 500 tons), plus 10 percent that comes from greenhouse crops. Other important crops are in the Netherlands.

Bibliography

Patel, S. Salicornia: evaluating the halophytic extremophile as a food and a pharmaceutical candidate. 3 Biotech 6, 104 (2016) https://doi.org/10.1007/s13205-016-0418-6

Anne K. Buhmann, Uwe Waller, Bert Wecker, Jutta Papenbrock, Optimization of culturing conditions and selection of species for the use of halophytes as biofilter for nutrient-rich saline water. Agricultural Water Management (2015). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.agwat.2014.11.001

Notes

(1) Climate change-decreasing fresh water and rising salt water, flooding rains and temperature extremes-is negatively affecting global food production, with more pronounced impacts on crops in Europe, southern Africa and Australia. V. Ray DK, West PC, Clark M, Gerber JS, Prishchepov AV, Chatterjee S (2019) Climate change has likely already affected global food production. PLoS ONE https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0217148

(2) SEE https://passioneinverde.edagricole.it/piante-grasse-dai-frutti-commestibili/

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Professional journalist since January 1995, he has worked for newspapers (Il Messaggero, Paese Sera, La Stampa) and periodicals (NumeroUno, Il Salvagente). She is the author of journalistic surveys on food, she has published the book "Reading labels to know what we eat".