Sickle senna, a widely available but little-known herb, is ready to take on the pharma industry
Monsoon showers in India not only offer relief from scorching summers but also infuse new life into the bare parched ground, covering it with a lush green carpet of grass and wild shrubs. As the season advances, the greenery gets punctuated by pale yellow flowers with swarms of bees and butterflies hovering over them.
These are the flowers of sickle senna (Cassia tora), an edible weed that fills nearly every vacant plot, roadside, wasteland and riverbank in one’s neighbourhood as soon as the rains arrive, and grows profusely throughout the year.
Though many, particularly those in urban areas, consider it a weed and try to get rid of it, sickle senna is an excellent source of food and nutrition for several communities in Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Goa, where it is known by names such as chakunda, chakwad, chakod, chakramarda saag, tagrai and soru-medelua.
“During the monsoon, we usually avoid eating leafy greens available in the market, but not the leaves of this yellow flower plant,” says Swati Sargaonkar, a resident of Pune. “Tender leaves of C tora are one of the delicious vegetable preparations enjoyed during the season,” she says.
Unlike several other wild edibles, leaves of sickle senna or beans (also known as sickle pod owing to its shape) are hard to come by in organised vegetable markets. Easy availability and apparent abundance are the likely reasons the plant could never attract traders. But it still has its own set of admirers.
Elderly women are particularly fond of foraging for these wild greens and their beans. “My mother is an expert in harvesting chakod. She carefully plucks the leaves to avoid the presence of insect eggs and larvae,” says P Anuradha from Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh. While most consume the plant’s young leaves and immature pods as vegetables, preparations vary from region to region.
In Karnataka, people use sickle senna leaves to prepare vada (lentil fritters) and vegetable mix with dried coconut and jackfruit seeds. In Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, people relish vegetable mix with peanut powder and simply stir-fried leaves with ragi bhakhri (flat bread made from finger millet flour). Tribal communities in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh particularly prefer the brown rhombohedral seeds of mature sickle pods, which they roast to prepare healthy beverages.
Such therapeutic properties of the leaves, seeds and even roots of sickle senna are well recognised in Ayurveda, Unani and Chinese systems of medicine where the plant is referred to as chakramard, panwar and jue ming zi respectively. All the three systems recognise the plant as an important laxative. “Leaves of the plant are used in the treatment of leprosy, ringworm infection, ophthalmic, skin diseases and liver disorders, a few of the ailments to mention here,” says Vibhas Deshkar, an Ayurvedic doctor in Nagpur, Maharashtra. Ayurveda also recognises the plant for its cooling effect on the intestine.
The ripened seeds of C tora have cooling effect. While Ayurveda recognises its cooling effect on intestine, in Korea the hot seed extracts are consumed orally to reduce “excess heat from the liver”. Plant parts are also reported to help improve eyesight and cure eye-related ailments.
Recent scientific studies have also suggested an enormous biological potential of the plant parts. Its leaves, seeds and roots come loaded with nutraceuticals. Scientists have also isolated important chemical compounds, such as anthraquinone glycosides, naphthopyrone glycosides, phenolic compounds and flavonoids, from various plant parts of C tora.
An overview published in the International Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Research lists several health benefits of C tora. Some of the important properties are hepatoprotective activity or ability to protect the liver; anti-tumour activity; antibacterial and antifungal effect. Scientific evidences are also available that the plant leaves if used as a functional food can help ameliorate cataract.
The World Health Organization (WHO) Traditional Medicine Strategy 2014-2023 calls for improving the use of traditional medicines in developing nations by 20 per cent by 2020. Though C tora has the potential to contribute to the vision and its pharmaceutical properties are yet to be fully explored, farmers in the country have long been using the plant for various purposes. It is a preferred natural pesticide for organic farmers. Its dehydrated seeds are used for feeding birds and livestock in rural areas. Being a leguminous weed it is also used as green, nutritious fodder for livestock. Seeds of the plant are used as a mordant or dye-fixative in organic natural dyeing.
Wash the leaves thoroughly, drain the water and let them dry. Heat oil in an iron wok. Add chana dal and mustard seeds, let them crackle. Add chopped onion and, if you like, a few cloves of garlic. Add chakunda leaves and cook for not more than five minutes. Before turning off the stove, add peanut powder to the preparation. Serve with jowar bhakri (flat bread made from sorghum flour) or chapatti with dollops of butter and fried green chilli to enhance the taste.
This was first published in Down To Earth's print edition (dated 16-31 Janiary, 2020)
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